COSTNER'S DAY IN THE BIG LEAGUES For awhile, his field of dreams is Memorial Stadium


As an aging minor league catcher in the movie "Bull Durham," he spoke longingly of "The Show" -- the big leagues, that mythic place where the balls are white, the women have great legs and you don't have to carry your own luggage on road trips.

It took a couple of years, but Kevin Costner indeed made it to The Show -- at least for the hour or so that he batted and fielded with the Baltimore Orioles during their regular pre-game practice at Memorial Stadium yesterday.

"This is a big day for me," enthused the boyish actor. "I'm just like everyone you see in these stands who would like to do this. I fall right into that crowd."

Not everyone, of course, can just call up the Orioles and ask to practice with them -- it helps if you've starred in two beloved baseball movies ("Field of Dreams" being the other), have a mutual friend with several players (agent Bobby Zarem), and know some people in high places (like that guy on the most recent cover of Sports Illustrated).

"I met Cal Ripken at my premiere [for 'Dances With Wolves'] in Washington last year," Mr. Costner said, "and started what I think is a burgeoning friendship."

Mr. Costner, currently in Washington to film the upcoming Oliver Stone movie "JFK," didn't stay for the Orioles-Oakland A's game itself but he had a good excuse: He was meeting President Bush for a round of golf.

Like any garden-variety fan, he seemed a little nervous around the players at first. "I was worried I wouldn't get everything on right," he said of the complicated layers of clothing the players wear. But like any real player, he hated having the press in the locker room while he was changing. "I can't take my clothes off with the press in here!" he protested.

But otherwise, the man who danced with wolves seemed to enjoy batting with Orioles. Like many movie stars, the 36-year-old actor seemed smaller in real life than on the screen -- although next to pro athletes, even tall people tend to seem short.

With a bat from right fielder Dwight Evans, a pair of spikes from bullpen catcher Sammy Snider and an Orioles' practice jersey bearing number 25, Mr. Costner fell right in with the team. He played catch on the sidelines, went through stretching exercises in the outfield, took two turns at batting practice and shagged some ground balls at shortstop with Mr. Ripken. He chatted up the players in the field and their wives on the sidelines, asking Kelly Ripken to see photos of her daughter and posing for pictures with just about anyone.

The consensus on Mr. Costner, baseball-wise, is that he's not too bad -- and better than Tom Selleck, the actor who took some swings with the Orioles last year. Mr. Costner said that although he's played some "street" ball in his time, this was his first time playing with pros.

"I tried to when we stopped in Texas, but we got rained out pretty much. This is a glorious day," Mr. Costner said.

A switch-hitter (although Mr. Ripken advised him he was better as a righty), he hit one home run and a lot of line drives. And he didn't embarrass himself at shortstop, despite some wide throws that flew past the first baseman.

"I can't hit that pitch, either," Mr. Ripken assured him after he missed a batting practice pitch from coach Cal Ripken Sr.

"He's done a lot of baseball movies, so I'm sure he knows what he's doing," said pitcher Jeff Ballard.

"He can hit," allowed pitcher Mike Flanagan. "And I told him I liked his movie, 'Silence of the Wolves.' "

The consensus on him, non-baseball-wise, was more enthusiastic.

"He's gorgeous!" said Dee Ashenfelter, a fan from Baltimore County who got an autograph from Mr. Costner as he left the stadium.

"He's wonderful!" said Jill Olson, wife of Orioles relief pitcher Gregg Olson. "He was so nice, he stopped to talk to us and it wasn't like it was a problem for him."

She said the players seemed to hold their celebrity-worship in check a little better than their wives. "But," she noted pointedly, "I'm sure if Kim Basinger came by . . ."

Mr. Costner got to the stadium around 10:30 a.m. wearing faded jeans, a white shirt, a black blazer and cowboy boots. He was met at the entrance by a crowd of about 40 people. Inside the Orioles' offices, many of the employees broke attendance records, showing up a couple hours earlier than their shift began.

"He walked into our office, where we have a lot of women, and said, 'Where are all the men?' " said Evelyn Ehlers, who works in the public relations office. Mr. Costner posed for a photo with the employees.

Most fans didn't get to see much of him, however, since the gates didn't open until noon, and by then his workout was nearing the end.

Mr. Costner was friendly to those who sought autographs and pictures as he left the field, signing balls and programs.

He caught some by surprise.

Wendy Noble, a season-ticket holder from Washington, was waiting for a friend outside the stadium when she heard a familiar voice -- that of Robin Hood.

"I didn't recognize him at first because he was wearing sunglasses, but I did recognize that voice," said Ms. Noble, who got a photo of the actor even though her hands were shaking. "It was like, really weird."

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