O's usher famous for 'Zillbilly' dance has stage 4 lung cancer

Charlie Zill, 55, hopes to attend one last Orioles home game

(Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore…)
March 17, 2013|Kevin Cowherd

Charlie Zill leans forward and adjusts the lines to his oxygen supply before slipping a CD into his laptop.

"This is a good one," he says softly.

Up pops a video of Zill, the long-time fixture at Orioles games, doing his "Zillbilly" dance in full cornpone regalia (overalls, straw hat, fake teeth, orange fiddle) as John Denver's "Country Boy" blares over the Camden Yards PA system during the seventh-inning stretch.

Now here's footage of him joking with Orioles fans and doing magic tricks, and what you notice right away is how everyone lights up when they see him.

When the video ends, though, Zill's smile fades. And when you look up again, there are tears in his eyes. Because right now Charlie Zill wonders if he'll ever get to another Orioles game again.

Zill, 55, has stage 4 lung cancer. This is one of his better days at his home in Red Lion, Pa. A visitor has come calling, his wife, Trudy, is hushing their two squawking parrots and the house seems full of life.

But he's just been evaluated for hospice care and the prognosis, he says, "is not good. I'm pretty much on borrowed time."

He's been an usher at Orioles games for the past 17 seasons, but Zill is on medical leave now and has no hope of returning to work in section 244 on the club level.

"It was a dream job for me," he says. "One of the best jobs I ever had."

What he dreams about now is just to sit in the warm sunshine and watch an O's game or two as a fan this season.

"If a miracle comes along," he says, "I will return. It's got to be a miracle, because I'm not being treated now."

The cancer was diagnosed three and a half years ago. The news hit him like a shovel upside the head.

"They gave me a year to live," Zills says. "Never smoked a day in my life."

But the cancer didn't seem to care about that.

Since the diagnosis, he's shuttled back and forth between hospitals in Baltimore and Philadelphia, receiving chemotherapy and any other treatment the docs could think of. He's tried various homeopathic remedies, too.

"People brought him ginseng, special teas, different medicines," Trudy says.

But none of them stopped the illness. You always hear about patients "battling" lung cancer and Zill fought it, all right. Fought it as hard as he could. But the cancer kept winning, the way it so often does.

Some days he'd show up for work at the ballpark so drained and sick he wondered if he'd make it through the first inning, never mind the whole game.

"But doing that job the last three years, that was medicine for me," Zill says.

A bit of history: Zill starting working as an usher in 1995 and broke out his Zillbilly act a few years later.

"I wasn't sure if I was insulting people," he says. "At first some people thought it was real."

But the act quickly became a huge hit. A professional magician, he began doing magic tricks, too, always between innings or during pitching changes and rain delays, because the lifelong baseball fan always knew the game came first.

Most of his tricks had baseball themes. He'd take orange and black paper, tear it into strips, sprinkle the strips with "magic dust" and turn them into Orioles' floppy hats. He'd take a pack of saltine crackers and a jack from a deck of cards and turn it into a box of Crackerjacks.

The fans loved it. And between his Zillbilly skits and magic acts, it was as if Charlie Zill had found his calling.

"I love making people smile," he said. "Always have."

But by last October, when the Orioles hosted the New York Yankees in Game 2 of the American League Division Series, the cancer was beating him up pretty good.

Zill was weaker than ever. The chemo had robbed him of his hair. Fans were telling him they were praying for him.

But it was the final home game of the season. And on that rainy, chilly night, just as the Orioles dug deep to win 3-2 and tie the series at one game apiece, Charlie Zill willed himself to put on another show.

The seventh inning came and "Country Boy" blared and he launched into the full Zillbilly dance, feeling the adrenaline kick in as it always did.

"They flashed it on the video board and the crowd went wild," he recalled. "The Oriole Bird was on the dugout playing the orange fiddle I gave him."

But the moment was bittersweet. The whole time, Zill wondered if it would be the last time he'd dance in the aisles at an Orioles game and wave his straw hat and feel the love from the crowd.

"I had a feeling it might be," he says. "I was really weak then. I was going bad on the chemo, too."

But there won't be any more of that. The last round of chemo scarred his lungs so badly he had to stop treatment. His lung capacity is down to 20 percent of normal.

Now he sits in the house in Red Lion with all these great Camden Yards memories, hoping and praying for a miracle.

The new baseball season is almost here. Maybe he gets a couple more games in the warm sunshine.

That would be nice to see.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

twitter.com/kevincowherdsun

Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

  • Text TERPS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun Terps sports text alerts
  • Baltimore Sun Articles
    |
    |
    |
    Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.