Book Excerpt: Bat Boy (Part 2)

The following is an excerpt from Bat Boy: My True-Life Adventures Coming of Age with the New York Yankees, by Matthew McGough. The first installment ran yesterday.

I broke the news to my parents the night before the interview, sitting around the kitchen table over dinner.

“A bad boy?” my Mom asked.

“Batboy, Mom,” I said. “Yankee B-A-T-boy.”

My brother and sister smirked. I slid the Yankee letter across the table to my father.

“How many games do batboys work?” he asked, looking it over. “All of them?”

“I think,” I said.

“That’s a lot of games,” he said.

My Mom finished his thought. “What about school?” she said. “It’s your junior year. You have to get your grades up this year for college.”

I had anticipated this question. “There’s no weekday day games until school lets out for the summer,” I said. “Besides Opening Day,” I added quietly. “Just that one day.”

“But night games end after ten o’clock,” my Dad said. “And then travel time, getting home from the Bronx. How late do you have to stay at the Stadium after games?”

“I don’t know,” I pleaded. “I don’t even have the job yet. Can I at least get through the interview first?”

My Dad smiled.

“Well,” he said. “Good luck on your interview.”

I dressed the next morning in my jacket and tie, and hopped on the 4 train up to the Bronx as soon as classes let out.

I didn’t know whether to expect a conversation or a cross-examination; I’d never been on a job interview before. On the ride uptown I rehearsed answers to questions I considered likely. My favorite subject in school was English. I didn’t play baseball at Regis but had made my Little League All-Star team the last two years I’d played. I mentally paired retired jersey numbers with the Hall of Famers who’d worn them: Ruth 3, DiMaggio 5, Mantle 7. I reviewed my thoughts on the current Yankee lineup, ready to explain to Nick why we needed another lefty in the bullpen and a slugger behind Mattingly in the batting order.

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* * * * *

In the early nineties, the Yankees were not a perennial playoff contender, and the off-season came earlier then to Yankee Stadium than it would in the second half of the decade. Walking from the subway station to the ballpark, the familiar landscape seemed unnaturally lifeless.

I circled the Stadium, past shuttered gates and ticket kiosks, until I reached the double glass doors of the Yankee lobby. The security guard behind the desk told me to take a seat while he called Nick. I passed ten minutes in the pinstriped lobby, my schoolbag at my feet and my hands folded on my lap to prevent myself from fidgeting. A bell chimed from one of the two elevators that opened onto the lobby.

The elevator doors parted to reveal a man whose age could have been anywhere from forty to eighty. Nick’s black hair was combed back and run through with grease. Between a handful of teeth he held the nub of a soggy half-smoked cigar. He wore a ribbed, sleeveless white undershirt tucked into his Yankee gym shorts; a half-dozen Sharpie markers dangled from the elastic waistband. White athletic socks were hiked up to his knees above black high-tops that looked to have been thoroughly and frequently worked over with shoe polish.

Without shifting his stance or moving forward from the back of the elevator, Nick turned his head in my direction and flicked his chin up and back. I took this as a signal to approach. I grabbed my books and joined him in the elevator. No handshake, no nice to meet you. No conversation at all. No eye contact whatsoever.

We rode the elevator down one level in silence and emerged at the mouth of a series of long underground tunnels. I scrambled to keep up with Nick, who stayed two steps ahead of me. He turned left at one corner and right at the next before stopping at a heavy steel door in the concrete hallway. A plaque mounted on the wall announced that here, right in front of me, was the Yankee Clubhouse.

I followed Nick into a room about eighty feet long and forty feet wide, thinly carpeted and ringed by open-faced lockers. The stalls along the walls had been emptied for the off-season by then, but each was still topped with its tenant’s nameplate. Some names – Mattingly, Bernie Williams, Jim Leyritz – remain familiar today. Others – Pascual Perez, Matt Nokes, Mel Hall, Hensley “Bam-Bam!” Meulens – were familiar then but resonate today only with real fans. The floor was littered with cardboard boxes and open trunks that spilled their contents: hats, t-shirts, stirrup socks, the famous pinstriped uniforms and dozens of pairs of the same Yankee shorts that Nick sported.

He signaled me to take a seat at an old wooden picnic table squarely in the center of the clubhouse. Nick sat opposite me and began to rearrange the paraphernalia within arm’s reach: an ashtray, invoices, a toppled stack of baseball cards, sharpie markers, two autographed baseballs, and a roll of large-denomination bills bigger than my fist. He took the wet cigar out of his mouth and rested it on the lip of the ashtray.

