Edward Bennett Williams has sprung many a prisoner out of the slammer, but none ever appreciated his parole more than jolly Roland Hemond. After serving a two-year sentence in the office of the commissioner, Hemond is free again to talk baseball 16 hours a day, then dream about making trades half the night.
No crueler fate could have been devised for Hemond than to surround him with administrators and marketers, lawyers and accountants. Yes, he was close to the seat of power as one of Peter Ueberroth's most trusted aides. But he was far from the roots of his baseball heart. Hemond would say "Ralph Garr" and they'd say "cost overrun." He'd list the entire roster of the 1970 Class A Appleton affiliate of the Chicago White Sox -- you know, Goose Gossage, Brian Downing, Bucky Dent, Lamar Johnson, Jerry Hairston, Terry Forster and Sam Ewing -- and they would look at him like he had a rash.
In the last two days, since Williams named him to succeed Hank Peters as general manager of the Baltimore Orioles, Hemond has talked more inside baseball than he did in the two years since the Chicago White Sox fired him in 1985 after 15 years of able and sometimes distinguished service.
"I haven't gotten off the phone all day," Hemond said yesterday, as happy as a 58-year-old kid with a whole carton of new bubble gum cards. "Maybe I'm talking more than I should. But you don't have as much baseball to talk in the commissioner's office because the people there don't have that passionate knowledge."
Few men in such a central position in sports are as easy to know as Hemond. The whole world is his best friend. In his White Sox days, he was most famous for the "Open For Business" sign he once set up in a hotel lobby to make trades at the winter meetings. However, Open For Business is how Hemond approaches each day of his life. Everything about the man is open for inspection -- his smile, his affection for baseball and his encyclopedic knowledge of player personnel. If he weren't a GM, he'd be the ultimate Rotisserie League junkie. He found Ron Kittle, who hit 35 homers as a rookie, in a softball league.
If, for instance, Jacksonville University ever gets a prize prospect, Hemond knows who to call for the inside scoop: former coach Tom Bradley -- with whom Hemond has kept in touch, even though Bradley retired a dozen years ago. It's said that there is no one in baseball Hemond does not know personally. He disagrees. He thinks there are a few corners of the infrastructure that he's missed on his trips to Japan.
The little, leprechaunish Hemond, with his rumpled Columbo manner of disguising his brains, is the perfect contrast to the icy, orderly Peters who built -- and then totally trusted -- his organization. Hemond is a hands-on guy with an eye for talent and a nose for a swindle -- er -- bargain. He'll hop on a plane to Cedar Rapids on a whim to see a Class A pitcher in somebody else's organization. Six months later, he'll say, "Okay, we'll make the deal if you will throw in a minor leaguer like -- oh -- that kid at Cedar Rapids."
Hemond figures to be a perfect middle man between the impatient owner Williams, who loves a tall tale and a type A temperament, and young farm director Doug Melvin, who's also obsessive and passionate about knowing the current fingernail length of all knuckleballers in the Southern League.
"I can't wait to dig in heavily," says Hemond. "I think I'm back where I belong. I'll know that I'm back in stride when my pockets start bulging with file cards on players in other organizations. It's not enough to know what your team has and what it needs. You have to know the same thing about the 25 other teams. Otherwise, you're just wasting time talking trade because you can't put the puzzle together."
Want to know how Hemond, who was major league executive of the year in 1972 and 1983, goes about acquiring a starting pitcher out of thin air? Here's an example: In 1977, Hemond wondered how he could make hay out of GM Harry Dalton switching from California to Milwaukee and taking his top minor league assistant with him. Hemond suspected that the new Angels front office folks might not be up to speed on their own best players that Dalton had just signed in the June draft. Sure enough, Hemond stole away future 22-game winner Rich Dotson for peanuts.
All in all, Hemond is one of those lovable straight arrows with a crooked heart. He's the sort who has walked up 10 flights of back hotel stairs just so he won't have to face a reporter in an elevator. Why? Because he won't lie. So, his only recourse is to duck the question. Search baseball for criticism of Hemond and the worst you'll find is that some say he's too nice.
Many around the sport who've shared a beer with Hemond will lament that he's taken a job you might not wish on an enemy. A barren farm system. An overpaid roster of untradeable players with contracts like anchors. Little budget flexibility to sign a top free agent. And an owner who wants instant results despite the fact that a team that gets outscored by 151 runs and has the second worst team ERA in the game in 25 years is probably closer to 100 losses than a .500 resurgence.
Yet here's Hemond, falling right in line behind Williams, saying, "I think we can get much better quickly." Isn't setting such expectations tantamount to committing executive suicide? What does Hemond think he sees that others don't?
"The Orioles are a team that knows how to win when it gets into position to win," says Hemond, citing their 25-21 record in one-run games, even in a season without reliever Don Aase. "Their problem was that they were blown out of many games in the first three innings. That distorts everything and gives you a false picture. No team can play its game down three or four runs every night."
Fix the Orioles' starting pitching and watch the snowball effect, thinks Hemond. Of course, he also knows there's nothing harder to repair.
"Well," says Hemond cheerfully, "like Charlie Dressen used to say, 'Looks like we'll just have to think of something.' "