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DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US

Always On Deck
By Jay Thomas

I can still recall the smell of the clubhouse—not the soured, stale smell of a high school locker room, but a pleasant melange of bubble gum and pine tar. I had grown up watching the Chicago Cubs on WGN and had countless times heard Jack Brickhouse describe how players would, after an ejection or a benching, retreat to the privileged enclave of the clubhouse, and I was always left wondering what I never saw and heard from the stands or through the TV.

I was fifteen and, thanks to a friend of my father who was a close associate of San Diego Padres owner Ray Kroc, a visiting club batboy for a single June, 1980 game at Wrigley Field. Had anyone noticed me, I might have looked a little like a hayseed rookie when I walked through the clubhouse door. I carried a brown grocery bag with a pair of white Pony spikes, my glove, and a pair of white sanitary hose, ingenuously thinking that the Padres would not properly uniform me. The clubhouse air was frigid, and that sweet, candy and pine tar smell reminded me of a pack of baseball cards. But what struck me right away were the walls and lockers all painted the same shade of blue that you'd find in a baby's room, and bright green AstroTurf carpeting—decor by lowest bidder.

Except for the evidence of many coats of paint on the walls and lockers, this room probably had changed very little since the Babe had played here in the '32 Series: small, cramped dressing quarters, an even more claustrophobia-inducing training room, metal folding chairs by all the lockers, and a plywood table in the middle of the room that served as a pre-game card table and a post-game spread table. Even the upright water fountain was ancient, its metal housing dented and scarred from generations of abuse. I found out later that this was by far the smallest and least player-friendly clubhouse in baseball—a far cry from the luxury resorts players now find in the new stadia.

I stood in the doorway for a few moments waiting for someone to notice me. Nobody looked my way. These being the Padres, Rollie Fingers and Randy Jones were the only players I recognized out of uniform, and several hours before the game, few were wearing anything more than a jock strap, stirrups, and plastic shower shoes as they stretched, snoozed, played cards, or read the sports section. Ray Peralta, the Padres' equipment manager, finally saw me standing in the doorway, introduced himself, and showed me to a locker where my uniform hung. The chocolate brown polyester uniform with its orange and gold trim (and numberless back) certainly lacked the distinction and elegance of Yankee pinstripes, but it was still my own big league "uni." I took my time getting dressed, checked myself in a mirror, and sat down to soak in the ethos.

The pre-game clubhouse was quiet, and the players seemed largely disengaged from baseball. A few beat reporters talked to players, who stared into their lockers and never even looked at the interviewer. Ozzie Smith stood in front of a tall mirror and watched himself swing a bat in impossibly slow motion; another infielder worked half a can of Gillette Foamy shaving cream into his tiny second baseman's glove; a pitcher stood in the doorway of the cramped kitchenette, popped about ten pieces of gum in his mouth, and read and re-read the Bazooka Joe comics.

The visitors' clubhouse is not in the bowels of Wrigley Field. In fact it is almost in the farthest reaches of the upper deck, and the batboy (I found out) begins his day by lugging several bat bags, bags of catchers' equipment, water coolers, helmet bags, towels, and dozens of baseballs down a long flight of stairs, through two long, dank tunnels, through two short walkways, and up another three stairs to the dugout. Alone. But the kindly Mr. Peralta wanted me to enjoy my day, so after the tons of equipment had been hauled to the dugout, he told me to run out onto the field and watch batting practice while he unpacked the equipment bags himself.

For some reason, I had brought my glove along with me. I was a pitcher on my freshman baseball team, and I suppose I had hoped that some big league hurler might strike up a game of long-toss with me and be so impressed with my potential that he'd spend a little time working on my curveball down in the right field bullpen. No luck, not even a glance from a lonely rookie. As I stood at the top of the dugout steps, Tim Flannery walked up on me from behind and asked if I was a shortstop. No, I'm a pitcher, I told him, hoping he'd invite me to a game of pepper. He looked me up and down and said, "A guy as bowlegged as you just has to be a shortstop," and walked off toward the infield.

I wandered into the outfield to shag a few flies, just as I did every day on my freshman squad after taking my swings during batting practice. I trotted towards center field along the fringe of the infield grass, ready to scoop up a grounder or snag a liner headed my way, but I was nearly killed en route. A missile—a wicked, hooking, screaming line drive like I had never seen (or heard!) before—sailed by my head and tore a six-inch divot in the outfield grass. Jeez they hit the ball hard! And this was only batting practice! I decided it might be safer to watch BP from behind the cage.

There was plenty of banter around the cage, but BP in the bigs is very purposeful. We've grown accustomed to large pre-game crowds gawking at the home run derby, but hitters are very protective of their time in the cage and very rarely stand and admire their moon shots. There are, however, moments of muscle flexing, as I found out. One of the Padres infielders hopped out of the cage, having sprayed a succession of line drives from foul line to foul line, and said, "That's gonna win us some ball games!" Dave Winfield, the next hitter in line, strode into the cage, blasted two balls into the center field bleachers, flipped his bat toward the dugout and said, "That's how you win a ball game!"

The game began with a strange coincidence. Years before, on my first-ever trip to Wrigley Field, Willie Montanez had been the leadoff hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies, and now, with bats in hand, I found myself standing next to Willie during the National Anthem as he waited to lead off for the Padres.

