Baseball Men - The Bat Boy

Our ‘Baseball Men' interview series continues with Matt McGough, author of ‘Bat Boy'.

The game of baseball is all about coming back home, and few know it better than Matt McGough.

 

What made McGough special was the fact that his personal home base happened to be the New York Yankees clubhouse, where he served as a bat boy for the 1992 and 1993 seasons. What made his return to those teenage-year experiences so memorable is the fact that he's recounted them in a new book entitled ‘Bat Boy:  My True Life Adventures Coming of Age with the New York Yankees'.

 

In the dozen years since he left his job with the Yanks, McGough gone on to become a federal law clerk in Manhattan, a TV producer (a 2004 prime-time series ‘Clubhouse,' was based on his book), and a regular performer for The Moth, a New York storytelling group. He's currently promoting ‘Bat Boy' and authoring a follow up, one based on his experiences in the courts system.

 

When McGough sat down for an interview in New York recently, he looked more like a young professor than a junior old clubhouse attendant. But the topic at hand wasn't the 30-year-old's present, but his boyhood past.

 

According to the book, you initially got interested in a job as Yankees bat boy in a roundabout way.

 

It's funny - it all goes back to one game when I was sixteen, sitting in the bleachers in Yankee Stadium. Though I'd been to dozens of games before, I'd never noticed before that there was a kid on the field dressed in a Yankees uniform.  The natural thought was, ‘How did that kid get his job?  Why couldn't I do that?'

 

I think it was partially a product of naiveté that I went home and wrote out a dozen letters to anyone in the Yankees front office who might be responsible for bat boy hiring – everyone from Steinbrenner on down.

 

I always thought that would be a great job, too, but assumed that it would only go to someone with an insider connection, someone's son or nephew or the like. And, actually, you were the first outsider to be hired in quite a while.

 

Yeah, the first in anyone's memory. Maybe naïve is the wrong word. I didn't ask anyone's advice or permission when I wrote and I'm glad I didn't – someone might have told me the idea was crazy and would never work, which might have stopped me from writing.

 

Well, you got a couple of unique and interesting years, as well as a book, out of the decision. But it was hard work, being a bat boy. You were on the team's schedule, working for a week, ten days at a time without a day off. You described sixteen-hour days doing not-so-fun stuff like shining spikes, wiping sinks, emptying trash cans.

 

And the thing to remember, too, is that this was the first job I ever had. I'd done odd jobs around the neighborhood, but when I went to work in the clubhouse, it was the first time I'd ever had a boss, or co-workers, or gotten a paycheck – everything that goes along with having a job.

 

I learned pretty quickly that it wasn't a ceremonial position. We had to be there at 3:30 or 4:00 for the average night game, which, being in high school.

 

You were also a full-time student at the time.

 

Yeah. You have to be sixteen to work there, due to child labor laws. Maybe there were one or two kids who'd finished high school, but generally, in April, May, June, and September, we'd head up to work as soon as school let out.

 

Anyway, before games it was running errands, doing work around the clubhouse, then out on the field in time for first pitch.  Afterwards, like you said, there were 40 pairs of spikes to shine, lockers to do, bats to clean . . . it wasn't unusual to be there until one or one-thirty in the morning.  And then you had to get ready to go to school for 7:30 the next morning.

 

Some of the more remarkable passages are your descriptions of actually living in Yankee Stadium, as your de facto home for parts of the season. You wouldn't go back home in Westchester County - you'd just work and go to school the next day. Do you think that was unusual in the Major Leagues?

 

It's hard to say how it worked with other clubs, because I don't know exactly what the responsibilities were for other teams' batboys, but for me and some of the other guys, it made sense sometimes to spend the night at the Stadium.  For example, whenever the team had a night game followed by a day game, when we'd work until one o'clock in the morning, and then need to be there again at eight or nine – it was sometimes easier just to crash on the couches in the players' lounge.  Which was pretty incredible, having the run of Yankee Stadium, especially at that age – 16, 17 years old.

