Major-league aspirations

Tryouts: Fans show off their enthusiasm and athleticism for a chance to become an Orioles ballboy or ballgirl.

March 28, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Glancing around the locker room in Oriole Park at Camden Yards yesterday, Heather Millar measured the competition. Sinewy young men, former high school baseball stars with stubbly cheeks and hungry looks. Muscular young women slapping their fists into mitts.

Millar is 60 years old, with gray hair and wire-rim glasses, and she sported baggy black sweat pants and a Budweiser gym bag. She said she felt sorry for them. Tucking her mitt under her arm, she strode onto the field determined to beat out more than 100 competitors in a tryout to become Orioles ballgirls and ballboys.

Once in the dugout, she flipped open her cell phone. "It's my agent - she advises me to play hard to get," said Millar, a retired math teacher from Arnold.

The Orioles hold the tryouts about every two years, picking four to six ballgirls and boys. They sit on stools in foul territory beyond first and third bases and field stray balls. It's not a glamorous job, but it requires deft hands and the right attitude.

"We want to see enthusiasm and an outgoing personality," said Kristen Schultz, director of special events for the Orioles and the coordinator of yesterday's competition. "We are also looking for athletic ability, how well they can handle a glove and perform in front of large crowds."

Schultz said the job pays a modest salary, but she declined to say how much.

None of those who lined up outside the ball field yesterday said they were in it for the money. Many said they were baseball fans since childhood who just wanted to live out their fantasies of running onto the field where Cal Ripken Jr. and other Orioles played.

"Being a ballgirl would be a dream come true for me," said Millar. "I've always wanted to be in major-league baseball, ever since I was 9 or 10 years old. I used to see the ballboys on the field when I was a child, and I always knew that girls couldn't do that. But now they're letting everyone try out, and I'm going to give it my best shot."

Not all those who attended the tryouts yesterday seemed to take it as seriously as Millar.

"I was out drinking last night, and one of my friends said to me, `What are you doing? You are supposed to be in training,'" said Karen Smith, 33, a manager with Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore. "I've always wondered, `How do you get that job, being a ballgirl?' And then I saw an ad for the tryout in the newspaper, and I thought, `I want that job.'"

The tryouts required the competitors to stand in front of a television camera and answer questions about why they wanted to become ballboys and ballgirls. Then they had to sit on folding stools along the left and right field lines, springing to their feet to field balls.

A panel of three judges graded them on athletic ability, personality, enthusiasm and appearance. They'll pick the winners before the Orioles home opener, April 4.

Millar wore an Orioles cap and T-shirt, but as she waited for her turn in the visitors dugout, she quietly confessed that she's been an Orioles fan for only 32 years, since moving from Cleveland.

"I feel I need to be honest with you. I really am still a Cleveland Indians fan," she said. "Have been an Indians fan since I was a child. My dad would take me out of school to go to Opening Day every year, even when it snowed. When the Indians play the Orioles, it's a problem."

While the younger competitors lolled against the dugout's railing, looking out onto the soggy field, Millar stretched her legs and arms and engaged in trash-talking.

Standing only about 5 foot 2, she strode to where a 6-foot-2-inch man leaned against the fence. "You think you're taller than me? Hah," she snorted.

With a hint of cockiness in her voice, Millar said she's the second baseman for the Amazing Grays, a church league softball team in Annapolis. "You want baseball? My team also won the 1958 Cleveland Pigtails League Championship. That's my claim to fame. I played shortstop and left field," she said. "Of course, back then I was 15 years old."

Ben Lobos of Elkton, a 20-year-old former high school baseball player, glanced back at the gray-haired woman who was turning out to be his most vociferous competition. He said he was determined to beat her, and joked that if it took steroids or corked bats to win, he'd do whatever it took. "I don't plan on losing to anyone," Lobos said, grinning at Millar.

The judges called Millar's number, No. 23, and she bounded up to the camera. "Howdy!" she said to the judges.

"I want to be an Orioles ballgirl for both me and the Orioles," Millar said. "For me, because I love baseball. And for the Orioles, because they're having their 50-year celebration this year, and it would be great to have someone who could remember all 50 years of history."

Running to an assigned place behind the third base line, Millar fielded six ground balls, leaping nimbly and snagging five of them in her mitt. She bobbled one. She whipped the balls back to the catcher so hard that the judges warned her to let up so she wouldn't hurt anyone.

"Nice throwing arm," said Jason Stanczyk, the Orioles cameraman who was helping the judges. "I've never seen an older person throw a ball that hard before."

As she strode off the field, she paused just behind home plate to look up at the thousands of empty seats and imagine herself in the big leagues. "They'd be crazy not to take me," she said.

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