As the years have rolled on and we find ourselves celebrating the 25th anniversary of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, I pause to consider who would be my MVP -- Most Valuable Person -- of the Camden Yards era of Baltimore sports.
When considering the past 25 summers, my MVP is a man who hasn't played for the Orioles since 1974. He is, however, a man who literally and figuratively touches thousands of Orioles fans (other fans, too) night in and night out: No. 26, Boog Powell.
This is not to denigrate the likes of Cal Ripken Jr., Brady Anderson, Davey Johnson, Buck Showalter, Mike Mussina, Adam Jones or Manny Machado. But the reality is that the baseball gods have not always treated Baltimore baseball the best since Camden Yards opened.
Ripken's record-breaking game at Camden Yards Sept. 6, 1995 was by far the No. 1 event any of us in Baltimore has covered. But baseball, as that record demonstrated, is really about the grind, and nobody has embodied that grind quite like Powell.
Since 1992, the Orioles have played more than 2,000 games at Camden Yards, and for every one of them, Boog's Barbecue has been serving quality food and some of the Orioles' best goodwill.
Powell estimates he misses anywhere from three-to-five games per season. In 1997, you may remember he had a health scare with colon cancer that caused him to miss about 25 games. But he was back in time for the end of the regular season and that exciting postseason run that ended a bit too soon.
Recently, I asked Powell how the idea to sell barbecue at Oriole Park came about. He told me something I never knew. Apparently, he had been in contact with the Larry Lucchino-led Orioles in the early 1990s, but there just wasn't a place at Memorial Stadium to really do it the way Powell envisioned.
Powell said a pairing at the Save A Heart golf tournament at Turf Valley Golf Course in the summer of 1991 led to the idea becoming a reality. Powell, who had worked for the Miller Lite Brewing Company as a TV spokesperson, was paired with his good friends Bob Footlick and Bob Pinkner of Bond Distributing. The last member of the foursome just happened to be then-president of Aramark, Hugh Gallagher, who was the Orioles' concessionaire in those days.
During the course of those 18 holes, and then a couple … no, a few ... glasses of Grand Marnier, the plans led to serious talks, and Boog's Barbecue was born.
Powell said when the crowds at Camden Yards are in the 40,000 range, he may dispense as much as 800 pounds of beef, 600 pounds of turkey and 600 pounds of pork per night. So you can do the math and estimate how much that is during the course of an 81-game home schedule.
But Powell's favorite part of the day is the part he originally didn't know he would be doing -- signing autographs.
Before he started, Gallagher suggested to Powell that he might want to be out at the park some. To which Powell replied, "Oh, I intend to be out there more than just some."
Powell gets to the park for each game about an hour and 45 minutes before the game starts, and then, like clockwork, about 70 minutes before first pitch, he is at his post signing autographs, shaking hands and straddling two eras of O's fans. He chats with those who knew him as a player and those who now come back time and again and only know him as the guy who delivers the beef with a down-home feel and a smile.
I probably visit Powell about 10-12 times per year for a pregame sandwich and to remind myself of a time when the players meant so much to fans. Each time I leave I am blown away by the incalculable amount of positive PR Powell provides the Orioles. I hope that doesn't get lost on Orioles management.
The old adage is that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Well, Powell's simple idea has been copied by Randy Jones in San Diego, Greg Luzinski in Philadelphia, Manny Sanguillén in Pittsburgh, Orlando Cepeda in San Francisco and Luis Tiant in Boston. None, however, have been nearly as successful as Powell.
Powell turned 76 in August. He has no plans to retire and said he wants to continue to do just what he is doing -- connecting with Orioles fans for as long as he lives.
Powell and I talked about the longstanding relationship he has with so many of his customers and how much that ongoing mutual love and respect means to him this late in his life. I started to quote the last line of Jim Bouton's famous book on baseball, "Ball Four," when Powell jumped in and recited it: "A ballplayer spends a good piece of his life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."