Archive for July, 2005

Bat Boy shows what happens to a dream fulfilled

For decades, baseball writing has long delved into two sides to the sport. Some of the best works have described the game on the field and its social interaction with America. Recently, authors have delved into the front-office strategies of General Managers as they struggle with baseball’s twisted economics. Now, a highly enjoyable new book, Bat Boy: My True Adventures Coming of Age with the New York Yankees, by 30-year-old Matthew McGough, shows something not often seen in literature: the behind-the-scenes madness that permeates a Major League Baseball clubhouse every night for 162 games.

McGough’s book, witty and serious, entertaining and nostalgic (if it’s even possible to be nostalgic for the early 1990s), is certainly one to add to an ever-growing list of classic tales about baseball and its effects on the lives of impressionable teenagers growing up in America.

McGough’s story is the stuff every eight-year-old boy’s dreams are made of. He became a Yankee fan during the summer of Dave Righetti’s no-hitter and George Brett’s infamous pine-tar game. As a teenager sitting in the back row of the right-field bleachers, he eyed the bat boy and decided to write a letter to the Yankees asking if he could join the team in that same position. Improbably, the team hired McGough, and in April of 1992, McGough joined a team that had finished the previous season at 71-91 in fifth place.

As McGough’s memoir follows the Yanks as they stumble to a 76-86 record in 1992, he delves into the ins and outs of life in a Major League clubhouse. On his first day at work, a starstruck McGough is sent by Don Mattingly to find a bat stretch because, ostensibly, all of Donnie Baseball’s bats shrunk during the flight up from Spring Training in Florida. McGough survives this prank, and over time, he grows increasingly more comfortable as he realizes that these baseball players are normal people too.

The first half of the book focuses largely on the inner workings of the clubhouse. McGough introduces clubhouse manager Nick Priore as a no-frills, down-to-business type of guy whose constant stream of profanities and insults keep the teenage bat boys on their heels at all times. As McGough details his day-to-day dealings, a new baseball world is shown to the world. This isn’t a tale of the riches of baseball and the fame of the players as they don pinstripes or win World Series titles. Rather, McGough lets the reader in on the life of those who are responsible for shining everyone’s spikes, for cleaning up the mess after a player takes out his frustration on the nearest TV set, toilet, or food spread, for running errands for the players, and for running out those new balls to the umpires.

For every story about the doors the Yankees could unlock, such as road trips driving Matt Nokes’ SUV up from Spring Training and gaining access to Fort Lauderdale bars without the benefit of an ID, Bat Boy doesn’t hesitate to highlight cruder aspects of the job as well, including the nasty temperament of a drunk Mickey Mantle on Old Timers’ Day. One of the major events to mark McGough’s time as the Yankee bat boy was his and a friend’s involvement in the Network, a pyramid scheme that swept the New York metropolitan area during the winter of 1992-1993. Introduced to the network by Priore despite a tacit disapproval from Rob Cucuzza, Priore’s assistant, McGough and his friend each end up $750 short when the scheme falls apart. Later on, McGough lands into trouble when a CD-for-memorabilia deal goes awry.

For all its charm – and one of the book’s strenghts is its charm – the continued apeearance of Nick Priore was one spot where I wanted more dirt. A few years after McGough’s time with the Yankees was up, Nick Priore was fired from the Yankees for clubhouse theft, and he and his family have been in and out of the headlines over the last few years. Most recently, Priore’s name came up when mob connections to the New York Mets were divulged in the Daily News a few months ago. But before that, his son Paul had been involved in a sexual harassment lawsuit against members of the Yankees. The suit, largely forgotten in New York these days, alleged rampant homosexuality and homophobia in the Yankee clubhouse. It was dismissed without a hearing. McGough’s narrative is noticeably silent on any of these topics. While a long tangent on these issues wouldn’t have fit the narrative tone of the memoir, the prominence of Priore in the tale hinted at a darker side of the clubhouse left unexplored by McGough’s book.

In the end, it’s easy to love McGough’s book if only for the reason that every fan once dreamed of being a Major League bat boy. It doesn’t try to be anything more than a memoir, and in that role, it passes with flying colors. It is a quick, fun and funny read that, in an age of statistical-oriented books and anti-Moneyball diatribes, returns baseball writing to the timeless genre of the coming-of-age tale, and it shows that baseball players, bat boys and clubhouse managers are, just like you and me, real people with real failings and real power whether they know how to use it or not.

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First in war. First in peace. First in the NL East?

