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.