 

It was hilarious, as you described the experience. I mean, you and the other bat boys would drink and get into fistfights at times.

 

It was loose supervision. I mean, our boss, Nick, was there, too, but we were teenage kids, so, yeah, certainly, there were adventures and misadventures.

 

You got to know the players in a way that few others, outside their families,  really knew them. I'm curious, just based on working for him on a daily basis, what do you think a guy like Don Mattingly would have done if he wasn't playing baseball?

 

One of the nice things about the book being out is that it's brought me back in touch with some of these ballplayers who were my mentors when I was a teenager but who I hadn't spoken to since I left for college 12 years ago. I sent Mattingly and a few other guys the book, and ended up getting together with him for dinner not long ago.  Mattingly told me about the horse breeding operation he started after he retired from baseball, and it sounded like he was very content doing that, working with his sons at the barn. He grew up in Evansville [Indiana] and, if baseball didn't exist, I'd imagine he might have been happy doing something along those lines.

 

How about Bernie Williams?

 

He's, pretty famously, a very talented musician. He'd always have a guitar in his locker and frequently before games, he'd hang out and strum.

 

Buck Showalter?

 

From what I witnessed, he was an attention-to-detail guy. The man spent more time in the clubhouse than even we did, which is saying a lot because we had to be there before any player got there and we were there after all the players left. He'd spend the night after night in his office watching tape. 

 

As for what Showalter might be doing if not for baseball, it's hard to say. An accountant?  Finance?  Something very serious. He's a very nice guy, but he didn't joke or pal around as much as some of the other guys.

 

One of the things about the book is the way that you, a lowly bat boy, somehow  managed to get in on experiences that very few people outside of Major Leaguers actually see. I remember one bizarre passage, where you described a relief pitcher trashing a television set after he'd lost a game. You, and everyone else, would just stand around as if it wasn't happening. Did you end up with higher or lower opinion of ballplayers as a group?

 

Higher. Before I got the job – and this is partially about being a 15, 16-year-old baseball fan – I didn't realize that these guys were actually real people, if you know what I mean.  They were just these two-dimensional icons, larger than life. Who was Don Mattingly? Don Mattingly was the first baseman for the New York Yankees. The idea that he had a wife and kids, or a sense of humor, or any other personality traits that I might recognize as being similar to anyone in my family or my school or around the neighborhood, had just never crossed my mind. So it was a real revelation to go in there and, all of the sudden, discover that the ballplayers were real people who I could connect with.

 

The vast majority of the players were very decent guys, good human beings. A handful, or maybe more than a handful, were great. Guys like [Jim] Abbott, Mattingly, Bernie – plus a few lesser-known ball players like Matt Nokes, Tim Leary, John Habyan, Scott Kamieniecki – really went out of their way to make me feel welcomed and make sure I was staying out of trouble.

 

Even the very few who weren't that great, it wasn't that there was anything malicious going on, and I was lucky that was part of the experience as well.  It's instructive to learn at that age that you could work with someone for two years who might never bother to learn your first name. Or that someone making ‘x' million dollars per year could stiff you – a sixteen year old working for thirty bucks a day – after you've picked up and paid for their lunch or dry cleaning.

 

But I don't want give you the wrong idea – the more positive guys and aspects of the job certainly dominated the experience.

 

The thought's out there that players, they may love the game, but they might love the money even more. Just based on what you knew from being in that world, day in and day out, for those years, do you think they'd still involved in the game if they were making, say, $50,000 per year?

 

Well, you can ask the same question, to a degree, about people doing any other job. How many doctors or lawyers would be doctors or lawyers if they were making what the average teacher makes? How many would chose do something else?  You hope people are doing what they do for reasons other than just money.

 

I'd guess that with most ballplayers the game is the starting point, something they thought about at every single waking moment when they were growing up, but we all know, and they know, that at the professional level it's not just a game but very big business, and for a lot of people.  For what it's worth, in two years in the Yankees clubhouse and dugout, I never once heard guys talking about salaries.