As I watched him and timidly waited for the interview to begin, I noticed for the first time his hugely bulging right cheek. He tongued the inside of his mouth, which I thought maybe held a big chaw of chewing tobacco. Even from two feet away, though, I couldn’t discount the possibility that Nick was harboring an abscess the size of a Spaldeen. It could have gone either way. Both possibilities had me feeling queasy.

Nick finally lifted his eyes from the table to me in my Easter Sunday blazer and tie. I tensed for the questions to come. I readied myself to talk about school, about my favorite book, about my respect for the tradition of the Yankees, about my range behind second base and deep in the hole.

Nick cleared his throat, or grunted, and looked me up and down, sizing me up. “Your parents,” he snarled. “They going to mind you taking the train home late at night?”

I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right.

“I, uh, I take the subway to school everyday. I’m fine on the train at night,” I answered. Unsatisfied, he waited.

“I’m sure my parents won’t mind,” I added tentatively.

Nick stood up. “Come back Opening Day,” he decided. He produced a tape measure and measured me from armpit to belt, then belt to ankle, and sent me back out into the hallway alone.

I found my way back to the Yankee Lobby and out of the park, and took the subway downtown to Grand Central, where my Dad was waiting to meet me. It was rush hour, and the train home was packed with dark-suited businessmen, men dressed as my Dad was, no one less than a dozen years my senior. We found two seats across from each other in an otherwise packed car. People around us turned the pages of novels or shuffled papers. After the train pulled out, I spoke quietly about the interview and how it had ended.

“I think I’m hired,” I concluded, sotto voce.

“Sure sounds like you’re hired,” he said. “Nick said come back Opening Day, right?”

“Yeah,” I said.

The train shot out of the tunnel and onto the elevated tracks of Harlem, then into the Bronx. As we came up on the Stadium in fading sunlight, we both turned to the window. “THANKS FANS,” the sign announced. “SEE YOU ON OPENING DAY.”

My Dad broke our silence. “Should be fun,” he said, grinning broadly.

“Yeah,” I grinned back, unable to hide my own excitement any longer.

Still, I couldn’t believe it was really going to happen. I waited a month to tell my friends I thought I had the job. It wasn’t until I’d worked at the Stadium half a season that someone told me I was the first batboy in memory to be hired without having had a connection.

* * * * *

I heard nothing from Nick or the front office in November or December.

In January, I saw a report on the local news, live from Yankee Stadium, on the team packing up and leaving for spring training. In the corner of the screen, over the reporter’s shoulder, I spotted Nick and three big guys surrounded by dozens of stacked equipment trunks. Nick was scowling and kept jabbing his finger into the air and at his assistants.

Two more months passed.

In mid-March I called the Stadium and asked to speak to Nick. The secretary told me that he was down in Florida with the rest of the club. She also mentioned that Nick didn’t keep a hotel room or apartment during the two months he spent at spring training: he slept at the Yankees’ spring training ballpark. She gave me the number of the pay phone in the Yankees’ clubhouse in Fort Lauderdale.

When I finally reached him on the phone, late one night, I asked him what time he wanted me to come in Opening Day.

“We’ll be seeing you around 9 a.m., Matty,” he answered reassuringly.

* * * * *

The night before Opening Day, I pulled the last page from a calendar I’d fashioned from a pack of Post-It notes counting down the days to the Yankees’ home opener. I laid out my clothes for the next morning alongside the letter I’d secured from school excusing me for the day.

I’d had conversations with both my parents and the Headmaster at Regis, and understood the conditions under which I’d been allowed to take the job: after Opening Day, no missed classes; no excuses or blaming the Yankees for any schoolwork I failed to complete or if my grades suffered. I promised them I wouldn’t let them down.

* * * * *

Matt,” he wrote:
Happily, you embark on your Yankees’ adventures this afternoon! I am very excited about that prospect, most particularly for you but also for the family. I have some reflections that I would like to share with you –

1. Enjoy your time in the Clubhouse – there will probably be more to see and savor there than in the dugout;
2. Keep your antennae tuned; be cautious in sizing up your surroundings both in and around the Stadium, particularly the subway station;
3. Enjoy the “Star Stuff,” but be mindful of the human side of the players as well;
4. Enjoy the players – and the practical jokes and ribbing they’ll no doubt inflict on you;
5. If you chew tobacco, don’t let the juice stain your uniform or your teeth;
6. If you meet Steinbrenner, resist the temptation to kick him in the shins;
7. Keep a running diary, but keep it at home (that way no one can confiscate it from you);
8. Do the favors that the players ask – but don’t become beholden to anyone;
9. Get your time frames down pat, particularly from the Stadium to Grand Central (if you miss your train, you’ll quickly learn how boring it is to hang out in G.C. Terminal);
10. Get your studies done before reaching the Stadium; you won’t be in the mood coming home on the subway or train;
11. Watch out for the crowd after the games – they’ve done a lot of drinking and may, at times, be unruly at the 161st Street subway station.

