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

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

Charlie Zill

Charlie Zill (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun / April 10, 2010)

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.

 

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