The 1997 series that we had planned for this series never quite got off the ground. There are lot of reasons for our negligence, not the least of which is the fact that the 2012 Orioles have been exciting to watch for most of this season, something that few of us anticipated when we decided to write about "the last good year."
When we first decided to do the series, one of the first things I knew I wanted to write about was Rex Barney. Despite their winning ways in 1997, the Orioles were not without tragedy, including Eric Davis' cancer diagnosis and of course, the death of Mr. Barney on August 12, 1997.
His was truly the voice of Baltimore sports, as he broadcast for not only the Orioles from 1974-1997, but also the Baltimore Colts from 1959-1983. His voice was the sound of summer, familiar and simple. He didn't buy into gimmicks or, as some PA announcers tend to, make himself a part of the action. Other than his trademark sayings: "Thank youuuu" and "Give that fan a contract," (or every now and then, "Give that fan...an error!"), Rex Barney left the action to the game itself, he just provided the framework.
The first baseball game I ever went to at a place other than Memorial Stadium or Oriole Park at Camden Yards was in 1992 at New Comiskey Park (now called US Cellular Field). The White Sox were hosting the Twins, but I don't remember who won the game. I do remember it was Carlton Fisk Commemorative Cup Night, and that the first time I heard their PA announcer it confused the heck out of me. As a child I'd never given much thought to Rex Barney. I suppose I knew his name as a thirteen-year-old, but maybe I didn't. But I knew what a PA announcer at a baseball game was supposed to sound like, and this person screaming at the top of his lungs was not it.
Maybe because it was his commemorative cup night, but the one name I remember the announcer calling most was Fisk's. It went like this, "Now batting....number 72....CARRRRRRRRLLLLLLLTONNNN FISSSSKKK!!!!!" I have no idea who the PA announcer for the White Sox was, but even then, he was absurd. It was the first time in my life that I specifically remember thinking about how good the Orioles had it.
Rex Barney suffered a number of physical ailments in his old age. He had diabetes that led to him losing one of his legs, and he suffered a heart attack in 1995. He'd had to miss time at the ballpark a few times when he was sick, but he was never out for long.
On July 30, 1997, the Orioles played the Texas Ranger at home, beating them 3-1 before heading to the west coast for a nine-game road trip, a game in which Rex Barney worked. On the morning of August 12th, before the Orioles played a night game against the Athletics, Mr. Barney was found passed away at home by a friend. He was 72 years old.
In honor of his memory, the Orioles played their game on the night of August 12th without a public address announcer.
Since we last heard Rex Barney over the loudspeaker at Camden Yards, the Orioles have had two PA announcers: Dave McGowan, who just retired after last season, and Ryan Wagner, who is in his first season in the job. Both were good selections by the Orioles as they follow in Rex Barney's understated tradition, and I'm very happy that the Orioles didn't decide to go in another direction when they had the chance.
When I think back to the baseball of my childhood, I can still hear Rex Barney's voice as Cal Ripken steps to the plate. It's as ingrained in me as much as anything sports-related can be. And with the unveiling of the legends statues this season, I've thought about him more than once. He saw so many baseball games with all of those legends, and in the process became a Baltimore legend himself. It almost seems a shame that there is no tribute to him anywhere in the ballpark.