 

Or new cars or whatever luxuries?

 

Not really. Not much more, really, than a couple of brokers on Wall Street might brag about taking a private flight to Las Vegas or their new house or new boat. I mean, Danny Tartabull once invited all the players and their wives, and the clubhouse staff too, to a barbeque at his house. I doubt he was inviting me and the other bat boys to his house in order to show off his mansion. He made a lot of money, but I'm pretty sure he just wanted to throw a party for his family and friends, and was nice enough to invite us along.

 

One of the more unexpected chapters is your experience with one of the hangers-on that was attracted to the team due to the big money.

 

Yeah, working for the Yankees was a rich learning experience on a lot of different levels. One of the senior bat boys, who was effectively my boss, explained to me pretty early on that there were a lot of people on the periphery of the players' lives who were eager with an association with them but didn't have access. With time it became clearer how and why he always seemed to be wearing a new pair of Adidas sneakers – he'd pass a message to the ballplayers on behalf of one of these guys, and wasn't shy about asking for something in return.  Again, at that age – 16, 17, 18-years-old – you're prone to make mistakes as to what's right or wrong, whatever job you have.  The chapter you're referring to, I got in a little over my head with one of that kind of quid pro quo. I tried to be candid about it in the book.

 

It was almost funny, the degree of mutual manipulation that happens. I mean, these guys didn't even pretend to be fans - they wanted the bat boys to get them stuff and access so they could make money. And you wanted your own free stuff.

 

I was lucky to have learned my lesson before it was too late.

 

At the end of the day, are you a bigger fan for having lived within the team, or lesser? Or, maybe, just more ambivalent?

 

I've always been a baseball fan, and I'll always be a baseball fan. If there's been any change since I got the job, I'd say I'm a less rabid fan than I was before. I don't think I'll ever boo at a sports event again, and with the exception of truly incredible heroics on the field, I don't usually get as big a high when things are going well for the Yankees as I used to.

 

There's less mystique to it, you mean?

 

Yeah. I know Red Sox-Yankees is a big game, but the Red Sox and the Yankees are going to play again next year, and when they do that's going to be a big game, too. I think there's a certain level of perspective that comes from being immersed in it to the degree I was. I mean, there's a difference between a fan's relationship to the game and what the players have to do, but I think I may have picked that up from being around the ballplayers for two seasons.

 

It's a truism in baseball that you can't get too high or too low. The Yankees have already lost to the Red Sox twice this season by a score of 17-1.  Those are games, I'm guessing, that they don't dwell on any more than they bask too long in the glory of having scored 22 runs against a team on another day.  In either case, you've got to get up tomorrow and do it all again.

 

During one of the Old Timers' Days, you saw former bat boys return to the Stadium to join some of the former players, and you said, ‘If I'm still coming back 20 years from now, shoot me.'

 

Well, part of that is being a kid and feeling like, when this is over, I don't want to spend the rest of my life looking back and trying to relive my teenage years. But I can say that when I did leave, I was surprised by how strong the urge to return was.  I was lucky to be invited by my old boss to come back, a few years after I'd left, because he wanted my help in the clubhouse, which had a different tenor than coming back on Old Timers' Day.  What I realized, by the end of that second experience, is that it was time to move on.

 

(laughs) Then I ended up spending a year-and-a-half writing about it.

 

Yeah, that's the only way readers know about it in the first place.

 

It was great fun to write and I'm happy with how the book turned out.

 

Well, I'd recommend it. I enjoyed it a lot, for what that's worth. One final thing - if you ever have a kid, would you recommend that he or she serve as a bat boy?

 

Why not? I had some pretty unique experiences and learned some good lessons as well, and I wouldn't deny any kid a chance to see what I saw.  I might have learned more in two years at Yankee Stadium than I did in four years in college and three years in law school – real-life stuff, about human nature and interactions.  So when I have a kid, I'd encourage him to apply, yeah.

 

But your kids wouldn't be outsiders. They'd be second generation.

 

(laughs) Sure.

 

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