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Sixteen-year-old Matthew McGough was a fairly typical teenager, obsessed with getting through high school, girls, and baseball, not necessarily in that order. His passion for the New York Yankees was absolute, complete with a poster of his hero, Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly, hanging on his bedroom wall. Despite having no connections whatsoever with the ballclub, Matt dreamed of sitting in the dugout with the fabled Bronx Bombers. So, in the Fall of 1991, he wrote a letter in his very best penmanship to the New York Yankees asking for a position as a bat boy.
Miraculously, he got the job, and on April 7, 1992, Matt walked into the madness of the Yankee clubhouse on Opening Day. And there was Don Mattingly, Donnie Baseball himself, asking him to run an errand, an errand which soon induced panic in the rookie bat boy. Thus began two years of adventures and misadventures—from the perils of chewing tobacco while playing catch with the centerfielder, to being set up on a date by the bullpen, to studying for a history exam at 3:00 a.m. at Yankee Stadium, to his own folly as Matt gradually forgets he’s not a baseball star, he’s a high school student.
BAT BOY captures the lure and beauty of the American pastime, but much more it is a tale of what happens to a young man when his fondest dream comes true. Matthew McGough wonderfully evokes that twilight time just before adulthood, ripe with possibility, foolishness, and hard-won knowledge.
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After his two-year career as a Yankee bat boy MATTHEW MCGOUGH graduated from Regis High School, Williams College (George Steinbrenner’s alma mater), and Fordham University School of Law. After law school he clerked for a district court judge at the Federal Courthouse in lower Manhattan. McGough lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Best Seat in the House
The game of baseball frames many of my sweetest childhood memories.
I made my first friendships playing Little League, and these friendships were shaped by countless hours of team batting and fielding practice on our neighborhood diamond. I consider our coach, a burly police officer named Mr. Ferguson, to have been my first great teacher. He drilled us in baseball fundamentals until they became second nature, but also allowed us time to practice acrobatic catches and double plays, feats we dreamt ourselves capable of but had little chance of ever actually executing in a game. Practices were focused but fun, a solid foundation for a lifelong love of baseball.
As a fan, I grew up rooting for the New York Yankees, and the team's players became my earliest heroes. I looked forward to visiting Yankee Stadium at least as eagerly as I anticipated the first day of summer vacation, Halloween night, or Christmas morning. I was still too young to realize that I might lack major league talent, and the handful of games I'd seen in person just fueled the dream that I too might play someday at the Stadium.
As momentous as any trip to see the Yankees seemed at the time, there was one particular game that made an impression so vivid and powerful that I can hardly imagine my childhood without it. In fact, it's hard not to wonder how my adolescence might have unfolded had I been anywhere else but Yankee Stadium that day.
The game, against the Kansas City Royals, was played on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in late July 1983. I had just turned eight. Personally speaking, it had been a banner summer for baseball.
I was halfway through my second season of Little League, starting at shortstop and leading off for my team, the legendary, perennially pennant-contending Brunt & Brooks Pharmacy. Being sponsored by a pharmacy didn't yield the tangible rewards enjoyed by some of our rival teams--namely, Tony's Pizzeria or the Ice Cream Villa--but one through nine, B&B had the best third-grade ballplayers in town. My team won many games that summer.
After the school year ended that June, my bedtime had been pushed back late enough that, if the pitchers worked fast and kept the score down, I could watch Yankees night games on television right up to the last out. Summer days peaked with Little League practice, then dinner in front of the TV listening to Phil Rizzuto call that night's Yankees game until Mom or Dad sent me to my room. That Fourth of July, I sat on the living room floor and watched every pitch of Dave Righetti's no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox. It was one of the most exciting things I'd ever seen; the fireworks show broadcast later that night from over the East River seemed dim in comparison. A few nights later, tuning in to another game, I saw Dave Winfield reach up and over the outfield wall to pull a game-winning home run back into play. I was awestruck by his catch. For weeks afterward, I imitated it so tirelessly against the four-foot-tall chain-link fence surrounding our Little League field that I came home from baseball practice every night with scrapes and bruises up and down my left arm.
Then came the game against the Royals. Since the night my dad brought home the tickets--one each for him, my little brother Damien, and me--I'd been able to think and speak of little else. We arrived at Yankee Stadium in time for the national anthem, and our seats in the upper deck had an expansive view of the field and the Bronx beyond it. Once the game started, though, I had trouble keeping my eye on the ball.
A friend had recently taught me how to keep score, the system of shorthand by which the details of any baseball game can be recorded for posterity. In my eagerness to correctly make note of each at bat on the scorecard, I spent a good share of the afternoon with my head in the program, half a step behind what was happening in the game.
Also competing for my attention were a trio of belligerent beer-swilling Yankees fans in the row directly behind us, huge men, unshaven and foul-mouthed. I stole quick glances at them over my shoulder between pitches, fascinated but terrified they might catch me staring.
