New Orioles are untried kids, but they are our kids

April 12, 2001|By Michael Olesker

IN THE BALTIMORE Orioles clubhouse, relief pitcher Ryan Kohlmeier looks like a guy ready to hit the mound at Oriole Park or the beach at Normandy or, worse, pick up his date for the junior prom.

"I'm a little nervous," he says.

"We gotta do it, guys," says center fielder Melvin Mora.

"Don't worry, Kohl," says pitcher Sidney Ponson, who has been here a couple of years and knows a little about these things. "You'll be OK."

"Let's do it," they all yell.

And then, big and beefy and smiling, the legendary John Wesley "Boog" Powell appears in their midst, to dump before them a pile of steamed crabs the size of Mount Kilimanjaro.

"Supper's ready," he says.

What we are witnessing is not only a television commercial, but an affectionate ritual of passage. The new kids in town are learning the ways of their new community. We want them to belong, in ways that modern major-leaguers so rarely belong to a community -- and now, before our eyes, they are showing us their own desire to settle in, as they partake of that Baltimore tribal ritual, the crab feast.

For here is Boog Powell, the legendary Oriole, the man who parlayed a power hitter's career into a ballpark barbeque pit -- a true Bawlamer mark of the cult hero -- and he's explaining to them: This part you eat, and this part you don't. And, as he snaps in half the remaining chassis of the crab, Boog tells the baby Birds, "You gotta go, `Nyuh.'"

He sounds like a karate guy breaking a board. The kid Orioles laugh, and then they willingly go, "Nyuh," as they tear into their crabs.

And, hopefully, tear into the hearts of Orioles fans.

The commercials were produced by the local advertising and public relations firm TBC. Yesterday, TBC President Allan Charles said, "People want to love the Orioles, whoever's wearing the uniform. We've loved them now for generations. But this is a new group of guys, and new faces, so we needed to humanize them, and stress the fact that they're kids."

Charles said this the morning after the kids took a 10-1 beating from the Boston Red Sox. There will be nights like this. These Orioles are not expected to challenge for this year's pennant. But, with new kids, with new enthusiasm, there's hope that the town will see their stumbles as part of a hopeful growing process.

Thus, it helps to see them in a humanizing, and childlike, setting. These commercials aren't just advertisements for the team, and not just enticements to come to the ballpark. They're 30-second symbols of a mind-set.

Seven spots were produced. In one, manager Mike Hargrove tells Chris Richard, Jerry Hairston and Kohlmeier, "OK, guys, you're in the big leagues now, it's time you learned to do things right. It all starts with fundamentals."

Bunting? The double-play pivot? Nope, even more fundamental. Hargrove shows them how to shave properly. He's a father showing his boys the basics of becoming men. We're invited into a moment of comic intimacy. "Come on, Chris, don't play with it now," Hargrove says, gesturing to the razor.

Thus, the next time one of them makes an error, we can remember: They're still kids. And they're our kids.

Or, as Hargrove asks in another spot, as he sits in the dugout with coaches Sam Perlozzo and Terry Crowley, "Sam, where are the kids?"

"I think they're playing in the yard," says Perlozzo.

It's what "kids" do, isn't it?

"Well, who's watching 'em?" Hargrove asks.

Grown men -- tough, sullen, big-league ballplayers -- don't have to be watched, but "kids" do.

"I promised Kohlmeier's mother I'd keep an eye on him," Hargrove says.

Is that beautiful? They're a family! And where are the kids? Richard and Kohlmeier are running giddily through a sprinkler system like a couple of schoolboys.

"It's almost 7 o'clock. Where are they?" Hargrove says.

Final scene: They're sitting by a dryer, in their shorts, waiting for their uniforms to dry.

"It was great working with them," Allan Charles said yesterday. "They were so enthusiastic. Kohlmeier said to me, `Could I get a tape to show to my parents?' They were not only cooperative, but they understood it was about marketing the team, that that's what you have to do today. The older players, they didn't think that was part of the deal. We shot these late last summer. The crab spot, for example. That was originally intended for Albert Belle. But he was never gonna do it. He would never do it. Can you imagine trying to get Belle to do the sprinkler spot?"

Belle, afflicted by an arthritic hip and a volatile personality, has retired. Orioles fans, students of every nuance of their ballclub, tended to see him as part of the modern athletes' truculence, writ large. The new kids, and the new spots, signal a new day.

In one, Jerry Hairston dreams a kid's dream: The Orioles create a Hairston "bobblehead," coveted by fans, promoted on the air by Jim Palmer, trumpeted as a milestone of his "glorious career" -- until veteran Jeff Conine awakens him from his reverie.

"Hairston was great," Charles said. "Who wouldn't have that dream? Sure, they want the money, but they want what kids want. They want the crowds cheering for 'em."

The new spots intend that we'll cheer them, and forgive them, too. Because they're still just kids. And they're Baltimore's kids, romping through sprinklers, still learning to shave, and just now learning about steamed crabs, the delights of every true hometowner.

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