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Baseball uses fans to polish image

Organizers hope new ads starring the most devout will deflect attention from steroid scandals and bring it back to the game.
/ Source: TODAY

They're the stars no one's noticed until now. Hold up a mirror, folks — Major League Baseball, for the first time, is putting the spotlight on the scandal-free fans of the game. Open auditions for a series of MLB television commercials were held in six cities — baseball's version of "American Idol."

Yes, there were some who would make "American Idol" judge Simon Cowell cringe. But out of the thousands who auditioned, 13 proved they had the right stuff. The winners were flown to a commercial shoot in Miami and treated like stars, with one mandate — keep their mission secret from family, friends and bosses.

“I grew up in the Bronx, born and raised in the Bronx, and the Yankees are the Bronx,” said New Yorker Sean Mannion, who teaches fourth grade.

And does Mannion feel like he’s won something to be here?

“Absolutely.  All they have to do is give me a mitt and tell me to play first base. That's the only way it could get better,” he said laughing.

Two lucky students also made the trip.

"My favorite subject is science," said one.

"My favorite subject is the Yankees,” said the other.          

Cheryl Di Rocco and Karen Fogerty are sisters, and they represent the Red Sox nation.

“We went to the audition on a lark. Kind of, let’s go down, check it out, see what it's all about,” said Fogerty.

“We were so nervous,” said Di Rocco, interrupting.

“What’s there to be nervous about, we're just talking about our Red Sox stories,” said Fogerty.

“It’s like breathing, we are not acting. We are being Red Sox fans, and if we can't do that, then why do we go to all of the games?” Di Roco said.

Josh Galla and Idrees Tilly are college students and best friends. They're a familiar sight at Astros games, well-known as the killer bees.

“The fans loved it, and they would say, ‘Dude, that's awesome,’ ” said Tilly.

“A lot of people dressed up like actual bees and had bee outfits,” said Galla. “We saw a whole family and we were just like, whoa.”

And what would baseball be without fathers and sons, like George Abraham and sons Jason, Mike and Jeff.

“The father-and son-bonding, that was the cool thing,” said Abraham. “That we all came here together is tremendous. We enjoyed it tremendously.”

“With every Cardinal baseball game, every game is like a holiday,” said Laura Janaske, a contest winner, who is still not sure this is for real.

“I'm waiting for Ashton Kutcher to come out and say I'm punked, or they're pullin' my leg or something like that,” she said.

Directing the ads is Oscar winner Peter Gilbert, best known for his movie "Hoop Dreams."

“They're the people who pay the ticket prices, and so it's really great to be able to give these people their due and their time,” said Gilbert.

Since these fans are not actors, the commercials were unscripted, more like the documentaries Gilbert is known for.

“Real people give you answers that you couldn't write, you couldn't expect, and they give you an emotion that you can only get out of someone who's an honest, genuine, Major League Baseball fan,” Gilbert said.

He spent hours taking to each of the fans about baseball, and wound up with six 30-second spots.

I was not asked to do one of these commercials, but if I had been, I would have talked about the Red Sox, Fenway Park, and going to the game as a young kid with my older brother Kevin.  We'd sit there and see Carl Yazstremski on first base, Louis Tiant on the mound, and we'd be eating popcorn and hotdogs, eating a little too much and going home sick.

Baseball stories with a focus where it's not been before: On the fans who today have a new tag line — “I live for this.”