Inside the locker room of the Richmond Braves, under the stands between home plate and first base, players are preparing for battle against the Toledo Mud Hens. The crowd overhead, growing to an official 12,180, is the first sellout since July 4.
The reason why rushes in at 5:41 p.m.
It's Elliott Yamin, 27, Richmond's shot at an "American Idol" crown, led by Braves General Manager Bruce Baldwin and trailed by a clingy cluster of male reporters, photographers and assorted staff. (No women allowed in here.)
One baseball player, a little sheepishly, asks Yamin for an autograph.
"Oh, you guys you're terrible," Baldwin growls.
"It's for my sister," the player jokes.
"Yeah, right," Baldwin says.
Another player predicts, to laughs: "You'll see it on eBay tonight."
Then it's time for Yamin to go. He's scheduled for batting practice at 5:45. That's now. Baldwin ushers him through the narrow locker room, up the dark steps into the Braves dugout and onto the field. Yamin gets a bat.
Crowd. Goes. Wild.
Yamin wonders if there's a shorter bat to match his short frame. Nope. "You got about as small as it gets, pal," Baldwin says. "Just choke up."
He swings. Misses. Misses again. Then a hit to left field!
Crowd. Goes. Wild.
"This is nice!" Yamin exclaims.
It's not yet 3 p.m. in Los Angeles, where Yamin has spent the past three months singing on the country's biggest television show, working his way up from one of 24 semifinalists. He was 90 percent deaf in his right ear, and had never sung professionally, much less for some 30 million people who watch "Idol," although he won $1,000 from a karaoke contest in Richmond last year where his mother, Claudette, first heard him perform. (Q94's Melissa Chase was a judge.) Then Yamin made it on "Idol."
The producers have never aired his original audition from Boston, his fans complain, unlike those of the other contestants. And until recently, his presence on the show has been subtle compared with others, such as the spastic, gray-haired Taylor Hicks or the opera-trained siren Katharine McPhee, the one of cleavage. One TV anchor called Yamin "the other guy," much to the ire of his fans. Simon Cowell declared that Yamin had the potential to be the best male vocalist in the show's five-year run, but he worried Yamin's personality wouldn't shine through.
In other words, Yamin is the underdog. Or at least, he was.
On Wednesday, May 10, live on Fox, Yamin learns that viewers have voted him into the top three, with Hicks and McPhee (a sore subject for fans of ousted rocker Chris Daughtry, whose parents live in Kents Store).
Within 30 seconds of the announcement, Allen Rothert, special events coordinator for the mayor's office, says he got a phone call about the homecoming special set for Friday, May 12. Yamin "was still celebrating onstage," Rothert says.
Some 24 hours later, Yamin is alongside his mom on a private jet that serves sushi. It drops fellow Southerner Hicks off in Alabama to film his own homecoming. (McPhee's is in L.A.) Yamin lands in Richmond around 12:30 a.m. and checks into The Jefferson Hotel.
Longing for her own bed, Yamin's mother heads for home, where she finds a layer of dust and dishes waiting. "But I just said, 'Hell with it. I'm not looking at it,'" she says.
She gets an hour of sleep. Friday's first event is set for 6:30 a.m.
The Overseer of all this is Megan Michaels, a producer from L.A. with American Idol Productions who's nearly always clutching a stack of envelopes, lists and a mobile phone. The Northern Virginia native says that compared with the homecoming she produced for "Idol" runner-up Bo Bice last year, Yamin's has his beat. At her beck and call: an associate producer, camera man, sound guy, bodyguard and a Richmond-based production assistant.
All of them, along with Yamin, his girlfriend and his mom, pile into and out of a white, 180-inch stretch Ford Excursion throughout the day. (Ford emblem on display? Check. A "prerequisite" by "American Idol," says driver E.R. Throckmorton, president of Celebrities International Limousines.)
At the studios of NBC 12 which house the news set of Fox Richmond Yamin emerges from his limo. Fox co-anchor Curt Autry is scheduled for an exclusive interview with Yamin, live on Channel 12's morning news.
It's 6:35, time for Yamin to move inside. But Natalie Arena, a TV reporter from WAVY in Norfolk, is holding things up, asking Yamin questions of her own. Inside, producers are scrambling. The clock is ticking. Autry pokes his head into the lobby, visibly frustrated: "What are they doing?"
