I’ve been following the great game of baseball since 1968 and in that time I have more than my fair share of memories.
In addition to the easily 1000 games I’ve seen in that time where I’ve had the occasional great seat to be able to interact with players, there have been other special moments including my wife and I having our first date which was at the 1974 World Series and seeing my life flash in front of me prior to the start of Game 3 of the 1989 World Series when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit.
I’ve hung around players at various functions, stayed in the same hotel as the team when following the Oakland A’s on road trips, and even been on the field at a few ball parks during stadium tours or post game fan events.
But I never had an experience like I did last Thursday, June 2, when I got the opportunity to try out to be a San Francisco Giants Ball Dude at AT&T Park. The plan: to earn a spot down the first or third base line snaring balls hit into foul territory during the game.
The opportunity was courtesy of my kids and their spouses – bless them – as an early Father’s Day gift.
The special day started with an 11 a.m. check-in at the stadium employee entrance where 25 of us waited, checking each other out as competition and engaging in small talk. “Ball Dudes” initially started in 1993, when the age was 60 for participants. It is now open to both sexes (Dudettes as women are called) with a minimum age of 21. The program is so popular that with the Ball Dude roster so large, only one is chosen each season from the workout hopefuls.
The competing cast for this year, however, was mostly above age 50 – like me – in all shapes and sizes.
Our group was led into the visitor’s clubhouse where our jerseys (As Jimmy Fallon said in Fever Pitch “Just like the players wear”) were hung in our respective lockers; my first breathtaking moment of many through the day.
After changing, I trotted down the player tunnel to the where the field, stands, overhead music and everything else in the cathedral known as AT&T Park opened up to me in the first base dugout; breathtaking moment Number 2.
In a reversal of Moonlight Graham in Field of Dreams, I went from middle-aged man to young kid with that distinctive sound from my first dirt-crunching step onto the playing field.
There was a brief lunch where the players and workout staff were introduced.
For the day, our staff included Giants former hurler Bill Lasky and 1980-83 first baseman Rich Murray (Eddie’s younger brother). Fat-boy here made sure he was eating light so not to blow chunks later onto the hallowed ground.
The participants were divided into three groups for a rotation between a half-hour each of (my group’s order) fielding ground balls at second base, batting practice, followed by shagging fly balls in the outfield.
Though I have played years of softball, I hadn’t taken (baseball) infield since my high school days. At second base, fielding grounders, playing the hop, was a joy. I especially liked when they were hit with a challenge of having to go left or right – and these weren’t slow rollers.
Next came batting practice, and to steal Kevin Cosner’s Crash Davis line from Bull Durham, “You hit white balls for batting practice in the show.”
I was surprised I still had my swing. Not only was I making contact off Iron Mike, but putting the balls outfield deep – a lazy can of corn though for current outfielder Gregor Blanco.
Next came flyballs in the outfield.
As I was positioned in the centerfield pasture, I realized Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ was playing overhead – a thrill of the moment re-emerged. Here I was, in a Giants uni, chasing down fly balls on a MLB field with THAT SONG (Giants fans will know) piped through the PA system.
On one deep fly, I went back, towards Triples Alley, on a ball over my head. I wasn’t giving up on it and gave a dive, missing it just off the tip of my outreached glove. I went down hard skidding across the grass leaving a stain that won’t come out – and I say “won’t come out” because I want it to stay there. Anybody can wear a Giants jersey. How many have a grass stain on theirs from a dive in centerfield at AT&T Park?
As we wrapped it up, the group had individual tries at fielding balls down the foul line and a quiz on the rules of the position.
Getting the selection requires luck along with skill. After the workout, the staff pools a selection of names they feel worthy and randomly select one.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have that sort of luck, but I still felt lucky to have the experience.
I didn’t mind the later soreness from the physical exertion. The pain was only temporary, the bruise from the dive will heal, but the glory of the chance to play that day will live in my mind forever.
Richard Paloma is a staff reporter for The Oakdale Leader, The Riverbank News, and The Escalon Times. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 847-3021.