I hope to share a number of games with you this season. I won’t sit with the “real fans” in the Bleachers, though. If I did, I’d only see you through my binoculars. Maybe the “Boss” box – if it’s available! In any event, we love you and want you to have a great summer.


* * * * *

I walked into Yankee Stadium the morning of Opening Day again dressed for a holiday dinner and with my bookbag over my shoulder.

The security guard in the Yankee lobby checked my name off a list and pointed me through a door just inside the Stadium Press Gate.

“Down the stairs and follow the blue stripe on the floor,” he said.

I recognized the tunnel from my interview in October, and soon found myself standing before the heavy clubhouse door. I took a deep breath, pulled the door open, and walked inside.

The last time I’d seen the clubhouse, it had been empty, save for the trunks and boxes of clothes that Nick had strewn across the clubhouse floor. Now, the sight and sound of at least a hundred people hit me head on.

A leading sign that spring has arrived in New York, Opening Day at Yankee Stadium has always been among the most newsworthy of the City’s annual sports events. That year was no exception, and the fact that the Yankees were opening the season against the Boston Red Sox only heightened the already significant fan and media interest in the game.

Dozens of reporters rushed around the room, camera crews in tow. Carpenters, electricians, and painters hurriedly put final touches on different parts of the clubhouse. An entourage from Mayor Dinkins’ office milled around, mixing with uniformed cops and security men in dark suits. And weaving through the mob, in various states of dress, were the ballplayers, most of whom I recognized from TV, but none of whom I’d ever seen except across rows and rows of stadium seats.

One with a barrel chest and huge biceps strutted past me across the room. Another sat at his locker doing a crossword puzzle. Two younger guys in pinstriped uniform pants and blue Yankee t-shirts – rookies, I guessed – stood to the side and spoke quietly while they too eyed the crowd. Veterans joked loudly and looked very much at home. And on the far right, in the corner locker twice the size of any other, sat Don Mattingly, Yankee Captain. Donnie Baseball. The guy in mid-swing on the poster in my room at home. I swung my bookbag off my shoulder, inadvertently bumping a camera and drawing a mid-interview scowl from the cameraman. I thought I’d better go find Nick.

I approached him at his picnic table, where he stood with a black marker, purposefully printing players’ names in big block letters on the collars of baseball undershirts.

“What do you want me to do, Nick?” I asked.

“Stay the #### out of the way,” he answered. Two players walked over a second later and impatiently began listing their grievances: Nick, I can’t find the bag I packed in spring training; Old man, I need Nike batting gloves, I can’t wear Adidas; Nicky, you have four AA batteries?

I must have looked as lost as I felt. I backed away and stumbled toward a distant corner, next to the trainers’ room, that seemed at least slightly less chaotic than the rest of the clubhouse. I found myself in front of one locker, unlike all the others, that bore not a name plate but a number: fifteen. Save for a catcher’s mask and pair of shin guards that hung from a hook on the side of the cubby, it was forlornly empty.

I realized suddenly whose locker it had been, whose locker it still was. “Thurman Munson,” I said to myself in wonder. “Wow.”

Munson, a catcher, was a beloved Yankee, the Captain of their championship teams in the late 70s. His career had ended near its peak when he was killed in a mid-season airplane crash. The Yankees had evidently preserved his locker as a monument and memorial. I reached out to run my fingers across the gashes in Munson’s battered shin guards when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

I turned and was suddenly face to face with the Yankees’ current captain, Mattingly, the man himself. He extended his right hand to me.
“Hey, I’m Don Mattingly,” he said. “You going to be working with us this year?”

It took me a moment to process my hero’s simple question. I realized that Mattingly could have introduced himself with any number of other less generous but still thrilling questions: Are you the new batboy? Who are you? What’s your name? Are you going to be working for us this year? But he hadn’t. Of all that I had imagined in the days before the season opener, I’d never thought about my new job in these terms: working with the Yankees, in common pursuit of a common goal.

“Uh, I know who you are, Mr. Mattingly,” I managed to stammer. “I’m Matt, the new batboy.”

“Nice to meet you,” Mattingly said with a firm handshake.

“Thanks,” I replied instinctively. “I mean, nice to meet you too.”

“Listen, Matt,” he said, as if I could have done anything else. “I’ve got an important job for you. I just unpacked all my bats from spring training. I don’t know if it was the humidity in Florida or the altitude of the flight or what, but they’re all coming up short. The game starts in a couple of hours. I need you to get me a bat stretcher.”

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