02 November 2006

Jersey Boy

Two indignities were borne today, at my first Arizona Fall League game at Phoenix Muni Stadium. After parking the car, gratis, in a terrific spot adjacent to the ballpark, good cheer runneth over as my son and I neared the lone ticket window, with no line in sight. My mood soured, however, when the elderly box officer looked up from his coil of tickets and matter of factly inquired if I was a "senior". Ouch. I had always assumed that first dagger would be twisted by some gum popping teen, not a septuagenarian peering through a smoky window in obvious need of a cleaning. Look again, oldtimer! You and me are on opposite sides of Julio Franco!

And ten minutes prior to first pitch, just as the boy finished his $4.50 dog (the AFL really does have an MLB feel), a solicitous ballpark rep asked us if son would like to be batboy for the day - which he very much did. Was the AFL Batboy Assn. embroiled in an ugly, MLB style, work stoppage? More likely, the boy was the only age appropriate candidate in the near empty park, between the preferred ages of ten and however young I thought I looked before purchasing a ticket.

In any case, the kid's adult mentor suited him up in a Phoenix Desert Dogs jersey and instructed him on his duties, which as it turned out, were to be the Desert Dogs' batboy - and batboy, ballboy and clubhouse concierge (French for "slave") for both teams.

For three and a half hours, the last minute rookie in sneakers retrieved not only bats, but every foul ball hit back to the screen, assembled and disassembled the on deck circle of weighted donuts and pine tar rags every half inning on each side of the field, and kept a fresh supply of nearly a hundred balls coming in batches of three or four to the home plate umpire - all within the flow of a major league paced game. He poured and ran drinks to the blue crew upon request and even passed a couple notes between dugouts. For close to four hours, the conscientious kid - doing the job of two or three boys - had nothing to drink except what I smuggled him twice between innings and was too preoccupied to take a pee. It was 90' in the sun; a 10 inning, 10 - 7 contest that would've easily dragged on half an hour longer had the lad not done his job so earnestly, and so well. My son is twelve years old.

Now, I know what you're thinking. It's a privilege, or at least a special occasion to be a batboy in a dugout full of imminent major leaguers. Well, yes. In an exclusive postgame interview with this reporter, the preteen observed, for example, that the players say the 'f' word "all the time", but when asked if any of the fifty or so coaches and players he served in both dugouts took a moment from their day to strike up a brief conversation or simply tell him he was 'doing good' on his first day, he replied, "No. Not really."

Despite his youth, he's already familiar with the inevitable ups and downs of the working world. When a neighbor recently underpaid him for some yardwork, he refused parental intervention, chalking it up to an old lady's honest mistake. Last week, a homeless kook gave him some grief while voluntarily serving in a soup kitchen with some classmates. It shook him up a bit, but he's moved on.

In the sixth inning, a lady fan remarked what a yeoman job he was doing, better than other AFL games she had seen, and that maybe he'd get "some autographs" out of it. I smiled weakly and replied, "We'll see." The boy never asked for an autograph or souvenir, because he feels he's there to do a job - not to be a self-serving nuisance.

When the game finally ended, on a boisterous walkoff slam by the Rays' Elijah Dukes, the exhausted boy quietly gathered the jubilantly tossed helmets, the donuts, resin and pine tar rags for the last time and disappeared into the clubhouse to deposit them into equipment bags. His mentor thanked him and the boy reflexively thanked him back, as quickly naked athletes whooped it up after their long days. He unbuttoned and removed the sweat soaked Desert Dogs jersey, for another batboy on another day. As he climbed the dugout steps, empty handed, to meet up with his dad, the overseer called to take a cracked bat as a souvenir. The boy's polite and convincingly enthusiastic "Thanks!" betrayed the fact he was not smiling, as he held a damaged Kody Kirkland model for the car ride home.

I put my arm around the taciturn batboy, as we walked up the stadium steps together. His tee shirt was drenched like the back of a Phoenix day laborer. He smelled like a man. I told him how proud I was of him, for working hard and keeping his end of the bargain.

"I'm never doing that again...at least not without money", he said in a determined but not quite angry tone.

Good for you, I thought to myself. He carried away something better than a Desert Dogs jersey, more valuable - even - than a couple deserved pats on the back: his self respect. My offer of a fast food pitstop on the way home was uncharacteristically declined.

"I just want to take a shower."

He headed straight for the bathroom, turned on the showerhead, and for the second time that afternoon, gave an adult the shirt off his back. He washed away the salt and innocence, retrieved a clean shirt, and managed a smile, well before his dad, just in time for supper.

(first published at http://azdiamondhacks.mlblogs.com/diamondhacks/tearjerkers/index.html )

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