Many voices vie for the best seat in the house Announcer: Come Opening Day, one of 12 finalists will start to sound awfully familiar as he -- or she -- takes over the stadium microphone at Camden Yards.

March 14, 1998|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,SUN STAFF

Less than three weeks before Opening Day, the Baltimore Orioles are still short one crucial team member.

They could stick with the crafty veteran. Or bring the kid up from the Frederick Keys. Or take a flyer on a promising 50-year-old rookie who sells planes for a living.

Or they could tap Stephanie McDermott.

The 43-year-old secretary has a lilting voice and a dream. When the Orioles return from Florida to take the field against the New York Mets in a March 29 exhibition game, McDermott wants to sit above home plate, lean into a microphone and say:

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Oriole Park at Camden Yards."

McDermott was one of 12 finalists who tried out yesterday for an Oriole fan's dream job -- public address announcer for the team.

The winner, who'll be chosen next week, will replace Rex Barney, the legendary announcer who died last August after 23 years as the Orioles' voice at Memorial Stadium and Camden Yards.

"Rex Barney leaves some very big shoes to fill," says David McGowan of Huntingtown, Md., one of the finalists. "I do not intend to fill those shoes. I intend to bring my own."

McGowan brokers airplane sales and has no formal voice training, but he, and everyone else, knew better than to steal any of Barney's popular trademarks. As a result, nobody cooed "Thank yewwwww" or tossed in a "Give that fan a contract."

"Anybody who does that is insane," says Lea Jones, 43, a teacher, songwriter and kayak business owner from Sparks.

Jones postponed a vacation flight to Los Angeles Friday morning so he could attend the tryout. He practiced by standing in his backyard, warbling, "Now batting for the Baltimore Orioles ... Cal Ripken!"

"As far-flung as the idea seems, I'm actually qualified to do it," he says in a voice so low and deep and authoritative that you wouldn't possibly doubt him.

In fact, you could fill the leftfield bleachers with all the Baltimore-area people who consider themselves qualified to trill, "Batting second, and playing second base, No. 12, Roberto Alomar" during a 10-game homestand. When the Orioles sought announcers, 320 people sent in audition tapes, many produced in professional sound studios.

"Believe it or not, it was interesting to hear the range of talent," says Spiro Alafassos, the team's director of ballpark entertainment, who listened to every tape.

The finalists illustrated that range. You had radio announcers who could say, "Hi, how you doing?" in 75 syllables with 33 modulation changes. You had the Voice of God students from the James Earl Jones School of Public Speaking. You had Rick McCauslin, the announcer for the Frederick Keys, the Orioles' Single-A affiliate, hoping for a call-up to the big leagues.

And then there was the veteran: Chris Ely, the WJZ-TV weekend anchor who filled in as the Orioles' public address announcer for about 35 games last season.

"It's not rocket science, but you've got to keep your mind on the game," he says in a deep, friendly and serious voice, the kind that tells a crowd: Have fun, but look out for foul balls.

The finalists included two women -- McDermott and Carolyn Stewart, an actress who does commercial voice-overs. The Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants employ women as stadium announcers, so McDermott and Stewart thought the Orioles might be ready to join them.

"My opinion was, you can't replace Rex Barney, so you might as well go 180 degrees in the opposite direction," Stewart says.

Mike Lehr, the team's executive director of marketing and broadcasting, says the Orioles want someone with a clear, distinctive voice that expresses enthusiasm without going over the top. No AREYOUREADYTORUMBLE? eardrum-breakers from the monster truck circuit, please.

"We're not the NBA," he says.

For yesterday's finals, each candidate was given a script to read over the Camden Yards public address system. A half-dozen Oriole staff members jotted notes from various seats -- behind home plate, down the third-base line, out in the center-field bleachers.

The finalists welcomed the crowd, introduced the "Heavy Hitter Awards" to Jim Brylewski, Owen Schwartz and Rich Suchenski (try saying those names without stumbling) and announced the starting line-ups.

Sitting in Barney's old spot, McDermott says she had chills.

"It was an experience that was almost unbelievable."

Jones was excited, too.

"I got to No. 5 in the batting order, and it was like -- I don't know if you could hear it, but I was jacked up."

Dave Chadwick, a newscaster for the Voice of America, the broadcast arm of the U.S. government, couldn't imagine a better time.

"After talking into a hairbrush as a kid, this was the ultimate," he says. Chadwick wanted little in return: "I'd do it for a Diet Coke and a hot dog."

The job doesn't pay much more than that. Lehr says the announcers receive a "nominal fee" for each game and get free parking. "And I think we feed them," he adds.

Not that any of the golden-throated hopefuls cared. They didn't care about the prospect of sitting through a 12-0, four-hour game in the middle of August with the Orioles 10 games out of first. They didn't care about having most of their remarks scripted -- "Ladies and gentlemen, please do not interfere with balls in play." They didn't care about replacing a legend.

They all just wanted what Stephanie McDermott wanted:

"The best seat in the house."

When the decision is announced next week, handicappers expect that seat to go to Ely, Chadwick or McGowan, with Stewart having an outside shot. Lehr says he's not worried about finding the right voice in time for the new season.

"There's no spring training," he says. "They just need to be here and be ready to go."

Pub Date: 3/14/98

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