By Dave Lomonico
The middle-aged couple was downright giddy after spotting the 71-year-old member of the Orioles Hall of Fame squarely in his element. John Wesley Powell, known simply as “Boog,” a shortened version of the nickname “Booger,” which his father bestowed on him as a youngster, was jiving it up with the cooks and chatting with the meat cutters in the back of his popular Eutaw Street outpost, Boog’s BBQ. But when these two fans came running up, Powell smiled broadly, gave the man a hearty pat on the back and told the woman he’d gladly pose for a picture.
“Boog, it’s my 50th birthday,” the man said, “and I just had to come over and say hi.”
Before you knew it, Powell was engaging these random well-wishers in a brief conversation, as he’s been wont to do the last 22 years.
“Man, 50? That’s a big one,” Powell said. “You know, once you hit 50, you don’t have too many of these left!”
All three let out a big belly laugh before the couple let Powell return to his work, which, really, hasn’t seemed like work at all.
Ever since Powell entered the major leagues in 1961, Orioles fans have known him as an affable giant, whose Popeye-esque muscles and robust 6-foot-4 frame stood in stark contrast with his easy smile and kind-hearted demeanor. For 14 years, Powell readily accommodated the Baltimore aficionados, signing autographs by day, swatting homers by night. So beloved was Powell that even after he went to Cleveland in 1975, toward the end of his career, he didn’t leave Orioles fans’ hearts.
No, he didn’t have Hall of Fame numbers like Brooks Robinson’s, Frank Robinson’s or Jim Palmer’s, but Powell was an icon, as much for his 339 home runs and steady play at first base as for his unbridled joy on the diamond.
“I remember watching Boog play — a great player and a very, very nice man,” said Spencer Errickson, 76, a Baltimore City resident who attended a recent Orioles game with his wife, Louis. “He always seemed like he enjoyed himself. And now we’re here today eating his barbecue. Whenever we come, we have to get his sandwiches, and one of the reasons is he’s just a very nice guy.”
Yes, beef is Powell’s calling card now, and he’s become so entrenched at Boog’s that members of the younger generation have been known to call him “that barbecue man.”
About 18 years after Powell left the Orioles as a player, he returned as a restaurateur by opening Boog’s in conjunction with the christening of Camden Yards. Save for a few select occasions and a stint with colon cancer in 1997 — he spent part of his recovery period concocting new hot-sauce recipes — Powell’s been there ever since. He’s a living, breathing, tangible legend who’ll strike up a conversation with random passersby and listen intently to stories he’s heard 200 times before.
Although he often loses track, Powell estimated that he signs anywhere from 300 to 500 autographs during the 45 minutes or so leading up to game time. With the barbecue stand humming in the background, he perches himself on a high stool with a Miller Lite umbrella and welcomes folks in like a grandfather at Christmas.
“It took me a while to get used to being with the fans every day,” Powell said, “but I’ve come to the realization that my mission is more or less to make them feel good about being there. I especially enjoy the young people, and I’ve got young people coming now that have pictures they took with me 20 years ago. Thing is, they’re not little kids anymore — they’re adults. They say, ‘God I remember going to see you when I was 5 years old, and you were so much fun and it was cool that you did that for me.’ So I think I give people a good impression, sort of lift them up.”
For Powell, fun is the name of the game. He said many professional athletes probably considered it a pain in the ass to engage the public day in and day out, but Powell embraces his celebrity. In fact, he was one of the first ex-players to make connecting with the fans a daily routine.
“It’s obvious he loves doing this,” Orioles director of communications Greg Bader said. “Just seeing him interact with fans — kids to people his age — he’s always so genuine. He takes the time, he knows the impact he has and he takes that very seriously. … He’s always engaged, and it’s something folks should admire, and it’s a great lesson to those playing today to keep that connection with your fans.”
To say Powell is basking in his own self-glory would be as off target as a Don Stanhouse curveball. More likely, he’s in awe that folks still love and remember him almost 40 years after he hung up his orange spikes.
There is one Boog’s BBQ frequenter, Powell said, that has a series of feather-strewn Orioles helmets he parades around whenever he’s at Camden Yards. Each one of these extravagant hardhats has a single signature on it: Boog Powell’s.
“This guy has a season-ticket plan,” Powell said, “and every time he comes, he has me write something on there — not just my autograph, but what the weather was like, the day of the week and some kind of description like, ‘Orioles kicking ass today.’ It’s great.”