The Yankees took a 4-3 lead into the ninth inning. Damien and I joined the crowd in a lusty chant of "We Want the Goose," a reference to Goose Gossage, the Yankees' celebrated relief pitcher warming up in the bullpen. It was my favorite ballpark huzzah, excepting the bugle call that always ended with a spirited "Charge!" After a two-out Royals single put the tying run on first base, Yankees manager Billy Martin acquiesced to the crowd and brought Gossage in to close out the victory. My brother and I retook our seats, satisfied at having influenced the course of the ballgame. I noted the pitching change on my scorecard and, while the Goose warmed up, double-checked my earlier handiwork.
"Wait, is the shortstop number 5 or number 6 if you're keeping score?" I asked my dad.
"Number 6," my dad answered.
"So when the shortstop throws to the first baseman, it's 6-3, right?"
"That's right," he said. The crowd cheered Gossage's first pitch, a strike.
"And a called strike three is a backward K or a regular K?"
"Matt, get your head out of the program. You're missing the game."
"But which one is it?"
"Backwards. But you're missing all the action. George Brett's up. Watch the game. You can do that when we get--"
He was cut off in midsentence by the crack of the bat. By the time I located the ball, it had begun its descent; it came down far beyond any Yankee's reach, over the outfield wall. With two outs in the top of the ninth inning, Brett's homer had put the Royals ahead by a run. One of the men in the row behind us cursed and tossed his half-full beer cup over my head, over the upper-deck railing, and down onto the fans in the box seats below. More than a few drops splattered my scorecard; long streaks of inky beer ran down the page into my lap. I looked to my dad, who had somewhat miraculously been spared the shower. Unaware, he still faced the field, watching Brett circle the bases. I blotted fruitlessly at the scorecard with my T-shirt.
"Here comes Billy!" screamed the beer-thrower over my shoulder.
I craned my neck and could see that the Yankees manager had indeed left the home dugout. Martin walked out toward the home plate umpire, gesturing animatedly at the bat Brett had just used to hit his home run.
"What's he saying?" I asked my dad.
"I don't know," he said.
All four umpires huddled around home plate. The home plate ump emerged from the conference and turned to the Royals dugout, then extended his thumb and swung his arm, throwing Brett out of the game.
Brett, the Royals' best player, didn't take the ejection very well. He burst out of the Royals dugout and onto the field, charging straight at the umpire. The Yankee Stadium crowd went bananas. In half a second, thirty-five thousand fans, including the tall ones in the row in front of me, were on their feet. Another cup of beer sailed over my head.
"I can't see the field!" I shouted. "I can't see anything!"
My dad lifted Damien onto his shoulders and helped me up onto my seat. In the middle of a huge scrum at home plate, Brett was being forcibly separated from the ump by three of his teammates. A fan to our right with a transistor radio reported that Brett's bat had been ruled illegal--"something about too much pine tar"--and the home run nullified. The game was over; the Yankees had won. The first few lyrics of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" blared from the Stadium's public address system.
My last glimpse of the Yankee Stadium field that day had Brett, still livid, being escorted up a tunnel from the Royals dugout. Up a tunnel to what, I didn't know.
A twenty-two-year-old Yankees first baseman, Don Mattingly, was also at the Stadium that afternoon. Though it was his rookie season, Mattingly had already established himself in the Yankees lineup; he had in fact had a hit in each of New York's nine previous games.
Without a doubt, he had watched the Brett spectacle unfold from a better seat than mine. But at that point in his career, he'd been in the big leagues only a few months, and I'd like to think he was just as thrilled as I was to be at Yankee Stadium that afternoon. I imagine he watched that game from the Yankees dugout with the same sense of wonder I felt myself, way up in the upper deck.
At breakfast the next day, my mom spread the morning's sports page on the kitchen table and pointed out the article about what was already being called "the pine tar game." I had never been present at a newsworthy scene before, and I pored over the story and photos; I grasped for the first time that what happens in the world one day is what shows up in the paper the next.
After reading the story and studying the box score of the pine tar game, I moved on to the accounts of all the other major league games that had been played that Sunday. In those box scores and recaps, I recognized one or two players' names from the few dozen baseball cards in my collection. I made the connection between the names and the faces, and that connection made a big impression on me. I understood: you could follow the game this way.
When I started receiving an allowance of a few dollars a week that fall, it passed nearly instantaneously from my dad's pocket, through my hands, into the pocket of the five-and-dime-store owner who sold me more of these cardboard portraits. As my collection developed, I learned more teams, and players' names, and early eighties baseball history. I stored the cards in shoe boxes, like my dad told me he'd done growing up in Brooklyn forty years before, and swapped doubles with Damien and friends at school. I studied the ballplayers' faces and s...
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