For the past 50 years, Ernie Tyler has been the keeper of the sacred pearls.
The beloved Orioles "ballboy" and umpire attendant has, with Ripkenesque persistence, shown up for work at Memorial Stadium and Oriole Park on such a regular basis for so long that it's almost impossible to imagine a ballgame in Baltimore without him.That's why, when he underwent a hernia operation last year and had to stay off the field for part of the season, you couldn't walk through the ballpark without somebody asking about him.
"As of now, I'm planning to be out there if I can get my legs back in shape," he said this week. "As you can see, I still have legs."
This is classic Ernie. His 86th birthday is looming next month, and he's determined not to act his age.
But it is not good news to the people who love him most, those who are trying hard to convince him that the time has come to slow down a little bit.
"The whole family would rather I didn't" return to the field, Ernie said.
His sons Jim and Fred Tyler, also longtime Orioles employees who manage the home and visiting clubhouses at Oriole Park, persuaded him to remain behind the scenes after he recovered from surgery last season and are trying to persuade him now that he should stay off the dugout stairs and out of the baseball crossfire around home plate.
They want Ernie, who is in Florida visiting family, to ease up before time - or some more dangerous representative of fate - makes the decision for him.
"When it gets wet outside, we don't want him slipping and breaking his hip," Jim said Monday.
It takes a lot to rankle their mild- mannered dad, but they finally found a way. This isn't exactly a family feud, but it isn't a happy time. It's sort of the baseball equivalent of the classic dilemma facing a whole generation of baby boomers and their parents. When do you take the car keys away from Dad?
"We expected an argument from him," Jim said. "We love him. He's our father, but all of us get tapped on the shoulder at some point."
"It's all right if he blames us," Fred said.
"He wouldn't be our father if he didn't give us a battle," Jim added. "This isn't a baseball problem; it's a life problem."
If there is some anger, it probably is directed at Jim and Fred, but that's only because they are the guys who spend every day working with him. Ernie raised 11 children and they are pretty close to unanimous in the hope that he won't return to the field, but in the end, it will be his decision.
The Orioles could step in and insist, but there really is no medical reason why Ernie, who lives in Forest Hill, can't run out to home plate to deliver new baseballs to the umpire. You should be that healthy, enthusiastic and unyielding when you're 85.
But you probably won't have to dodge the 90-mph foul balls that sometimes whistle past Ernie as he crouches at the end of the Orioles dugout.
One of those scary foul balls prompted hitting coach Terry Crowley to broach the subject with Ernie a while back.
"Those balls that come in the dugout," Crowley said. "There are 25-year-old players who can't get out of the way of those. They can be lethal. I did tell him it's time to think about things a little more."
Ernie knows the risks. He's been doing this since Opening Day of the 1960 season. Nobody in the world knows the risks and rewards of a lifetime in that particular line of fire better. It should not surprise anyone that he's willing to take those risks, but his family wishes he wouldn't.
In a perfect world, he might be satisfied to stay back in the umpires room, where he is just as beloved a figure among the dozens of major league umpires who pass through Oriole Park each year. Then everyone would be happy.
Ernie said Monday he still might decide to do that before Opening Day. He knows that the family has his best interests at heart, even if he can't bring himself to agree that a 51st season on the field might be one season too many.
"He's our hero," Jim said. "But even heroes have to retire sometime."