Both teams were last in their respective divisions. These were the Cubs of Steve Dillard and Mick "Killer" Kelleher and the Padres of Eric Rasmussen and Juan Eichelberger. I had overheard one of the Padres announcers say before the game, "You put the two lousiest teams in the league together and you know you're gonna go extra innings." And you also knew that the fans would stay away in droves. Barely four thousand people showed up for my debut.

When Dave Winfield bounded out of the dugout and into the on-deck circle in the first inning, I recalled his batting practice display. He kneeled down next to me after a few cuts with the weighted bat, and I told him that I noticed that the wind had shifted and was now blowing straight out to left. Winfield gave me a look like a pitcher who had just been told he was throwing a no-hitter, and said, "I never think about that before I hit." Oops.

I must have hexed Winfield because he never came through with the long ball. Second baseman Dave Cash supplied the power, and I ended up with a strange souvenir from his home run. From the on-deck circle, it was evident that Cash had cracked his bat on the shot. At the end of the inning, I took the broken bat into the dugout and sat down next to Mr. Peralta, who looked at the bat and told me I could keep it. As I examined the splintered wood, I noticed something curious: first, the bat bore the name of another Padres infielder and, second, the bat had been cracked before, just below the trademark, and someone had nailed the splintered wood back together with four tiny finishing nails.

The game itself was, even in my limited scope of understanding, full of bush league mistakes. A runner on third misread a sign and was hung out to dry on what he thought was a suicide squeeze. Late in the game Rollie Fingers and Bill Fahey, the Padres catcher, collided when both tried to field a sacrifice bunt, and Fingers ended up in a headstand next to Fahey who was splayed out on the ground. That play made all the sports blooper films that week.

But I wanted to take home snapshots of the game that I couldn't see on the nightly sports report. What did the players do when the camera was trained on the field? What did they talk about on the bench? Was it really like I had read in Ball Four? Just what did I miss when I watched the Cubs on WGN?

It many ways, the action in the dugout was not much different from high school ball: most of the starters sat at the end of the bench nearest home plate, while the reserves and relief pitchers entertained themselves at the far end of the dugout. Kurt Bevacqua flashed his new gold necklace for the rookies—twenty-two karat gold, he said. Nobody believed him until he bit into the malleable metal and showed the tooth mark. One of the outfielders asked me several times to arrange a post-game meeting between him and a blond seated three rows up—and then chewed me out in the locker room after the game for not coming through with the date. And there was some mild—and, it seemed to me, ineffectual and amateurish—bench jockeying. The Cubs had recently called up Jody Davis, and several of the Padres shouted at him every time he ran past the dugout, "Jody! Ain't that a girl's name?" He heard it every time and glared back. My own teammates could do better than that one.

I would be hard-pressed to recall many of the details of the play on the field, except that I could see that this was a much more punishing brand of baseball than I had previously witnessed. Sure, they ran faster, threw harder, and hit the ball farther than I could imagine, but these guys played hard, too! I stood maybe ten feet from a collision at the plate, and it sounded like a clip from NFL films. An errant fastball left a bruise like I had never seen on a guy's forearm. And the temper tantrums after strikeouts or mental errors would have gotten me dismissed from my high school squad without time to think about it: shattered bats, busted chairs, kicked water coolers. A handful of players would regularly steal away between innings (or before an at-bat) to the little hallway behind the dugout—out of the camera's view—and calm their nerves with a cigarette or two.

The game did not go into extra innings as the announcer had predicted; the Padres lost in nine. But the post-game clubhouse was funereal. I recalled in Ball Four that Jim Bouton had written how part of the culture of Major League Baseball was to hang your head and sit in pensive silence at your locker after every loss—whether you really cared about the loss or not. And he was right. Reporters very timidly asked the players about the game or about their own performance or about the Padres' state of affairs, and the players, arms folded, towels around waists, staring straight ahead at nobody, whispered their answers in Crash Davis-like clichés.

Mr. Peralta had told me I could keep my Padres cap, and of course I had my doctored Dave Cash bat, but I wanted to collect a few signatures before leaving. I asked cautiously, hoping not to violate the losers' clubhouse protocol, and most of the players obliged my request for an autograph. Some, however, waved me off. Strangely, it wasn't the players who had blown the game who refused, but the ones who hadn't played at all. Maybe they realized that to be a "role player" on the worst team in baseball did not hold much promise, and that each loss took them one step closer to full-time construction work.

With my major league debut over, I showered, dressed, and grabbed a plate of spaghetti from the post-game spread. I had eavesdropped on big league strategy, seen a major league temper tantrum or two, stepped on home plate at Wrigley Field, shaken hands with Dave Cash after a home run, and lamented a painful loss along with my new teammates.

I didn't linger after the game. I left with a large group of players as they headed out to their chartered bus. They stopped to sign a few autographs, and I kept walking. Behind me, I heard a kid—maybe two years younger than me—say to his brother, "Oh, that's just the batboy."

My parents and my brother had been at the game, and once I met up with them on Addison Street, we headed for the El. Riding the train home, I listened in on the conversation of a few people who had been at the game. I wanted to tell them that I had watched the action from the best seat in the house, but I didn't. I knew that we had seen two very different games.

—EFQ

 

JAY THOMAS is a research specialist and varsity baseball coach at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a high school for gifted students.

© 2001 Jay Thomas

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