After a month-long hiatus from writing that took to me Europe and back, I have once again rejoined the world of baseball writing. In my absence, Jason Giambi rediscovered his stroke, Scott Podsednik beat out a field of more deserving players for his one inning the field during the All Star game, and Bobby Abreu finally garnered the recognition he deserved by belting a season’s worth of home runs during the derby in pitcher-friendly Comerica.

As the pennant races loom, I am going to look at two pieces of news surrounding the suprising Washington Nationals.

Nats look to bolster lineup

First up are the first-place Washington Nationals and their efforts to improve their injury-laden team. The Nats shipped right-hander Zach Day to the place where pitchers go to die, Coors Field, along with J.J. Davis for Preston Wilson. Wilson’s reputation as a player far exceeds his production, and it will be interesting to see which Wilson arrives in D.C. in the midst of an exciting pennant race.

Wilson, at 30, is something of a mid-level power hitter. Except for last year when he missed most of the season due to injuries, Wilson has never hit fewer than 23 home runs. Twice he has hit over 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs. But in seasons during which he hits fewer than 30 home runs, his RBI production drops precipitously. He’s maintained a career slugging percentage of .481, a career average of .265, and a career on-base percentage of .333.

The Nationals are banking on Wilson to return to his 2003 form. During that season, his career best in all offensive categories, he hit .282/.343/.537 with 36 home runs and 141 RBIs and seemed to be on the verge of stardom. Injuries struck in 2004, and this year, he’s at .258/.322/.491 with 15 home runs and 47 RBIs.

However, much of Wilson’s success this year comes at home, and these numbers should have raised a red flag in the Nationals’ front office. On the road this year, Wilson is hitting just .224/.280/.411 with 5 home runs. During his break-out year in 2003, Wilson hit 40 points lower on the road than in Coors and slugged 100 points lower. It is doubtful the Nationals will get the player Wilson was at Coors field.

That doesn’t mean Wilson won’t contribute to the Nats’ playoff run. He will give the lineup more depth and experience. When Nick Johnson returns, the Nats will have a very solid middle of the order with Wilson, Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen, and Johnson. Whether those hitters can get them to October will depend as much on the rubber, golden arm of Livan Hernandez and the continued success of Jon Patterson than on anything else.

Baseball and politics just don’t mix

In other Nationals news, Major League Baseball is in the process of selling off one of its hottest commodities. As they have received bid packages from numerous groups looking to buy the Washington Nationals, politicians on the right side of the aisle have begun to grumble about the process.

It seems that noted Democrat donor George Soros is among one of the groups bidding for the Nationals. Soros gave nearly $20 million to various organizations supporting the Kerry campaign in 2004, and Republicans were none too thrilled to see his name pop up again. In response, Tom Davis (R-VA), the Congressman who gained national attention for grilling baseball sluggers on steroids in March, has warned baseball over allowing Soros to win the bidding, and Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.) has threatened baseball’s antitrust exemption.

Ostensibly, these Congressmen claim that Soros’ support of decriminalizing marijuana would tar a sport already rocked by one drug scandal. But Davis was more blunt in saying that baseball has to make friends with people on power right now. “This is not the way to make them,” he was quoted as saying in various news outlets. Meanwhile, these same politicians have no problem praising the bid of Republican donor and one-time Nixon stooge Fred Malek. Malek investigated the “Jewish cabal” Nixon thought was hiding out in the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I guess Marge Schott wasn’t up to that task.

But all of this brings me to one point: Politicians just shouldn’t threaten baseball owners over partisan politics. If the Congress wants to remove baseball’s antitrust exemptions, there are numerous other ways to accomplish that goal. If Congress wants to regulate drug use among athletes, that is there prerogative. But members of the majority party shouldn’t be threatening baseball because one potential owner is a big supporter of the opposition party. Once upon a time, Republicans were all about keeping their noses out of businesses and the actions of private individuals. Now, they are threatening baseball because of partisan politics.

It’s chilling when members of the current majority party start threatening baseball ownership over partisan politics. What’s to stop them from going after another big Democratic sponsor Peter Angelos? I don’t see Democrats jumping down George Steinbrenner’s throat for donating to the Republican Party of Florida, and I shouldn’t see members of Congress from either side of the aisle engaging in openly partisan maneuvering just so their guy gets to own the local team.

Baseball tolerated the steroid hearings; Republican and Democratic owners alike shouldn’t tolerate Davis’ and Sweeney’s threats. May the best bid win the rights to a franchise ever-increasing in value.


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