Heavy-hitter meal

The Orioles' brightest stars are warmly feted at business elite's annual lunch for team

Bruce Chen took on role of comedian, sort of

April 07, 2006|By ANDREA K. WALKER | ANDREA K. WALKER,SUN REPORTER

Diane Becker and her sister, Karin Sorenson, hovered over their digital camera, giddy about the image they had just captured of Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, clean and looking dapper in a dark suit.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Becker, who at age 28 admits to a schoolgirl crush on Roberts.

The sisters got the rare chance yesterday to meet the Orioles players as they took part in the Greater Baltimore Committee's 27th annual Lunch with the Orioles, a traditional breaking of the bread between the city's business elite and the ballclub as it returns for a new season.

The first lunch was held in 1979 as the business community hoped to show support for the Orioles amid rumors the team might be sold and moved to Washington.

That same year, the committee and then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer created the "designated hitters," a sales force of volunteers that promoted season ticket sales.

Much has changed over the decades. The city has lost several corporate headquarters, and the players these days bring home more money than many of the top executives. But the business world's need to support the Orioles hasn't lessened, especially since the birth of the Washington Nationals last year created competition for the team's fan base.

"This is a recognition to them of what they mean to the community," GBC President Donald C. Fry said. "We have to show our support for the team. It's become even more important with another team now 35 miles south."

Truth be told, the lunch is as much about fulfilling the dreams of fans as about fostering a relationship between the team and the business community.

"We disguise this as a business opportunity, but it's very personal for us," said Sorenson, practice administrator at the Maryland Laser, Skin & Vein Institute.

About 450 employees from 61 companies showed up at the Wyndham Inner Harbor Hotel to get some face time with the ballplayers. Tickets for members cost $75, while nonmembers paid $100.

B. Taylor Kshimetksi, who works for Pintail Yacht Charters, brought her husband, Steve, a builder for Allan Homes and an avid Orioles fan. The couple showed up a half-hour early to avoid missing any of the festivities.

"To get to sit and eat lunch with an Oriole is pretty cool," said Steve Kshimetski, who most wanted to meet shortstop Miguel Tejada and outfielder Jeff Conine.

Pitcher Bruce Chen played comedian at one point during the program - albeit a bad one.

"I dreamed I was a muffler last night," he told the crowd. "I woke up and I was exhausted."

During an opening reception, the players sat at long tables for a 30-minute autograph session. Fans and business leaders thrust trading cards and baseballs in front of the players, congratulating them on their first two wins of the season. The Dixie Devils jazz band, a trio of men in candy cane-striped vests, played such tunes as "That's a Plenty" and "When You're Smiling."

Samy Muaddi moved to Baltimore a week ago to work as an analyst for the mutual fund company T. Rowe Price Group Inc. He grew up in Philadelphia rooting for the Phillies, but said he's open to becoming an Orioles fan.

"I've been here a week and I already get to meet the Orioles," Muaddi marveled.

Many tried to suppress their glee, trying hard not to look silly. "He's so tall and handsome," gushed one woman as pitcher Daniel Cabrera passed by.

The players appeared gracious, some cracking jokes with the fans.

"It's always great to come out into the community to the people who support us," pitcher LaTroy Hawkins said. "Any way we can give back to the fans is always positive."

"The five seconds you take to sign an autograph could affect a kid for 10 years," said outfielder David Newhan. "I enjoy it because it could be the alternative where nobody wants your autograph."

Some things at the event have changed over the years. A question-and-answer period used to be open to fans, but proved too unorganized as people spent the time seeking autographs. The players used to sit at a long table at the front of the room. Now they sit at the tables with the fans.

The players ate chicken and zucchini, salad and tiramisu as the fans asked them about their childhood, injuries and the outlook for the season.

At the Bank of America table, Roberts talked about the agony of recuperating from a major elbow injury last year.

Roberts and employees also talked about his former high school track coach, who now works at the bank.

It was the third year the Baltimore Life Co. has participated in the event. This year, it landed perhaps the day's most coveted lunch mate, Tejada.

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

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