Advocates brighten gray skies

March 28, 1995|By BILL TANTON

"Why don't you write something positive about baseball?" Bill Sherman was saying.

What! Write something positive about baseball?

"Are you living in a dream world?" I snapped at my old friend. "How can you be positive about strikes, lockouts, no World Series? No season? Don't you realize the public is fed up with the owners and the players?"

"Then write about us," Bill Sherman said.

"Us" is the Oriole Advocates, an amazing group of 75 volunteer men and women dedicated to promoting baseball. They're celebrating their 35th year of working with the Orioles.

I asked Sherman: "What can the Advocates do this year if there's no baseball?"

"We're going full speed ahead anyway," he said. "I'll get you together with our president, Bruce Birkhead."

The next morning I was drinking coffee at the Bel-Loc Diner with Birkhead, a retired Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. employee who has been a member of the Advocates for 19 years.

It's a good thing he is retired.

He goes to the Orioles' offices almost daily to coordinate the Advocates' efforts with the ballclub's public relations and marketing departments. Last week he made five trips from his Harford County home to Camden Yards.

Birkhead and the Advocates are not living in a dream world, but they are experts at blocking out baseball's negatives.

"We're disappointed, naturally," said Birkhead, 59, "that Opening Day is supposed to be a week away and things still aren't settled, but we can't afford not to go full speed.

"The work we're doing now is funding our programs for 1996. We're always working a year ahead."

Why should it be so complicated for an organization to give out trinkets and souvenirs at Orioles games?

"Most people think all we are is the give-awayers," said Birkhead. "They don't realize that our main purpose is to promote junior baseball at all levels. We spend about $13,000 a year on that.

"To finance it, we hold all kinds of fund-raisers. We're going to have our annual 8K race for 1,200 runners this Sunday. That'll raise $3,800.

"Last year we held our first charity golf tournament at Diamond Ridge. We raised $4,500 there. This July we're holding the tournament at Fort Meade."

Fort Meade?

"Yeah, they have a beautiful layout there," Birkhead said. "They have a new $4 million clubhouse."

The Advocates sponsor two leagues in the city, one in Patterson Park, one in Mondawmin, for which they provide equipment.

They sponsor a Champions League in Reisterstown for handicapped players. For that they supply special equipment.

They take requests from Little League teams. Their average donation is a $300 voucher for equipment.

Last Sunday they held a bull roast in Arbutus. Some 250 persons attended and the Orioles provided items for a silent auction.

"We only made $200," Birkhead said, "but that's two Little League donations."

So you can see that the Oriole Advocates do more than giveaways. Not only do they do all this work for free; each member pays $75 a year to belong. If he or she does not participate enough to satisfy the organization, he or she is asked to resign.

The Oriole Advocates started in 1960 to assist the ballclub behind the scenes. In the Orioles' glory years, when the club was in four World Series in six years (1966, 1969, 1970, 1971), Advocate volunteers helped with the issuing of press credentials and they drove visitors from the airport to the headquarters hotel downtown.

Advocates such as Charley Meagher, Don Blum, Allen Barrett, Keith Rawlinson, Gerry Klauber and Joe Karey were always around. Some of those still are.

Over the years the Advocates became known for their Junior Orioles program, which provided low-cost baseball tickets to kids. They started with 75 kids in 1963 and administered the program for 25 years. In 1977 they had a record 20,000 members.

The Junior Orioles program evolved into the Fantastic Fans Club, still with the involvement of the Advocates. Last year there were 2,500 kits sold to Junior Orioles, each providing a kid with a free game ticket when accompanied by a paying adult.

Now, with Orioles sellouts the norm, there may no longer be tickets available for kids.

"Nothing is set in stone," says Walt Gutowski, the Orioles' director of business affairs, "but we're trying to look at creative ways to get even more kids involved.

"If there are not going to be tickets, maybe there'll be a TV show, clinics, activities for the kids at the ballpark. We're fleshing that out.

"I used to be a Junior Oriole. I have to admit, the single biggest thing was the tickets to the game."

Birkhead and the Advocates are undaunted by all this.

"Peter Angelos [the team owner] would like to make our junior program bigger," Birkhead said. "We reached 5,000 kids last year. He'd like to reach 20,000 this year."

That would be hard to do with no tickets, but the Advocates are pressing on.

"The Oriole Advocates have been terrific goodwill ambassadors for us and for baseball all these years," says Gutowski. "We're working to find ways we can make their programs even bigger."

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