Roland Hemond was the kind of guy who always left an impression.
And regardless if it was the first time you met him, the most recent, or any of numerous times in between, it generally was the same. Every day was sunny for Roland, full of promise and hope. And if it came with a new challenge, all the better — bring it on.
Hemond’s remarkable lifetime in baseball, during which he probably touched more people than anyone in the game, came to an end on Dec. 12, when he passed away at the age of 92.
If you were an executive in baseball throughout the past seven decades, chances are strong you had a connection to Hemond — or knew someone who did. If you were a reporter on the baseball beat during that stretch of time and didn’t cross paths with this man, it wasn’t because he wasn’t available.
My personal connection goes back to 1964, when Hemond was what was then called the farm director of the California Angels. Today that job would carry the title of Executive Vice President of Minor League Operations and Player Development or something like that. But back then it was pretty much a one-man show, with an assistant, charged with the entire minor-league operation, which included scouts, managers, coaches, training staff, you name it, all under a big umbrella.
Hemond eventually moved on to high-level jobs with fancier titles in Chicago (his base of operation for most of his career), Baltimore and Arizona, but his baseball heart and soul came from his minor-league roots and his associations with scouts, managers and coaches. Among those he gave their first managing jobs were Bob Lemon, Chuck Tanner and Tony La Russa.
In between, Hemond impacted the careers of scores of front office executives, a list too lengthy to mention because inevitably someone would inadvertently be missed. You can find their times among the reams of tributes that followed the announcement of his death.
One of the most poignant came from Jane Forbes Clark, chairman of the Hall of Fame:
“Roland Hemond came to Cooperstown as the 2011 Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award winner after a lifetime spent in baseball assembling championship teams and building treasured relationships. With a perpetual twinkle in his eye, Roland had a love for the game that was fueled by a respect and admiration for all who played it. He worked tirelessly to help baseball family members in need and never wavered in his commitment to serve. We extend our condolences to his wife, Margo, and the entire Hemond family.”
A statement from the Orioles read in part:
“From 1988 through 1995, Hemond guided the Orioles with grace and humility. Known for his keen eye for talent, Hemond’s tenure included reshaping the organization on the field and in the front office, as well as the club’s move from Memorial Stadium to Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
“Hemond was named Major League Baseball Executive of the Year in 1989 after engineering a 32.5-game improvement over his first season as general manager. He also oversaw the drafting of future National Baseball Hall of Famer Mike Mussina in 1990, and guided the Orioles to a 22-game improvement in 1992, the club’s first season at Camden Yards.”
It’s probably not a stretch to say that Hemond’s tenure in Baltimore was the most challenging of his career. It started under dire circumstances before evolving into a storybook year slotted between tumultuous ownership groups, and a gradual rebuild that ultimately led him back to his roots with the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Orioles were coming off a disastrous 67-95 season when Hemond’s name started circulating during the 1987 World Series as a possible successor to general manager Hank Peters. He was finishing a second year as an administrative assistant in the commissioner’s office at the time and the idea of Roland Hemond without a team wasn’t working.
Despite a warning that the O’s job might not be the best opportunity, Hemond said “thanks for the recommendation” the day he took the job. That he lasted as long as he did was testimony not only to his resilience but also to his ability to work side by side with strong personalities, something he first demonstrated with the White Sox when Bill Veeck owned the team.
To say Hemond’s tenure in Baltimore got off to a rocky start would be the classic understatement. The Orioles started the season with their well-documented 21-game losing streak and the new GM’s first move, at the insistence of owner Edward Bennett Williams, was to fire manager Cal Ripken Sr., who just happened to be the father of the team’s star shortstop.
That year ended even worse than the 54-107 record would indicate when Hemond found himself in the uncomfortable position of trading future Hall Of Famer Eddie Murray, the result of a fallout between the owner and player.
Nevertheless, as was his nature, Hemond looked at the task ahead as an opportunity, not impending disaster. As a result, the Orioles’ “Why Not?” team of 1989 rivaled the 1983 Western Division champion White Sox as two signature teams.
Both Frank Robinson, who replaced Ripken as manager in 1989 only to be replaced two years later by Johnny Oates, and Doug Melvin, his assistant GM, later praised Hemond as a mentor who allowed them to be vital voices in the organization as the team made a transition on the field. The two of them, along with team president Larry Lucchino, combined with Hemond to form an unorthodox front office group during what was a difficult time of transition.
It was during his time with the Orioles that Hemond was instrumental in putting together the Arizona Fall League, which is considered among his best accomplishments and is still in existence. Melvin was among those present in April when Hemond was inducted into the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame.
While he was famously noted for not being the most organized person at the table, Hemond usually had a personal set of index cards at his disposal when it was time to talk trade. Which, for him, was anytime, anywhere. Nobody enjoyed the art of making a trade better than he did.
He was also known as the perpetual “energizer bunny” whose energy fuel tank was never on low. He once confided to Richie Bancells, the former Orioles head athletic trainer, that one of his secrets to maintaining his drive was “to close the door and take a 45 minute nap on the couch.”
It apparently was a practice that served him well. The last time I saw Roland was three years ago during Hall of Fame weekend. He was on the dance floor at the Otesaga Hotel, twirling his wife Margo at a feverish clip. He was having the time of his life, while being the life of the party.
That about sums it up. Roland Hemond made the game better. Baseball won’t be the same without him.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonliine.com
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles