Fans still wait to rub elbows with former slugger Boog Powell at his BBQ stand

One day last summer at Camden Yards, Adam Jones approached Boog's BBQ stand and stepped up to the plates.

"I'd like some turkey," the Orioles' outfielder said.

Boog Powell hit the roof.

"You can't hit no damn home runs on turkey!" Powell bellowed. "I'm gonna give you some beef."

That he did. Now every time they meet, Jones says, "I had the beef."

For 25 years, Powell has served up barbecue and banter from his stand on Eutaw Street at Orioles games. His place has become a model for others, run by old players, around baseball. On Monday, Powell will be there again, doling out sandwiches and a slice of life to fans who stand in line as much to meet the 75-year-old slugger as to eat the food. They'll shake hands, take snapshots and swap memories with the man who helped lead the Orioles to two world championships and who won the 1970 American League Most Valuable Player award.

"I'm, like, the official greeter at the ballpark," Powell said. "People come looking for something positive, a confirmation about their own lives — and they find a guy standing there, smiling, and trying to make them happy. I want you to feel good when you leave me."

Clearly, it works both ways. Powell is anxious to return to Camden Yards on Opening Day, having spent the winter at his home in Key West, Fla., where "nobody knows me on the street. If I'm having a problem with self-esteem, all I have to do is walk into that ballpark and, wow, it's back. People want a piece of me, and I of them, and we converse, and then they may whip out a 20-year-old picture of me with my arm around their mother."

Powell has held his ground, a looming presence peddling pit beef, pork and turkey, for nearly every home game since Camden Yards opened. He gives about 200 autographs a night, but a mere figurehead, he is not. The meat recipes are his, honed by the countless backyard cookouts Powell had while playing for the Orioles, hitting 303 home runs from 1960 through 1974.

"We had a row house, five blocks from Memorial Stadium, and I'd come home after a night game, at maybe 2 a.m., start a fire in the back yard and cook supper," he said. "The smoke went into neighbors' windows and they'd lean out and yell, 'Hey, Powell, maybe you don't have to go to work tomorrow, but we do!' And BAM! Their windows would slam."

A latecomer to barbecue, Powell grew up in Florida, the son of a used car salesman who earned $3,000 a year. Powell's mother died when he was 12 and, as the oldest of three boys, he often fixed meals. Macaroni and cheese. Tripe. Salt pork and bread.

"I didn't have a steak until I was 16, but we were never hungry," he said. Though a meat-and-potatoes guy, he has acquired a taste for sushi.

"I never thought I'd get used to eating bait," he said.

A prodigious eater — "I'll try anything but Brussels sprouts" — he met with officials of Aramark, then the Orioles' concessionaire, prior to the 1992 season and sealed a deal to feed the fans. For a month and a half, Powell toiled in a test kitchen, perfecting dry rubs and spice mixes alongside Russell Szekely, then executive chef at Camden Yards.

"Boog was an iconic player who happened to be quite a cook," Szekely said. "He was our ultimate taste tester; if he didn't approve it, it wouldn't be served. Boog always said that barbecue was 'like a party in your mouth,' and his vision was a hit."

On April 6, 1992, however, Powell had butterflies, not barbecue, in his belly. He had surrendered the marina he owned in Florida ("I didn't have enough business experience to get that done") and was no longer a pitchman for Miller Lite beer, for whom he'd done 17 commercials.

"I was quite apprehensive [about the food stand]," he said. "I thought, if this fails, I don't have any other things going. I had no clue how the barbecue would do. I imagined people saying, 'Let's see if this big boy knows anything.'"

On Opening Day, the 500 pounds of prepared beef and pork went fast. Lines stretched 50 yards; folks waited up to 30 minutes for grub.

"His stand was No. 1, right out of the gate," Szekely said.

A quarter-century later, business remains brisk, and not just among fans. Most nights, the visiting team orders "eight or 10" sandwiches, Powell said, and the umpiring crew always wants a few. Moreover, just as Camden Yards served as the prototype for a bevy of similar ballparks, Boog's BBQ has spawned others run by old-timers in baseball venues. In Pittsburgh, the Pirates' Manny Sanguillen hawks barbecue; in San Francisco, it's Giants' Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, while Philadelphia has Greg "Bull" Luzinski. But Powell, the onetime 6-foot-4, 230-pound first baseman, batted lead-off.

"On Monday, we'll probably go through 1,200 pounds of beef and 800 pounds of both pork and turkey," said Annie O'Brien, who manages the place. "It's hard to keep the line moving with Boog there. Everyone has stories, and they all want their stories heard by him. His autograph can't be worth anything, at this point, but they still come for it.

"He's the epitome of Baltimore — nothing fancy and never full of himself, just a super gracious guy who genuinely cares about people. Even if I didn't want to work here anymore, I wouldn't know how to tell Boog."

Powell has fed celebrities, from basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley to Olympic star Michael Phelps to actor John Astin (Gomez on "The Addams Family").

"Governor [Larry] Hogan is a regular," Powell said. "We've had similar life issues [cancer]."

Twenty years ago, during baseball season, Powell was diagnosed with colon cancer. During his recovery, patrons brought prayer cards to his food stand. He has since bonded with others who've survived the disease.

"I'll see them, eight or 10 people back in line," he said. "When they get to me, I act surprised and say, 'Are you still here? Congratulations on your fourth year of being cancer-free.' Then they cry and I do, too.

"I get so carried away, being amongst people. I don't know how else to do it."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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