7th-inning stretch belonged to Denver Orioles: Time after time, 'Thank God I'm a Country Boy' got the stadium rocking. And when the man himself joined in, it was magic.

October 14, 1997|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

It became as much a part of the mosaic of Orioles baseball as Esskay hot dogs, the collective roar of "O!" during the National Anthem, and Rex Barney intoning "Thank yewww" and "Give that fan a contract!"

If you went to an O's game, you expected to jump to your feet during the seventh-inning stretch and hear John Denver warbling "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" in that high-pitched, hillbilly twang.

Since the first time he danced and sang "Country Boy" atop the Orioles dugout during Game 1 of the 1983 World Series at Memorial Stadium, Orioles fans have felt affection for the 53-year-old pop singer, who died in a plane crash Sunday.

"It's shocking, really," said Neil Pohlhaus of Timonium. "I've always enjoyed 'Country Boy.' Wild Bill Hagy is gone, so many other things associated with Oriole baseball are gone. But that song has endured."

"I'm devastated beyond belief," said Kenn Roberts, chairman of the Sept. 20 benefit concert for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation at the Baltimore Arena, at which Denver was the featured performer.

On the Saturday of the concert, during a game against the Detroit Tigers, Denver had paid a surprise visit to Camden Yards and danced to "Country Boy" atop the Orioles dugout.

"He was truly in his glory that day," Roberts says. "He was just beaming the whole time."

"The place just went nuts!" recalled John Maroon, Orioles director of public relations. "The binoculars were out all over the place. He was dancing the whole time, even did a little twirl with the Bird.

"It really gave you an appreciation for the magnitude of his hold on Baltimore."

Denver first recorded "Country Boy" in 1975. The song was an immediate hit, rising to No. 1 on the Top 40 charts. The Orioles soon began playing it over the sound system at Memorial Stadium, although back then no one envisioned the enormous appeal the song would have for O's fans.

"The whole thing started just by accident," said Bob Brown, the Orioles PR director from 1968-1989. "Frank Cashen [then the O's general manager] said, 'I'm tired of all this old-timers music, with the organs. Let's play something a little more current, try to get the kids interested.'

"We experimented with a lot of seventh-inning stretch songs. When we got a [strong] fan reaction from 'Country Boy,' we tried it again and again. And every time, we got the same reaction."

"The thing I really enjoyed about it is that it gave Oriole fans a distinctive way to celebrate the seventh-inning stretch," said Charles Steinberg, former PR director for the O's and currently senior vice president for public affairs with the San Diego Padres.

"Oriole fans had this collective family secret. We knew that when you came to an Orioles game, you'd hear 'Country Boy.' And it was unlike any ballpark experience any other city was having."

"Country Boy" was replaced by Rick Dempsey's video version of "Old Time Rock 'n' Roll" as the seventh-inning stretch song in the second half of the 1986 season. Early in 1987, a variety of songs, including "Twist and Shout" by the Beatles and "Shout" by the Isley Brothers were used during the stretch.

But by the middle of that year, "Country Boy" was back, and it remained a staple of the seventh inning until Eli Jacobs bought the Orioles in 1988.

Jacobs decreed that the Andrews Sisters' version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" would be played during the stretch. And despite widespread protestations from Orioles fans, "Country Boy" was not played again during the seventh inning until Peter Angelos bought the team in 1993.

An Orioles spokeswoman said yesterday that the team has no plans to discontinue playing "Country Boy" during the seventh-inning stretch.

Pub Date: 10/14/97

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