They say you never forget your first, and I never forgot Dave Boswell, the first major leaguer I ever met and talked with at length.
Boswell died yesterday of an apparent heart attack at 67, and a tweet from Minnesota Twins president Dave St. Peter, followed by a Facebook post from Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven, brought the sad news on an already gloomy morning. I'd spent the past couple of weeks researching Boswell's career - and reminiscing about that long-ago encounter with the Baltimore-born right-hander - for an upcoming appearance in the Orioles Alumni Autograph Series.
The Calvert Hall alum's career was already on the downside at 26 when he joined the Orioles in May 1971. His 204 strikeouts in 1967 with the Twins, the 20-win season in 1969, his tense duel with Dave McNally at Memorial Stadium in the American League Championship Series that year - all were not-so-distant memories, thanks to inconsistency and a right arm injury suffered when he was pitching to the O's Frank Robinson in the 10th inning of that marathon playoff start, when he worked 10 2/3 innings in an eventual 1-0 loss.
But my dad worked at Social Security in Woodlawn with Boswell's cousin, and she had arranged for a quick hello near the home dugout on Social Security Night at Memorial Stadium one Saturday evening in 1971. I'd never spoken with an honest-to-goodness major leaguer for any longer than it took for him to autograph a baseball. I was nervous as the introductions were made, but Boswell put me right at ease, asking me what position I played in Little League, how many O's games I'd gone to, how I thought the team would fare. The entire exchange lasted maybe three minutes, though it seemed like much longer. And when he was signing my baseball - which still sits in my home office, full of faded signatures and memories alike - I let slip that Boswell and I shared the same birthday, Jan. 20.
"Well," he said, handing back the signed ball, "happy birthday - early or late, I'm not sure which."
We laughed, he returned to the rest of his pregame routine and dad and I hustled up to the upper deck so we could grab a soda and a hot dog in time for the first pitch.
Like most ballplayers, Boswell had his foibles. There was a memorable scrap with teammate Bobby Allison and then-Twins skipper Billy Martin, no slouch at fisticuffs himself, as the folks at the Cross Keys Inn could attest (apparently, a hot foot led to the altercation that landed Boswell in the ER with upwards of 50 stitches). There was a cut hand in a playoff celebration while holding a champagne glass in 1970, and another 20 sutures. He'd always dreamed of being a Yankee, and got offers from both the Twins and Bronx Bombers out of high school, but signed with Minnesota in 1963 because he thought he'd reach the majors quicker than with pitching-rich New York. He was right, and Boswell reached the majors with Minnesota in 1964 as a 19-year-old.
People who knew Boswell well say he was quite the character and loved to tell baseball tales, and old-school sort in every sense of the word. He was also the kind of guy who would sidle up next to a stranger at the North Point Inn and talk to him like an old friend. If he happened on a Little League opening day, he'd sign autographs until every kid had one. And on a summer night 41 years ago, he made an instant fan for life out of a youngster who already loved everything about the game.
His O's career was brief - a 1-2 record and 4.38 ERA in 15 games, including one start. But Boswell, who made his post-baseball home in Harford County, always had a special place in his heart for the Orioles and Baltimore, and vice-versa.
One of the nicest things about my job is that I get to interact with some of the ballplayers who were my heroes as a kid. When I talk to one who was nice enough to sign an autograph or spend a few minutes chatting with a much-younger me, I make sure to tell them how much I appreciated that kindness all those years ago. I was going to do that in a couple of days when Boswell - whose Wikipedia page shows him wearing an ornithologically correct O's cap and flashing a broad smile at Oriole Park - came to Camden Yards. I'm sad that I won't have the opportunity to do so in person.