A Big Hit -- Boog's Ballpark Barbecue

July 19, 1992|By Don Markus

The haze of smoke, rising behind the right-centerfield fence at Camden Yards, is visible from one end of the Eutaw Street promenade to the other. The smell of barbecue, sweet and savory, is as enticing to the senses as the sounds emanating from inside the brand-new ballpark.

Together, the smoke and the smell draw several hundred customers each game -- day or night, rain or shine, Blue Jays or Royals -- to stand in line at a place called Boog's Corner.

Boog Powell, television commercial legend and good-old boy, former Oriole and All-Star and current mesquite magician, has been standing at the same spot for nearly 90 minutes. The sweat pours in buckets down his tree-trunk, sunburned neck. His feet are starting to ache, his meaty hands are sore from the handshakes and the autographs, and his smile seems frozen on his face.

"Look at those legs," a fan says to Powell, who on this night wears a blue cotton shirt, khaki shorts and designer sneakers.

"Built for speed," says the former Orioles first baseman, who became something of a folk hero during the 14 seasons he spent in Baltimore -- from 1961 to 1974.

"Can you hit the warehouse?" another fan asks the man who hit 345 dingers during a 17-year major-league career.

"I can, but the young guys won't give me a chance," says Powell.

This is how it goes, night after night, game after game, sandwich after sandwich. By Powell's estimation, the stand sells in the neighborhood of 2,000 sandwiches a night.

"It's sort of phenomenal," says Powell, as he looks down the line of nearly 500 patient souls. "I don't know if I could have handled it 15 years ago. Maybe I could have handled it, but I don't know if I could have appreciated it."

What began last year with a conversation between Powell and Hugh Gallagher, president of the concession division for ARA Services, has become a hot item.

It also has rejuvenated the 50-year-old Powell, who had grown tired of living the quiet life in Key West, Fla. ("It got a little boring," he says.)

The one thing he didn't want to do was take a job as a batting coach or as a minor-league manager. There had been a couple of offers but the decision he had made back in 1977, when he was released by the Los Angeles Dodgers, still held.

"When I got out of baseball, I had had enough," said Powell.

What Powell had also tired of was life on the road, but he hit the trail again when he became a spokesman for the Miller Brewing Co. In addition to the 17 Miller Lite commercials he made from 1977 through 1991, Powell also made 80 to 100 appearances a year that put him on the road up to 250 days.

"I was very lucky to get into the commercials, but I also worked my a-- off once I started doing them," says Powell, who became the most visible leading man for a beer that, depending on your perspective, either is less filling or tastes great.

It was Marv Throneberry who first gave Powell the idea about getting into commercials. The day after he was released by the Dodgers, Powell bought a van in Los Angeles and started driving home to Key West. He stopped the first night at a motel in Albuquerque and flipped on the television. There was Throneberry, erstwhile first basemen of the New York Mets, saying for Miller Lite, "I still don't know why they want me to do this commercial."

Recalls Powell, "I said, 'Shoot, I can do that stuff.' "

When he got home, he called Marty Blackman, a New York-based talent scout. Blackman had already told the Miller Lite people that he thought Powell would be the perfect spokesman for their product.

The commercials paired Powell with former major-league umpire Jim Honochick. It wasn't exactly Newman and Redford, but it worked.

"He was a sensational actor," Blackman says of Powell. "Over and over, the directors would marvel at the guy's composure."

"I was probably twice as well known for the commercials as I would have been had I stayed in baseball," Powell says. "I also made more money than I had ever made in baseball."

That visibility, along with the residuals, helped launch Boog Powell's Anglers Marina in Key West. But Powell's busy schedule, an ill-fated $400,000 expansion plan and ultimately the recession sank the marina in a red-ink sea by 1989. He quietly got out of the business in 1990.

"We got too big, too fast and at the wrong time," says Powell, who still seems shaken by the experience. "It was a tough situation."

But Powell learned several things about himself during his years at the marina. He had a way with people, all kinds of people.

"He's always had that personality," says Marty Blackman. "He really knows the art of social business."

Even in those days, Blackman had an idea about Powell's ability around a barbecue pit. When the days got a little long, and even when they didn't, Powell would whip up a few pounds of pit beef or pork barbecue for everyone on the Miller Lite set. So when Blackman is told how well Powell's latest venture is going, he isn't surprised.

"He's in an element that he knows," says Blackman. "He knows how to cook."

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