At some point today, probably a couple hours before the first pitch is thrown by Jake Arrieta in the 2013 home opener at Camden Yards, I will grab a copy of the Orioles’ daily game notes, and place them on the press box ledge in front of my work station.
They’ll stay there all game. Untouched. I assume I’ll do that for a chunk of games this season, just as a reminder.
The Orioles’ public relations staff puts a lot of time into creating those notes packets. And I’ll surely use another copy for my writing purposes Friday.
But one will stay on the ledge near me all game. And the PR staff will understand. Heck, some of them may do the same.
Because my untouched copy will be waiting for superfan Tommy Conelius.
Opening Day at Camden Yards is always special. It represents a fresh start; oftentimes providing fleeting moments of hope before reality moves in for the summer.
But it also can be a time of reflection. The club always shows a video tribute and holds a moment of silence for members of the Orioles family that passed away since the last Opening Day.
Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver obviously will be prominent in this year’s presentation – as he should be. There are others, too, like former All-Star Gus Triandos and original Oriole Bob Turley. Ryan Freel’s picture will be posted too, and I’ll think for a moment about my chats with the eccentric outfielder a few years ago.
Many of us long-timers in the press box will have a heavy heart Friday, knowing that this Opening Day will go by without us seeing the smiling face and handlebar mustache of former Annapolis Capital writer and editor Joe Gross.
There will be another person missing from Camden Yards this year that, in a strange way, will lessen the experience for many of us who sit in the first row of the press box.
Tommy Conelius, who died Feb. 15 at age 55 after a lengthy battle with cancer, had no official role with the Orioles or the media that covered the team. In fact, he often distracted us from doing our jobs. But he was part of the essential fabric of the stadium: A loud, passionate fan who enjoyed life and absolutely cherished talking baseball with all of us.
In a word, Tommy was a character. He knew me for roughly a dozen years, claimed to read me all the time and listen/watch me in my occasional radio/TV gigs. And yet he always called me Dennis. I don’t know why. But I never had the heart to correct him.
He came to just about every game and, without fail, he’d lumber to the edge of the press box and shout at us, hoping we would jaw with him about the state of the Orioles. His favorite question, “Who You Want?” in reference to what players should the Orioles trade for, call up or sign (depending on time of the season), has become an enduring catch phrase among writers.
We deliver "Who You Want?" in a staccato half-scream, the way Tommy often talked. In fact, Tommy’s speech was probably one of the most memorable things about the man. He was nearly impossible to understand until you trained your ear to his specific language. We called it TommySpeak, and I could have taught a course in it. I’ll never forget the first time my new baseball partner, Ed Encina, had a conversation with Tommy last year. After about a minute, and a couple polite “I’m sorry, what’s” Ed turned to me helplessly. And I translated.
“He wants to know if you think Arrieta will get another start. He wants to know if you think Brian Roberts will be back soon. He wants to know …”
Tommy and I had an interesting relationship. Nearly every day he would demand Orioles game notes from me. And the lineup sheet and, eventually, the visitors’ game notes. He wouldn’t go away until he had all the info that the reporters had.
You can imagine that at times, when reporters were trying to write and file news blogs as quickly as possible, Tommy’s constant yearning to chat was a hindrance. So my old baseball partner, Jeff Zrebiec, and I would yell at Tommy. We’d make him promise he’d go away if he got his notes. We’d send him down to the PR side of the box and make him stand there until someone could take care of him.
To the casual observer, it probably looked cruel. But it was our shtick with Tommy. He’d get bored and try to speak, and we’d hush him. And he’d stand at the edge of the press box with his index finger over his mouth – in full Ssssh mode – until we could file our blogs or finish our transcriptions.
Tommy never got mad. And he became an endearing part of our time at Camden Yards. Last year, Tommy began demanding that I bring him PR notes from road games. I told him he was pushing it. And yet I did it every time.
In September, I made a special point of bringing him the full packet from the Orioles’ 18-inning game in Seattle. Tommy couldn’t have been happier. Maybe the only other time I saw him so psyched was when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch a few years ago as a tribute to cancer survivors.
I rarely write about ceremonial first pitches in my notebooks for the paper. But that day I did, making sure I got “Tommy Conelius” and “cancer survivor” in the Baltimore Sun. He thanked Dennis for weeks after that.
Now it is the 2013 home opener and 40-some-thousand people will be at the stadium. It will be a tremendous, energy-packed day, as Opening Day always is. And many old friends will stop by to say hello. Yet I know I will be looking for one guy who won’t be there.
So if you happen to wander past the press box today, make sure to wave to us, and maybe a couple of you could bellow a “Who You Want?” our way for old times’ sake.
Even if you don’t, I’ll still have my own reminder of one of the Orioles’ most passionate and quirky fans. It will be sitting in front of me, waiting to be picked up. There will be an inscription on those game notes:
“For Tommy Conelius. Have a great season. Your friend, Dennis.”