The king of country comes off the bench for charity, the Padres and KISS

by Craig Modderno

Garth Brooks has never had any problem getting hits. Until now.

The biggest-selling artist in country music history--95 million albums and counting--is discovering it's a lot tougher to stroke a single up the middle than it is to put a single atop the charts.

He recently traded his cowboy hat for a baseball cap, joining the San Diego Padres for spring training in Arizona. The 37-year-old switch-hitter from Oklahoma doesn't expect to make the big club, but he is taking the summer off, musically speaking, and hopes to spend the season playing minor-league ball.

What's behind Brooks' field-of-dreams quest? He's out to raise money and awareness for his Touch 'Em All Foundation. (The Padres will donate $200,000 to the cause, and stars like Roger Clemens and Tony Gwynn have agreed to give as well.)

There's also the chance to live out his ultimate baseball fantasy, even if it's only for a short time. Will he get to first base? That depends on whether he can swing a bat as well as he slings a guitar.

Are you really serious about playing ball?

Absolutely. Wouldn't you want to be playing baseball and living out your fantasy if you had the chance? In a weird way, because of the changes in the Padres team I played with last year [in a spring training game against the Chicago Cubs], I may feel like a veteran now. I definitely felt like a veteran recently when I worked out with [Pittsburgh Pirates catcher] Jason Kendall and he told me how much he's liked listening to my records since he was a kid!

Give us your impression of this Brooks prospect.

I call myself the 10th Man and hope to play left, center, third or first. I've got different gloves for each position and my 33-ouonce bat. I'm not giving up music, but I am doing this seriously. I just hope nobody else takes me seriously, so maybe I can surprise them. The good news is nobody has a scouting report on me yet.

Why are you doing it at this point in your life?

If people doubt why I'm doing this--and I don't blame them if they do--I'll let you in on a secret. I got an offer in 1992 to buy a major-league team. I won't tell you the name of the team, but I turned down the offer because I don't want my love of the game in any way to involve business. That's one of the reasons we're getting corporations involved with Touch 'Em All, so all the money we raise goes directly to the kids.

You were a benchwarmer on your high school team. Who was your favorite player?

My favorite baseball player was Roberto Clemente of the Pirates. I rooted for Pittsburgh because of Clemente. When he died in a plane crash trying to bring food to poor families in his native land, I respected him even more as a person. I also grew up admiring Gil Hodges, Boog Powell and Al Kaline.

Have you ever written a baseball song?

No, and I don't know why. Besides the standards, like "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," I can't think of a recent baseball song except John Fogerty's "Centerfield." It's gotta be very difficult to write a baseball song that pleases fans and non-fans alike.

Any desire to act in a baseball film?

Sure, that's another fantasy of mine. I was going to audition for this baseball movie Kevin Costner's making called For the Love of the Game, but the scheduling couldn't be worked out.

Do you have any favorite movies?

On the bus, the band and I are always watching baseball films, especially our favorites, Major League and The Natural. It would have been fun to have played Tim Robbins' role in Bull Durham. I'd like to think a baseball picture is somewhere in my future.

Didn't you audition for Tin Cup?

Yes I did. I liked Bull Durham so much that I contacted Ron Shelton [the writer-director] and asked if I could read for the role of Kevin Costner's caddy in Tin Cup. It was a fun learning experience, even though Cheech Marin got the part.

What kind of role would you like to have on the big screen?

Nothing where I play a musician. I wouldn't mind producing a movie with a music storyline, which is something I'm developing now with Babyface. But acting in one is too close to home. I'd love to play a villain in a movie, the kind of bad guy you would never think of me being able to play. Like most people, I have a darker side I'd like to explore onscreen.

I recently talked to Gene Simmons from KISS and told him I'd be interviewing you. He wanted to know if you had any advice for aging rock stars who still cover themselves with makeup onstage.

Don't change a thing. That's one of the best gimmicks a band could ever come up with. I love their music. I've got a long list of musicians I admire, but yeah, I've had the fantasy many times of getting in the makeup and going onstage with KISS.

You play music for a living and baseball for love. What do you do for fun?

I'm a big movie fan. I use both of these activities to relax. After a show, if I'm on the bus or a plane, it's often hard to get to sleep, so I'll watch a film. An action film can even relax me.

And what about following sports?

I'm like any sports fan, particularly one who travels a lot. I like to follow my favorite team and talk sports with my band or fans.You won't believe how many musicians are sports fans. We have so much time on tour while in transit that we need these outlets for relaxation.

Vince Gill told me he'd trade incomes with you if he could strike you out. Care to step up to the plate?

I'd do it for charity. Maybe not put my entire income on the line, but Vince makes some big bucks, too. Actually I've been taking batting practice in my barn where nobody can see me, so I may be better than anyone thinks.

What's the status of your duet album with Trisha Yearwood?

A lot of the album has already been recorded, but it's her record, not mine, so I leave it up to her when she wants to release it. I expect it might come out at the end of the year.

Have you taken a break from songwriting?

While I'm playing baseball, I'm still writing songs and having tapes sent to me. I'm sure I'll spend a lot of time in the whirlpool resting these tired bones, so I'll be thinking of music then. Plus, I suspect some of the players might want to discuss music sometimes, so my guitar won't be far away.

What if you make the team?

As a kid, before I could play music, I remember baseball being the one thing that could always make me happy. Any pitcher who might throw at me should know I'm not giving up my day job or trying to get anyone else's job. I just can't think of anything cooler than being one of the boys of summer!