The Orioles are searching for the voice of a new generation, and Oriole Park vibrated Saturday with the sounds of the 25 semifinalists who are hoping to become the full-time public address announcer for the team's 20th anniversary season at Camden Yards.
The competition began with 670 hopefuls — some of whom produced their audition recordings at FanFest in the hope of replacing Dave McGowan, who stepped down in December after 14 seasons. The candidates who showed up on this wintry afternoon included a surprisingly diverse cross-section of the Orioles fan base and the local media. The group even included one prospective P.A. guy who flew in from Chicago for the chance to earn a modest hourly wage to man a microphone in Baltimore.
"I have no specific allegiance," said Kevin Sullivan, who actually hails from North Aurora, Ill. "This is my first time ever in Camden Yards, but during my childhood, the Orioles were the golden team."
Some hopefuls remember that time very well. Longtime local broadcaster Chris Ely actually filled the P.A. role during a couple of stints, replacing legendary Rex Barney during the 1980s and '90s. Veteran television news reporter and one-time congressional candidate Andy Barth was around then, too. The opportunity to be affiliated with a major league baseball team — even when it doesn't come with a multimillion-dollar contract — is hard to resist.
"It's the next best thing to playing for them," Barth said.
They marched into a specially prepared radio booth one by one (the press box was unavailable because of some offseason construction) and read from a prepared script, their voices booming over the audio system in the empty ballpark. Several Orioles officials observed from a special suite on the Club Level and kept score. The finalists will be notified Monday and brought back for individual interviews on Tuesday and Wednesday.
This job would be quite a coup for 26-year-old Baltimore resident Ryan Wagner, but it would not be his first or most interesting professional baseball assignment. He was one of the two fans selected to watch every baseball game last season in the MLB Fan Cave.
"I grew up with Rex Barney, and my grandfather used to tell me about [Yankees announcer] Bob Sheppard," he said. "There are times when a P.A. announcer has become part of the fabric of the team. If I got this, I could see myself doing it for 40 years."
Wagner was one of 11,000 applicants seeking to spend the 2011 season watching baseball as a full-time job for MLB, so beating the odds by being one of the 25 candidates selected out of 670 to audition at Camden Yards probably felt like a cakewalk.
"It's still impressive," he said. "My luck seems to have no end."
Bowie Baysox announcer Adrienne Roberson and longtime minor league baseball writer Lisa Winston also are trying to beat the odds. There is only one female public address announcer currently working in Major League Baseball —San Francisco Giants announcer Renel Brooks-Moon — but neither cited that as a motivating factor in their quest to be the voice of the Orioles.
"I just love baseball," said Roberson, who has spent the past nine seasons with the Baysox and three seasons before that with the Double-A Knoxville Smokies. "I love what I do, so when this possibility came up, I obviously was extremely interested."
There is just something about baseball that makes people from all walks of life long to be at the yard.
"I love the game," said Tim O'Brien of Kensington, a former Supreme Court correspondent for ABC News. "I've loved it all my life and, at 68, the likelihood of me getting a contract to do anything else in the major leagues is rapidly diminishing."
Sportscaster Mark Zinno also is eager for a chance to be part of the 2012 baseball season now that he's out of harm's way. "I'm willing to do anything," he said. "Going to games as a kid, my earliest memories of the ballpark were the booming voices coming over the P.A. system. To do that for a new generation of kids in the ballpark would be a pretty cool experience."
Brian Holland sent in his demo at FanFest, but he's no amateur. He's been the voice of Loyola University basketball the past three years and has been doing P.A. announcing for seven, which is saying something when you consider that he's just 24 years old.
"If I get this opportunity, I can provide continuity," Holland said. "I'm young and I'm not going anywhere. The Cubs just hired a guy who is 24 and I've got a couple of months on him. I'd like to be the youngest P.A. guy in Major League Baseball."
Several 20-somethings made the final 25, including former WTOP sportscaster Greg Bianco, who knows that he would be in heady company if his resonant voice wins the day … and about 70 nights per year.
"To think about being alongside Rex Barney and Dave McGowan, that's just surreal to me," he said.
Former ESPN production assistant Charles Trahan, who got some public address experience at Florida A&M University, made the final five in a similar tryout for the P.A. job with the Washington Wizards. This time, he wasn't taking any chances with the baseball gods. He opened a button on his dress shirt to prove that he was wearing the O's T-shirt his dad bought him during a visit to Oriole Park during the inaugural 1992 season.
"This is just something I've always wanted to do," he said.
Kirk McEwen, a comedian and former FM radio personality, knows just how Trahan feels.
"I've been doing this my whole life in my car and in my house," he said, "so why not do it at the ballpark?"
Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "The Week in Review" on Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090 AM) and wbal.com.
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