Nancy Kent, news director of NBC 12, waves her right hand in a circle, the wrap-up sign. In comes Yamin, quickly greeting his great aunt and uncle, Carman and Louise Hoffman; Bill Lane, general manager of the Fox affiliate, and his wife, Krissy, and daughters, Payton, 10, and Lindsay, 7 all Yamin fans, naturally. Yamin moves past NBC 12 chief meteorologist Jim Duncan, who's brought his wife and daughter too; past the three-person freelance team for People Magazine; and assorted others.
Yamin takes a seat beside Autry at the Fox news desk.
From the NBC 12 set down the hall, co-anchor Aaron Gilchrist throws it to Autry. "How are you handling all this attention?" Autry begins.
Nine minutes later the morning TV equivalent of an eternity Yamin dashes over to the NBC set.
"Now I read somewhere you were engaged," Gilchrist asks off-air.
"No, that's not true," Yamin says. With fame come rumors.
They pose for a live shot at the end of the newscast, and Yamin signs autographs. "I'm such a star-struck person," co-anchor Andrea McDaniel says.
After a brief production meeting and rest, where hangers-on are ushered out of the room, Yamin is off to Clear Channel studios, where DJs at Q94 and Lite 98 interview him. Then he gets ready to emerge from the building, where about 150 fans are waiting, thrilled. He pokes his head around the corner.
"I'm gonna cry again," says his girlfriend, Amanda Parker, clearly taken by the public response to Yamin.
The star claps his hands together, smiles big and heads down the red carpet.
Power 92 is next, followed by the concert at the James Center, where more than 4,000 people show up. He gets a key to the city, and sings "Home," backed by the Susan Greenbaum Band (for the first time). There's a private Fox reception at Cabo's, where Yamin's emotions get the best of him as he walks in to see his family. He tries to eat amid a nonstop crush at his table. Then it's off to the Executive Mansion to meet Gov. Tim Kaine, and to Westbury Pharmacy, where he once worked. Then he rides in a Ford convertible up Boulevard, from the Carillon to The Diamond.
Yamin is identifiable, inspirational and likable, Mayor L. Douglas Wilder says. "He's a humble man, and he has humble origins. And he's showing that it doesn't matter how you start. It's how you end up."
It's 6:29, and perhaps for the first time today, Yamin is on-schedule. His autograph session at The Diamond: over. Michaels, the producer, leans over with instructions to her camera man, Jimmy Garcia. "Jimmy he's going to stand up, and wave," she says.
Yamin stands up and waves to fans. Garcia gets it.
So much for rap stars. "Not even Nelly got this many people," marvels Aramark food service employee Heather Parra.
Wearing his Braves cap, Yamin is hustled downstairs and driven onto the field. He looks up at thousands of faces. In his new "ELLIOTT" Braves jersey, he throws out the first pitch and sings an a-cappella snippet of "A Song for You."
His mother, standing by the dugout, touches her hand to her heart. "I'm just taking it all in," she says.
The Fort Lee Army Band plays the National Anthem. With Garcia the camera man circling him on the mound, Yamin takes off his cap and gives a final wave. Like most everything else today, it's caught on tape.
It's 7:05. Time for baseball.
"We gotta get everybody off," Baldwin says.
Yamin heads for the locker room, and disappears.
The Braves win, 3-0. S
The contestants' homecoming segments aired during Tuesday's "American Idol." Yamin will find out whether he makes it into the final two the May 24 "Idol" finale during the results show Wednesday, May 17, at 8 p.m. on Fox 35.
As much as Elliott Yamin's fans embraced him in Richmond Friday, he returned the favor, literally, when he could. He hugged his way across the city.
The love-fest started early, with family waiting for him in the lobby of NBC 12 at 6:30. It continued on the set. "I'm so happy for you," traffic reporter Tracy Lynn says, giving Yamin a squeeze. Next up, morning co-anchor Andrea McDaniel: "You're such a sweetie."
In the Q94 studio: "I went to go shake his hand and he grabbed me and gave me a hug," Morning Q Zoo co-host Melissa Chase says. "That was just awesome."
Downtown, meeting Mayor L. Douglas Wilder: hug.
Executive Mansion, greeting Gov. Tim Kaine: hug, the Associated Press reports.
The Diamond after batting practice, thanking bullpen catcher Doug Budryk: hug.
"When you see someone that's that nice, you think all right, is he really, really that nice?" Q94's Chase says. "And he really is!"
"There are so many contestants that we could have had, that could have been from our home city," she says. "We got so lucky." J.R.