Although Powell won’t turn down an autograph seeker, he said he mostly enjoyed the baseball banter. Like an old buddy at the bar, he’ll spin yarns about games from yesteryear, offer up an opinion about that day’s starting pitcher and give his prediction for the game’s outcome (invariably an Orioles victory).
It doesn’t even matter whether he’s addressing an Orioles fan, for Powell doesn’t discriminate against out-of-towners. Mike Strauch and his son, Ryan, Red Sox fans from Vermont, happened to be in Baltimore for a random Orioles-Blue Jays game in April.
“So I walked right up to [Powell] and I told him, ‘I remember you hitting too many home runs against the Red Sox growing up,’ ” Mike Strauch, 53, said. “He just laughed and said he was sorry about that, and that was pretty neat. He’s very personable and very knowledgeable. He obviously has tons and tons of stories, and I bet he’d be a neat person to sit down with for a few hours.”
But not all opposing fans are as down-to-earth as the Strauchs. Powell said he got plenty of hecklers too, especially when New York or Boston came to town.
One time, a Mets fan leaned in while Powell was signing and belted out, “Hey Powell, how ’bout them  Mets?” Powell briefly glanced at the blue-capped man and politely replied, “Yeah, that was a great year for the Mets, wasn’t it?”
“They think I’m going to be all flustered, but I don’t play into their hands,” Powell said. “I have fun with it, and I heckle back, too — hell yeah I do. I say, ‘Where were [the Mets] the next year [in 1970]?’ Or, ‘Where were the Mets when they lost 120 games?’ There was that book about them, ‘Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?’ “
Think Powell’s just putting on a ballpark act? Not so, according to those who know him away from the barbecue stand.
Powell currently lives across the Bay Bridge in Grasonville, and once in a while, he’ll stop into a nearby café, aptly called Big Bats. The café’s owner, Steve Garland, said Powell was the type of guy who would do anything for you.
“If you had 48 hours to get something done, he’d give you 38 of his time and use the other 10 to sleep,” Garland said. “That’s just the type of man he is. He is a very, very friendly man.”
But considering how much Powell has given to Baltimore, sometimes it seems as if he gets lost among the other Orioles greats. There is no statue of Powell in Orioles Legends Park, which houses statues of the ballclub’s six Hall of Famers; he doesn’t have a television presence, à la former Baltimore catcher Rick Dempsey; and he isn’t one to give speeches during special anniversary days.
But that speaks more to Powell’s preference to engage fans on a more personal level than it does to any intended slight.
“[Powell] has one of those open invitations to be involved in anything we ever do,” said Bader, who noted that Powell would be more than welcome to participate in this year’s Orioles Hall of Fame ceremonies and next year’s Orioles 60th anniversary celebration. “But he’s always involved, either at the barbecue stand or at community events we do to raise money for various charitable causes. He makes those events an important part of his schedule, because he cares about the fans and the community. We really appreciate how involved he is.”
Don’t think the Orioles haven’t noticed Boog’s BBQ’s business benefits, either. Doug Duennes, the Orioles’ director of business operations, didn’t disclose any financial figures, but he said Boog’s and Powell himself played an important role in the Orioles’ operations.
“It’s something we’re very mindful of,” Duennes said. “[Powell] is one of the Orioles’ all-time greats, and Boog’s BBQ is one of those iconic pieces of the experience at Oriole Park. Having worked for other clubs, I think that when people think of Oriole Park, that’s one of the lasting images they take away from Camden Yards, because [Powell and Boog’s BBQ] are front and center right there on Eutaw Street. [Powell] is a main part of the experience here, and he’s a great ambassador for the Orioles.”
Oh, and make no mistake, it’s not just Powell folks are coming for. He and the chefs are dishing out delicious, heaping mounds of turkey, beef and pork.
“I love the turkey — the turkey is exceptional,” said Tim Stib, the manager of Delaware North, which has owned Boog’s Barbecue since 2011. “And the pork, that’s very, very good too. [Powell] has some products that are very unique to him, and he’s been a very important part of the Eutaw Street corridor, just being a face of the Orioles and Delaware North.”
Powell said Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City used to serve the best barbecue, but these days, he would put the grub at Boog’s up against anything Bryant’s had to offer.
