Baltimore man lands his dream job inside Major League Baseball's fan cave

If you run into Walt Wagner, don't be surprised if he tells you right away, that his son — HIS SON!! — is one of two guys Major League Baseball is paying — PAYING!! — to hole up and watch every last inning of every last ball game.

His boy, born in Baltimore and raised on the Orioles, beat out 10,000 people for the chance to "eat, sleep and live baseball" for the entire season — albeit behind glass in a Manhattan storefront.

"I still get the shakes when I talk about it," gushes Wagner, a retired city cop. "That's my son."

Ryan Wagner, who's 25, is spending the next seven months with fellow winner Mike O'Hara, lazing on a sofa, sipping Budweisers and fixing his attention on what will turn out to be 2,430 games — a head-spinning number of pitches, countless fly balls, who knows how many stolen bases. He'll also be blogging, Tweeting, posting videos and otherwise doing anything he can to earn baseball some online street cred.

It's all baseball's attempt to hook the go-go-go, frenetic social media generation on a languid, mellow game where no one is tackled, nothing is slam-dunked and where the definition of multitasking is guarding the outfield while chewing tobacco.

Wagner, who as a kid spent hours outside the Orioles' parking lot hoping for a glimpse of Cal Ripken Jr., says he's the man for the job.

"Baseball has been such a part of my life," he says. "It's just a great game. There's definitely something magical about sitting in Oriole Park on a sunny afternoon and getting a Boog's barbeque sandwich."

Alas, no Boog's for Wagner (@rwags614 on Twitter) this year. Through October, he's a resident of New York, specifically of a 15,000 square foot storefront in Greenwich Village.

The spot that they're calling the "fan cave," and where Wagner is spending most of his waking hours, is the site of a former Tower Records at 4th Street and Broadway.

Officials considered Times Square and Columbus Circle but when it came to "hipsters" per capita, this site, sandwiched between SoHo, New York University and Union Square, couldn't be beat.

Tim Brosnan, Major League Baseball's vice president for business, hired one of the designers from ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" to turn the vacant corner into what he calls "Mr. Rogers hipster neighborhood with baseball running through it."

The result is what a frat boy would dream if he dreamed of interior design — a wall heavy with 15 televisions, a pool table, another wall that visiting celebrities are encouraged to sign, a fridge filled entirely with Pepsi products.

During the thick of the season, Wagner and O'Hara will be there from the day's first pitch at noon until the ninth inning winds up on the West Coast — which can happen as late as 1 a.m. The two don't sleep on-site — Major League Baseball has been putting them up at a hotel and soon they'll move into a nearby apartment.

The cave's key design element is, of course, the 32, 14-foot windows that passers-by can push their nose against to watch Wagner and O'Hara's every move.

Though he admits it can feel a bit like a "fishbowl," Wagner with his theater degree and sports broadcasting background, isn't one to shy away from the spotlight.

"It seemed to be the perfect blend of my joking, my laughing and my comfort in front of crowd but also my love of sports," Wagner said of his gig. "I never in a million years thought I'd be able to find that."

Wagner is a bearded fellow with black-rimmed geek glasses and an easy manner, despite his habit of talking a mile a minute. You'll often find him in an Orioles hat and baggy clothes that don't quite disguise a body that suggests he's not one to turn down a beer.

Commentators on MLB.com recently called him "thickish," before they asked him if he'd prefer a Dodger dog or a Philly cheese steak. He asked if he could have the dog on a cheese steak.

Despite his natural inclinations — and his ability to get essentially anything he wants delivered to the cave — Wagner swears he and O'Hara have vowed to eat salad every day for lunch.

Wagner grew up in north Baltimore, near Herring Run park, the son of a cop and a hospital administrator. When his parents split up and eventually divorced, he moved with his mother to Harford County and graduated from Edgewood High School in 2003. As a boy, he played not only baseball, lacrosse and soccer, but also gymnastics and bowling.

His grandfather encouraged his affection for baseball. Grand pop Ed, who taught Wagner how to keep score, was known for sitting down before an Orioles game and not moving until the seventh-inning stretch. He'd hop up, get a drink, and then settle in for the rest of the action.

It might have been degrees in theater from Frostburg State and sports broadcasting from the Broadcasting Institute of Maryland that gave Wagner the edge in his bid to enter the "fan cave."

When he noticed the job ad earlier this year, he was in Wyoming, touring with the cast of "The Wizard of Oz" as the understudy to the cowardly lion. He quickly filled out the required essay on why he loves baseball and taped a video of himself where he stares down the camera and says: "I know what you're thinking. Is a musical theater singer and actor someone we really want in this job? The answer is yes."

Baseball officials only intended to hire one cave dweller. Mike O'Hara was their first choice, and won the title of "caveman," but Wagner's application was strong enough to convince the selection committee to change course. They brought him on as the "wingman."

"Just like Batman had Robin and the Lone Ranger had Tonto, Mike has Ryan," Brosnan explains. "Really, the reason Ryan was picked is that he's smart and funny and quick and intelligent and baseball savvy. We think ultimately he is going to help us entertain our existing fans and bring in new ones."

A week or so into the job, Wagner can only gush about his good fortune. The piles of free athletic wear. The iPad and the cool video camera. Especially the opportunities to hang out with athletes and celebrities.

There was the bubble-blowing contest with Yankee outfielder Nick Swisher.

There was the sharing a snack with a Victoria's Secret model.

And — he still can't believe it — the shooting pool with Hall-of-Fame pitcher Goose Gossage.

"Someone came up to me and said, "I gotta take Ryan to go play pool with Goose Gossage.' I don't think I'll ever hear someone utter a cooler sentence in my life."

To be certain, Major League Baseball has put considerable effort into having the cave and its inhabitants appear as laidback and unstudied as possible. But like most experiments in the modern "reality" realm, all is not as spontaneous as it appears. Wagner seems to have freedom to do and say quite a bit — within limits. For instance, he's been told not to reveal his salary. When he — or any MLB officials — are asked the money question, they all say exactly the same thing, "He's making more than a bat boy but less than league minimum."

And during Wagner's interviews, he tends to drop more than a few brand names — of companies that happen to be cave sponsors. After he called in to The Jerry Coleman Show on Fox 1370, where he was an intern in 2009, Coleman joked, "He sounded like a NASCAR dropping all these sponsor names."

Ultimately, Wagner hopes that when those 2,430 games are history and he's released from the cave, he'll be in a position to move beyond "understudy lion" in the entertainment world. "Who knows what kind of doors it will open," he says.

His dad has his fingers crossed for a few doors in particular.

"He could wind up being a Jon Miller. He could be the next Chuck Thompson," the proud pop enthuses. "Maybe, five years from now, I'll get a call from Ryan and he'll say, 'Hey dad, I'm in the booth at the Oriole Game. Come on down.' Wouldn't that be a kick?"

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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