Catonsville resident Joe Lease celebrated his 10th wedding anniversary with his wife, Tina, on Friday, Aug. 21 and if the Baltimore Orioles were playing a normal Major League Baseball season, with fans in the stands, he most likely would be at Oriole Park at Camden Yards working as an usher or on security duty for the game against the Boston Red Sox.
But, because the coronavirus pandemic limited the season to 60 games with no fans, his quest to work 500 straight games at the stadium is on hold.
Lease, 69, who retired after 39 years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on May 31, 2010, was hired by the Orioles on Feb. 4, 2014 and had worked 490 straight games through the 2019 season.
His job with the Army Corps of Engineers included one-year stints in Afghanistan and Iraq and three months at Ground Zero.
Ironically, it was his wife who suggested he get a job in 2014. His immediate reaction suggested he was happily enjoying retirement.
“I told her I worked 48 years, I don’t need a job,” said Lease, noting he started bagging groceries at a super market at age 12.
Lease saw the Orioles were looking for ushers so he went on the initial interview.
“This lady says, ‘Why do you want to work here?’ And I said, ‘My wife said I need a job,’” he recalled.
She asked if he could come back the next day and he said he would, but on his way home that day he got a call back and he returned and was hired.
“She said we just wanted to see your response when we said, ‘Can you come back now?‘,” he said.
He came back and never left, working the core schedule of 81 regular-season games and four home playoff games in six seasons.
For the first three seasons, Lease worked as an usher in center field near the statues of former Oriole greats.
In 2014, he worked the American League Division Series when the Orioles swept the Detroit Tigers in three games.
In game two, Lease was in center field, stationed near the Fox broadcast crew that included Pedro Martinez and Gary Sheffield, when Baltimore’s Delmon Young belted a three-run double down the left-field line that turned a 6-4 deficit into a 7-6 lead in the eighth inning of the pivotal game won by the same score.
“That building rocked,” he said. “For those two games, it rocked. It’s never been that loud.”
Highlights like that are a bonus that makes 2 1/2- and 3-hour rain delays easier to endure, but Lease enjoys the everyday atmosphere at the ballpark.
“It’s not a job, it’s something you always want to do,” said the City College high school graduate, who admitted he told the Orioles “they don’t have to pay me.”
Lease received $8 an hour in 2014 and $11 an hour in 2015.
He also received a $300 bonus each year for working every game during his the first two 81-game seasons.
His love for baseball included umpiring for over 20 years and he also has coached.
In 1969 and 1970, he took his dad to World Series games and never thought one day he would be working at all the home games.
“It was no commitment, I just love the game,” he said. “They are paying you to watch a ballgame. That was my dream.”
As an usher, he didn’t hesitate taking pictures for fans and meeting interesting people.
He befriended a fan affectionately dressed up like New Yankees great and Baltimore native Babe Ruth.
“He’s just like everybody else, he’s always dressed like that an people say you look like the Babe,” Lease said.
Another memorable moment came when he met 1980 Woodlawn High graduate Robert Curbeam, who is a former NASA astronaut and captain in the Navy.
For the past three seasons, Lease has worked security and crowd control at the Center Field Roof Deck Bar.
For 7 p.m. games last season, he arrived around 4:30 and sometimes stayed until 1 p.m.
“When I worked at the bar I had to be the last one to leave,” said Lease, who estimated he walked about five miles a night working crowd control.
But Lease, who is currently working as a dealer exchange driver, is willing to do that again if fans return in 2021.
“If they come back next year, I’ll be there,” he said. “Until I die, I’ll keep going.”