“[Bryant’s] beef isn’t even close to mine,” Powell said, “and he doesn’t do pork like I do. The pork here is elegant.”
Powell’s been cooking almost as long as he’s been playing baseball. When he was 10 years old and living in Lakeland, Fla., Powell’s mother died, leaving behind him and his two younger brothers. So without a true chef in the house, Powell took it on himself to make sure food was on the table.
A couple of years later, he honed his grilling technique when he and his brother went camping. Lacking a real grill, the two would dig a hole in the ground, burn wood until it became a bed of coals and then use an old refrigerator grate to lay overtop.
“We made some awful good stuff and didn’t even know it,” Powell said. “And then [my cooking] just sort of evolved from there.”
But before opening Boog’s in 1992, Powell pursued another one of his passions, fishing. After retiring from baseball, he forayed into the marina business, which he dubbed a 365-days-per-year gig. At the same time, Powell was also doing commercials for Miller Lite, which afforded him the opportunity to travel the country. Naturally, whenever Powell entered a new city, he just had to taste the locals’ best barbecue.
After sampling enough brisket and hickory-smoked sauce, Powell hatched the idea for his own barbecue place. He teamed up with the food distributor Aramark, and when Camden Yards opened, the group made it happen.
Getting Boog’s BBQ started, Powell said, was rather simple. But selecting the menu was not.
“We agonized quite a bit over what to really serve,” Powell said. “I had some good ideas what I thought barbecue was like, since I’m a good chef in my own right. … But I got together with the chef [Russ Szekely], we put our heads together and now we’ve had the same menu for 21 years.
“And [the food is] good, and it’s good for a reason — probably the same reasons I was halfway decent as a ballplayer. We really work our ass off to make it right … and we have fun doing it.”
His workers can attest to that. Several of them have been at Boog’s for more than a decade, and all of them sing Powell’s praises.
Ann O’Brien has been running Boog’s for the last 19 years, and she’s as much of a Powell fan as the guy with the seven autographed helmets — so much so that she named her son, dog and cat after him.
“He’s just a great man,” O’Brien said. “He cares about the people that work here, he cares about the fans and he makes it special. Every day he brings it. Whether it’s 10,000 fans or 40,000, he’ll sign the autographs and thank them for coming. I can’t say anything but great things about the man.”
Norman Smith has worked at the barbecue stand the last 15 years. He said Powell treated everyone the same way and made Boog’s an enjoyable place to work.
“He’s always backing you up, and he’s always smiling,” Smith said. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve never once heard him holler or raise his voice. He’s a hell of a guy, and I think he really enjoys himself here.”
One 17-year Boog’s veteran, Joyce Agresott, said Powell had even invited workers to visit him during the offseason, which he spends in Key West, Fla. Though, when Powell overheard Agresott telling this reporter about that offer, he turned from the autograph line and said, “Hey, don’t tell him too much, now.”
“Oh come on Boog, I was just telling him how much we all love you,” Agresott said. “That’s all that matters, baby. We love you, Boog.”
For half the year, Powell spreads that love around, devoting his life to baseball fans and barbecue. But from October through March, he said, he actually prefers family and fish. During the winter months, Powell and his son, J.W., a commercial captain who lives in Berlin, Md., spend their days deep-sea fishing off the coast of Key West.
“Last year, we pulled in two snowy grouper 20 miles off the coast, one 40 pounds and the other 47,” Powell said. “Unbelievable how good it was.”
When Powell’s not out on a boat, he’s setting crab trotlines along the shoreline, a personal passion he’s had for decades. A true crab addict, he even attended a picking contest at Phillip’s in Ocean City.
“Watching the professionals pick crabs, that’s when I realized I’m just an amateur,” Powell said. “But I’ll tell you this, I can damn sure get all the meat out of those things — and I’ll have more beer than they do, too.”
Crabs, beer, fishing and sunshine — can’t go wrong with that … which begs the question: Why even return to Baltimore? Powell is 71, after all. His contract with Delaware North is up after this year, and Key West would seem like a comfortable place to retire to. Why bother with the hustle and bustle of Boog’s BBQ during the summer?
“God, I don’t know,” Powell said. “I love being out here. I don’t think of being at the ballpark as a job. I mean, I haven’t had a real job in a long, long time. I come to the ballpark 81 days a year, and that’s a hell of a way to live.
“I’ll take it.”
And so will the fans.
Issue 185: May 2013