Taking a swing at the big leagues


Just months after picking up a baseball bat for the first time, Nick Stafford made it to the big leagues. Using a smooth, level swing, he stroked two pitches out of the infield at Camden Yards yesterday.

Nick, 11, plays outfield for the Marley Orioles - one of five youth baseball teams that took part in a hitting competition hosted by the Baltimore Orioles. The youngster was the rookie of the year for the 19-2 team.

The teams that participated in yesterday's competition at the city's downtown ballpark are from regions where the Orioles and Washington Nationals are duking it out for fans - Anne Arundel County and Virginia.

The winners - snagging a corporate suite for an August game at Camden Yards - were the Central Loudoun Blue Jays from the Nationals stronghold of Leesburg, Va. "I like Livan Hernandez," said Austin Nelson, 11, referring to the Nationals' best starting pitcher. He said he has been following the team since spring training.

Still, none of the young ballplayers hesitated to take the Orioles up on their offer to spend a hot summer morning in the dugout and on the home field of the team that used to be the only show in town.

In addition to a working scoreboard and a live performance of the national anthem, the kids were treated to opening remarks from Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer and Jim Beattie, executive vice president for baseball operations. Most, however, seemed more excited to see the Oriole Bird.

"School's out, the sun's out, and they're batting where Sammy Sosa bats," said Iris Anthony, 50, whose son Zane competed in the contest for the Broadneck Blue Jays. "It's a moment of perfection."

Although many of the youngsters tried not to show their excitement over playing on a professional field, their moms knew the real story. Anthony said Zane asked her not to wash his baseball pants, hoping to squeeze out some more of the good luck they had provided him throughout the season.

The teams sent each player to the plate for five swings at pitches thrown by the coaches. Three zones within the infield were marked off, and players received two, three or five points, depending on where the ball landed.

"Stay away from the high ones!" screamed Marley Orioles assistant coach Louie Jerez, who couldn't believe he was standing on a major-league field. He remembers playing stickball with sanitation workers on their lunch break when he was growing up in New York City.

Vince Gadow, the team's head coach, said the Marley Orioles played exceptionally well during the season. "We thought we were gonna get our butts kicked all around the field," he said, adding that newcomer Nick Stafford was one of the biggest surprises.

"He had never played ball," Gadow said. "Now he's dumping balls over 200 feet and over the fence."

In addition to the hitting competition, former Orioles pitcher Dave Johnson conducted a pitching clinic on the concourse behind first base.

Twelve-year-old Cameron Rowe of Arnold watched wide-eyed as Johnson, who moved slowly to demonstrate proper mechanics, threw perfect strikes at a target. Johnson said most young players throw too hard, and that a smooth motion and accuracy can be more effective. "He's so used to it, it's perfect," said Cameron, who later threw his second of three pitches straight down the middle.

This was the first year the Orioles have held the event, which was sponsored by Bank of America. Oriole officials said there was no intention to involve only teams from areas contested by the clubs from Baltimore and Washington. They said the five teams that came yesterday were the only ones to respond to solicitations made to more than 60 registered youth leagues in a 50-mile radius of Baltimore.

"I can honestly tell you there was no thought to where these kids were from," said Monica Pence, the Orioles' communications manager. "Little League events have historically drawn people from all over the region, and that's still the case."

Those who came yesterday marveled at the experience of having a major-league ballpark almost all to themselves. The adults appeared to have as much fun as the kids, snapping photos and sunbathing in the stands. Laura Gamble, president of Bank of America, Maryland, and a former high school softball player, even slipped off her shoes and coat to take batting practice with Palmer, who later had moms flocking to him in the stands.

"There's Jim Palmer up there! I have to get my picture with him!" said Jill Gotimer, racing up the concourse to catch up the Oriole legend as her son, Owen, explored the stadium.

While the Nationals are in first place and will soon have a new stadium of their own, Nelson said he'll always be an Orioles fan. And there's always the possibility of a postseason matchup.

"I think they're both going to the World Series," he said.

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