February 21, 2010
SARASOTA, Fla. — About 70 of us came through a gate at Ed Smith Stadium and each person was handed a number and a piece of paper. Not quite 150 words were written on it. It was our script.
And it said, to start:
GOOD AFTERNOON, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS AND WELCOME TO ED SMITH STADIUM, SPRING TRAINING HOME OF THE BALTIMORE ORIOLES.
I AM _______________, YOUR PUBLIC ADDRESS ANNOUNCER. ...
I am not a public address announcer — not yet — but I am attempting to play one during spring training. The Orioles put the word out they were having an open casting call for someone to be their "voice" at Grapefruit League home games. Someone to read off the lineups, point out the ushers, hand out contracts to fans who caught foul balls, etc.
OK, handing out contracts was up to Rex Barney (above, right) and him alone.
Regardless, as soon as I saw the tweet, I knew what I would be doing Saturday afternoon.
At different times in my life, I've dreamed of becoming a baseball play-by-play announcer, a baseball beat writer and a baseball general manager.
In a way, I've already accomplished two of those dreams; before contributing to this blog, I was the beat writer for the Cubs and White Sox at a newspaper in suburban Chicago. Don't look for it, it's not there anymore (not true, but let's pretend).
And, back in the day, I could beat your butt at fantasy baseball as, well, a GM.
Done and done.
Only one wish left on the old bucket list.
This was my big chance and the Orioles, new to these parts after spending the past 15 years across the state in Ft. Lauderdale, were handing it over.
Jeff Herbert jumped at the chance, too. A former Baltimore resident, he grew up going to games at Memorial Stadium and idolizing Eddie Murray. Later, he got what can be described as a dream job — as graphics coordinator for Orioles TV. Herbert sat in a production truck outside the stadium — other times in the press box — and updated the statistics viewers in TV land would see on their screens.
"My office was, basically, Camden Yards," Herbert said.
He and I happened to walk in together. He noticed my credential and I explained that not only was I there to cover the Orioles practice earlier in the day, but to cover and participate in the trial for a public address announcer. Gonzo journalism! OK, Gonzo-lite.
If I actually got the job — which I wouldn't get, I mean, c'mon — I'd have to alter how I'd cover spring training. I'd be spending at least 16 days in March and early April in lovely Sarasota, instead of seeing Arizona for that leg of the blog's coverage.
Expecting an American Idol-like contingent of who-knows-what, I found the group to be fairly quiet, almost exclusively male and — no offense — kind of old. Some of these dudes must have been there when the St. Louis Browns moved east to Memorial Stadium in the mid-1950s.
TV cameras interviewed some of the hopefuls, including Herbert (circled above, a la Blyleven). Our little tryout was a genuine curiosity.
Our numbers were in the 50s, so Herbert and I had time to wait, sit in the stands and take notes on the competition. Without a game going on, and without crowd noise, each announcer was kind of alone with his or her — in the case of Sue Ruhle — own voice.
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune talked to Ruhle, who is the widow of former major league pitcher Vern Ruhle. He also was a pitching coach with the Reds, who used to train in town.
Four or five of the criers were really good; you could tell they had previous experience in radio, PA, talking to one's self. One voice in particular was familiar to Herbert.
"Hey, that's the Maryland basketball announcer from when they played in Cole Fieldhouse," Herbert said. "Nick Kovalakides."
We got ourselves a ringer!
Many of the applicants read the scripts well, though it was easy to tell they were reading. The kind of performances that net passing grades in public speaking class, but nothing top-notch.
Several of the speakers spoke competently, except for one or two mistakes — such as not being able to pronounce "Miguel Tejada."
"MigWELL Tuh-HAY-duh," one said.
C'mon! Tejada used to play for the O's. He's a former MVP. He testified before Congress! "MigWELL." I'd say 12 or 13 guys butchered Miggy's names one way or another.
One speaker inexplicably nailed "Tejada" yet stumbled over "Markakis." It must have been like Greek to him.
Soon, or maybe it wasn't that soon, it was my turn. I was a little nervous, but under control. I might never have been a PA announcer before, but I used to pretend all the time when I was a kid. (Don't tell anybody, but I still do.)
I came in with a plan: Try to sound as much like Rex Barney as possible. Before he died in 1997, Barney was the voice of the Orioles at Camden Yards and, before that, at Memorial Stadium. I didn't grow up an Orioles fan, but I had the chance to hear him twice in person and, of course, PA announcers are often audible during TV broadcasts.
He had a pleasant voice, like a friend had gotten ahold of the stadium mic. He also had a certain way of saying the players names that was energetic but monotone at the same time. I wouldn't call him a robot, not at all, but he was eerily consistent. Rich Dauer, for example, was never as formidable at the plate as Rex made him sound during intros.
He also had a great gimmick. Whenever someone in the stands would catch a foul ball, Barney would bellow:
"Give that fan ... a contract."
And then an usher would do just that.
"A friend of mine got one and had it framed," Herbert said.
I wasn't quite able to channel by inner Rex Barney all the way though. I went completely off the reservation on pronouncing Millwood's name. It was like Barney's spirit was pushed out by a ringmaster from Barnum and Bailey's Circus (which winters in Sarasota).
* * *
If you'd like to see my tryout in a moving motion picture that also includes Adam Jones and Herbert, check it out below:
* * *
It took me about 100 seconds, then it was Herbert's turn.
And ... he was good! Herbert, as you will hear in the video part of the interview, is not very excitable when he speaks in conversation. But he turned it on for the lineup. He messed up a small part — leaving out a "that" — and was kicking himself afterward for it.
"Just lost my place," Herbert said.
But he finished with a flourish when he added Barney's other gimmick — saying "thank youuuuu" to the crowd of judges and straggling contestants.
Herbert, a physical education teacher in his early 40s, expects to be doing only teaching when the games begin in March. And he'll attend three or four.
"I'm proud of what I did, but considering there were 70 entrants, to be in the final five might be a little bit of wishful thinking," Herbert said. "It was fun to go through the process."
The judges — three members of the public relations staff — patiently sat below until each of the 70 had a turn. Cuts, down to the final five or so, will be made by Tuesday, they said.
After Herbert and I said our good-byes, I stayed around to take pictures of the mostly empty stadium. On my way out, I caught the attention of one of the judges.
"Hey, you were good!" she said. "I put you down as someone to bring back."
A career change for me? Possibly.
But honestly, I don't know how well I did (judge for yourself) but there were at least four or five others who were better. Deeper pipes, better diction, the proper amount enthusiasm and timing. It's kind of a hard job.
Still, it's nice to know I'm kind of, sort of, in the running. Maybe.
All I need now is for the Orioles to come forward and give this man a contract.