(Photo by Jeff Zelevansky…)
Even though we're meeting in a busy coffee shop in White Marsh, it's clear Ryan Wagner has the voice-of-God pipes he needs for his next gig.
Thirty-nine days from now, as the Orioles new public-address announcer, he'll settle in behind a microphone in the press box, press a button and intone: "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Oriole Park at Camden Yards ..."
This will be Opening Day 2012, Orioles vs. Minnesota Twins, a sell-out of 45,000-plus shoe-horned into the greatest ballpark in baseball.
Is the 26-year-old actor, former MLB Fan Cave star and life-long Orioles fan getting nervous?
"Absolutely," he says. "Comes with the territory."
But it's a good kind of nervousness, not the paralyzing oh-God-I'm-going-to-heave kind. Mostly, Wagner is still pinching himself, unable to believe his good fortune.
"It's not a job you ever set out to get, because it's never available," he said. "Never in a million years did I think I'd be the voice of the Orioles."
The back-story goes like this: this winter, the Orioles launched a talent search to replace Dave McGowan, their stadium voice for the past 13 seasons. Wagner was intrigued. The club posted a script online and asked each applicant to read from it. It was boiler-plate PA announcer stuff: a crowd greeting, a mock Orioles batting order, etc.
Wagner sent the club a two-minute audition tape and thought nothing more about it.
"It's like buying a lottery ticket," he said. "You send it out and hope for the best."
But this time he hit the jackpot — in a manner of speaking. The Orioles called. A voice on the other end said: "Congratulations. You made the top 25 – out of 30."
This turned out to be a little PA announcer humor. Wagner would find out that 670 people had applied for McGowan's old job, including professional PA announcers and polished radio and TV broadcasters.
The next step was a live audition at Camden Yards. It had snowed that day, Feb. 11, a light dusting. By the time Wagner settled behind the mic with his script, the sun was setting, the wind was blowing and the snow was swirling.
It was baseball weather only if you think baseball should be played at the Arctic Circle.
"I wanted to say: 'Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Lambeau Field," he says.
But he didn't. This was no time for wise-guy stuff. He wanted the gig too much.
The audition went well and the Orioles called him back for an interview. Now the search committee peppered him with questions. Why do you feel you're the right person for the job? How do you feel about the ballpark? Do you understand why it requires a traditional-type PA announcer?
Oh, Wagner sure did. In fact, he might have aced the interview when he mentioned his boundless admiration for two of the giants of PA announcing: Bob Sheppard, the legendary voice of Yankee Stadium for 56 years and Rex Barney, the beloved long-time voice of the Orioles.
"When they said they were looking for a classic voice, I knew that was me," Wagner says. "I have such respect for this game, and how much the team and ballpark mean to the city."
After one more audition, the Orioles made it official and offered him the job. In a statement to the media, the Orioles said they loved Wagner's "traditional style" and "energy" and "authenticity."
Wagner had hit his jackpot. He was ecstatic. Still is, even as the nerves start jangling with Opening Day approaching.
But Wagner is used to dealing with butterflies before a big performance. He was a theater major at Frostburg State University and traveled for two years with the national touring company of "The Wizard of Oz."
Then last year he upped his profile considerably when he won a national contest and landed the gig with MLB's Fan Cave. This was a quirky experiment that called for two guys to watch every major league game from a 15,000-square-foot studio in lower Manhattan, interact with fans via social media and interview ballplayers and celebrities.
Somehow Wagner and his partner, Mike O'Hara, watched all 2,429 regular-season games without feeling the urge to throw themselves in front of a bus.
Mostly, it was a hoot, Wagner says. "But there were times it was rough," Wagner said. "[It's] 11 o'clock at night and [you were] watching the Dodgers against the Padres and the game meant nothing ..."
At times like that, Wagner might call home to vent. At which point his dad, a retired Baltimore City cop, would listen to his son for a moment and say: "You had a rough day doing what?"
But Wagner insists his Fan Cave days had nothing to do with landing the O's PA announcer gig.
"Because I did Fan Cave, I was a visible Orioles fan," Wagner said. "So there are going to be people who say this is a gimmick and the Orioles hired me because it was a good PR move for them.
"But the Orioles never reached out to me at Fan Cave. I never had a relationship with them. I auditioned just the way everyone else did."
Now he gets ready for his dream job.
Thirty-nine days to Opening Day. That feels like a dream, too.
Listen to Kevin Cowherd at 7:20 a.m. Tuesdays on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."