The last time I saw Ernie Tyler was, well, vintage Ernie. He was sitting near the corridor that leads to the umpires’ dressing room in Camden Yards, a stack of towels perched on his lap and a smile on his face.
It’s a pretty good memory, befitting an amazing guy who is as synonymous with the Orioles - and on a first-name basis, no less - as Frank, Brooks, Boog or Cal. It happened the day before dizziness forced his hospitalization last October, before surgery a few days later to remove a benign brain tumor, before his death Thursday night at 86.
Tyler had his octogenarian body compressed into a tiny two-seater of a bench meant for players’ kids who had wandered away from the family room. It was a strange sight, 80-something Ernie, knees and arms way too big for the seat he was in, looking perfectly content, holding court for a few minutes. But there he sat, taking a break from his duties as an umpires attendant, a job that kept him busy at an age when most of his contemporaries were slowing down to a snail’s pace.
“Hey, Ernie,” I called to him as I walked to the field. “That seat looks a little uncomfortable. Or are you just regressing back to your childhood?”
The man whose streak of 3,819 consecutive games made Iron Man Cal Ripken Jr. look like a slacker, peered from behind his eyeglasses, the raised eyebrow a dead giveaway that he was readying a comeback quip.
“As long as it ain’t a rocking chair,” Tyler said with a chuckle. “I’m not ready to be put out to pasture yet.”
With that, Tyler rose and ambled next to me down the hall toward the umpires room. As we walked together, he confided in me, “You never stop doing what you love, do you?”
What better way to remember Tyler, a guy who never stopped working, mostly for the Orioles, and relished every day he did. The organization became his extended family, the ballpark a home away from home. His wife and many of his 11 children also worked for the club at various times. Maybe “worked” isn’t the best word to describe what Tyler did; he enjoyed it way too much to consider it simply a job.
There wasn’t a nicer guy in the organization, and the Oriole Advocates made him a Hall of Famer when they honored him with the Herbert E. Armstrong Award, bestowed upon non-uniformed personnel, in 2004. Around the ballpark, Tyler readily welcomed newcomers and made the old guard feel right at home. It didn’t matter whether you were a multimillionaire ballplayer, a third-string catcher, a fan, a cop working game detail or the guy sweeping the floor. Ernie - was a last name even needed? - was your friend and baseball was your common bond.
He was a constant amid change, a steadying presence regardless of wins and losses, hirings and firings, comings and goings.
When the focus shifted to him - as it did when he broke his streak to attend Ripken’s Hall of Fame induction at Cooperstown, N.Y., or when health problems precluded him from running balls to the home plate umpire at times later in his career - Tyler was uncomfortable. He didn’t like the spotlight, much preferring obscurity and the everyman persona it provided him.
Walking that hallway in 2011 will seem odd, because Tyler won’t be there. The Orioles will find someone else to handle his duties. That person will know just what it was like when Doug DeCinces succeeded Brooks Robinson. But the wry smile, making Tyler look like the cat that swallowed a canary when he got to the punchline in a well-told joke, can’t be replaced.
Luckily, the memory of Ernie Tyler endures. Even better, he was never shy about reaching out and making the people he encountered feel a little better - about their day, about the weather, about the baseball team that brought them in contact with him.
Tyler worked a long time for the Orioles - for some, those 51 seasons would have been a lifetime - but he was living, breathing, friendly proof of an old adage: Do something you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.