Catching Up With ... former Oriole Gary Roenicke
Each Tuesday in The Toy Department, veteran Baltimore Sun sportswriter Mike Klingaman tracks down a former local sports figure and lets you know what's happening in his/her life in a segment called "Catching Up With ... " Let Klingaman know who you'd like him to find and click here to check out previous editions of "Catching Up With ... "
He still has the wild, shaggy locks that once swept beneath his Orioles cap, except the hair is now streaked with gray. And he hasn’t gained a pound in 30 years, though age has caused some seismic shifts.
"My weight is proportionately different from when I played," said Gary Roenicke, 54. "Gravity takes over."
Has it been three decades since Roenicke’s bat and glove helped the Orioles to an American League flag in 1979 and, four years later, to a World Series title? The man known as "Rhino" hit 106 home runs for Baltimore, played stellar defense and accepted his position as a role player – though he sure didn’t like it.
Roenicke still works for the club, as a full-time scout. And, no, he doesn’t share the job with John Lowenstein, the left fielder with whom Roenicke platooned for much of his eight years in Baltimore.
That two-headed monster, the brainstorm of Orioles manager Earl Weaver, blossomed in 1982 when the right-handed Roenicke and Lowenstein, a lefty, combined for 45 homers and 140 RBI, while batting .292.
Publicly, Roenicke shrugged off his part-time role.
"How can you argue when you’re winning?" he said. "But if I could change anything, I probably would have asked why I didn’t play a little more."
Steady afield, he saved scores of runs with sliding catches and shoestring grabs. His backhanded stab of Harold Baines’ line drive was a highlight of the Orioles’ 1983 American League Championship Series victory over Chicago.
"Even now, when I see (former shortstop) Bobby Valentine, he says, ‘You robbed me of my only would-be grand slam home run in 1979 when I was with Seattle,’ " Roenicke said.
"Once, I leaped for a fly ball at the wall in Milwaukee when a fan hit my glove. Coming down, I thought, ‘That should have been interference.’ Then I looked in my glove and the ball was there."
In 1979, his first full year in Baltimore, Roenicke was struck in the mouth by a fastball. It took 25 stitches to close the cut on his lip. He returned a week later wearing an odd contraption – a batting helmet outfitted with a football face mask for protection.
"The Orioles had gone to the Colts’ locker room, unscrewed the two bars off the front of (quarterback) Bert Jones’ helmet and put them on mine," he said. "I wore that thing for two years."
Nowadays, Roenicke lives on 4-1/2 acres in the town of Rough And Ready, Calif. (pop. 500). Married 30 years, he has three grown sons, one of whom, Josh, pitches for the Cincinnati Reds.
An Orioles scout since 2003, he sees nearly 200 games a year, coast to coast.
"I play a lot of golf when I’m on the road," he said. "I’m good around the green but I can’t hit a driver. I try to hook the ball, like when I was batting, and it winds up in the woods – or on the next fairway over."
His best memory of Baltimore? The unity of the ’79 team that lost the World Series to Pittsburgh, 4 games to 3.
"We really were family," he said. "That should have been our song, not the Pirates’. There were no fights, no shouting matches. On off days, our families went out together.
"As players, we all knew our roles. We might not have liked it, but we respected it. Talk about chemistry, well, we had it. You don’t have to have chemistry to win – the Yankees have proven that – but we had it."
Orioles outfielder Gary Roenicke throws the ball as pitchers Jim Palmer (standing) and Tippy Martinez (sitting) get ready to play catch in 1981. (J. Pat Carter / Baltimore Sun)
Top photo: J. Pat Carter / Baltimore Sun