Meghan Essman stood before a group of 15 college-aged women, glancing at the batting cage behind her.
“Don’t kill the ball,” she said. “Don’t hit me. I’ve been hit twice already by the last group.”
This was the tail end of the Phillies ballgirl tryouts at Citizens Bank Park on Nov. 9, the last of the 100 girls in attendance who could potentially injure Essman. Since the ballgirls snag the foul balls slicing off the first and third base lines during home games, the director of fan development and her two colleagues had been searching for good athletic form all day.
I was watching for athletic form, too. I had only recently been invited to participate in the tryouts by Phillies event coordinator Michele DeVicaris. While I had practiced my hitting the night before with a rolled up newspaper and some napkin wads, I knew there was some steep competition in the room.
“You almost always have to play softball in college,” DeVicaris said. “That was never what we intended, but with 600 résumés coming in and 300 of them based on college experience, the bar just kept rising.”
The knowledge of softball keeps the ballgirls from interfering with plays. Since the ballpark’s walls are so close to its outfield boundaries, the girls sit very close to the path of foul balls – and the 200-pound men chasing after them.
“[The ballgirls] pretty much sit on the line,” DeVicaris said. “A lot of their decisions are split-second.”
Senior Rutgers University finance major and 2007 ballgirl Kristin Pisa agreed.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” she said. “You have to get your stool out of the way, and you can’t hear the umpire saying fair or foul. They all have different hand signals, and you don’t have time to figure them out.”
The ballgirls’ visibility outside the stadium has increased since 2006, when the Phillies channeled them in a competitive softball team that plays against other organizations to raise money for charities. Since, the number of ballgirl applicants has shot up from 400 to 600 per season.
The girls themselves have gained what Pisa called “mini-fake celebrity,” a small fan group composed mostly of children and the occasional 50-year-old male.
“They actually sign autographs, which I think is pretty funny,” DeVicaris said. “They have their own baseball cards.”
Whether the girls are visiting radio stations to promote park theme nights or participating in charitable fundraisers, this extended community outreach requires a flexible schedule. The job is perfect for college students who have the odd hour to spend.
Personality also matters, hence the more verbal part of the tryouts. While I enjoyed the support that came from the other girls when I caught a ground ball – I distinctly heard a “wow” of surprise – I was ready to move on to the personal interview held in the Phillies media room.
The Phillies directors of entertainment and marketing waited inside the pressroom along with Scott Palmer, a former 6ABC anchor and the director of public affairs. To judge how media savvy each candidate was, they placed her in front of a running camera with a microphone in hand and asked her to explain why she’d make a good ballgirl.
“Personally, I like to see if you’re looking somebody in the eye,” said marketing director Michael Harris. “You can give a silly answer to a question, but the way you answer it is a big factor.”
Harris added that the ballgirls have become ambassadors for the Phillies.
“This is a serious matter for us,” he said. “Any company that sends an employee out to represent them can understand the severity of that.”
Some of the 2007 ballgirls said that this public personality trumps softball experience when it comes to job qualifications.
“If you aren’t outgoing, it’s going to be one of the most difficult jobs you’ll ever have,” said University of Pennsylvania graduate and 2007 ballgirl Teresa Leyden.
DeVicaris said that the 16 ballgirls chosen for next year – 10 new girls, six returning – will have athleticism and personality. But she said that there is a public misperception that the ballgirls are only pretty faces in sports.
“We look for your all-around girl next door,” she said. “Being attractive obviously doesn’t hurt, but they’re all-American women with great stories to tell. If you see them on a calendar they’re not going to be wearing lingerie.”
Leyden said the clueless critique hasn’t deterred her.
“I’m obsessed with baseball,” she said. “For someone to say that stuff, I say, ‘you don’t get to be on the field during a major league baseball game, and I do.'”
Mel McKrell can be reached at email@example.com.