Special to Page 2
They're in uniform for every single baseball game. Many of them, in fact, get new uniform numbers every season. And yet almost nobody ever comments on them, or even thinks about them.
Uni Watch is referring here to bat boys, who constitute a stealth element in the world of baseball uniforms. They wear the same unis as the players, but they're subject to a sometimes confusing set of customs and protocols.
Fortunately, Uni Watch's efforts to untangle the threads of bat boy culture have been abetted greatly by two inside sources, both of whom prefer to remain anonymous: a 19-year-old home bat boy for an MLB team, whom we'll refer to as Bat Boy One, and a 29-year-old former MLB and minor league visiting bat boy, now working for a software company, whom we'll call Bat Boy Two.
The first thing to understand is that, except in very rare circumstances, bat boys don't travel on road trips with the team. So the home and visiting bat boys are both employed by the home team. In the minors, this uniform situation is simple enough: The home bat boy wears the home team's home uni all season, and the visiting bat boy wears the home team's road uniform all season. But in the bigs, the visiting bat boy wears the same uni as the visiting team (even though he's on the payroll of the home team), which means the visiting bat boy wears a different uniform every time a new team comes to town. And that in turn means -- well, here's how Uni Watch's Bat Boys explain it:
"When a team goes on the road, they'll pack a bat boy equipment bag to take along, which holds uniforms for each of the teams they'll be visiting on that road trip," says Bat Boy One. But since the road team can't know whether the visiting bat boy assigned to it in a given city will be tall and thin or short and squat, the team has to bring along a variety of sizes.
"Seriously, they've got every conceivable size you can imagine, like, from an Oompa-Loompa to King Kong Bundy," says Bat Boy Two. "Once they arrive, the visiting team's equipment manager gives you the uniform. Most of them can just look at you and know what size you are."
And is it weird to be wearing a different uni every couple of days? "No, it's kinda neat," says Bat Boy Two. "I liked the variety. And the equipment guy usually lets you keep the cap, so I ended up with quite a few 5950s that way. You end up with a lot of undershirts, too, since they usually let you keep those."
The biggest team-to-team variation in bat boy uniform formats involves the back of the jersey. Some are completely blank; others have no uniform number but have a "BAT BOY" nameplate (or, in some cases, "BATBOY" -- nobody seems to be sure if the term should be one word or two, and it almost looks like the Nationals are trying to have it both ways); other use "BB" instead of uniform numbers; others use unassigned roster numbers; and still others use a calendar-based system in which the bat boys all wear No. 02 in 2002, No. 05 in 2005, and so on.
The Mets have been using this annualized system for at least 20 years, as you can see in these photos from 1986, 2000, and last month. But Uni Watch has been unable to confirm what the team's bat boys wore in 1999, when No. 99 was already being worn by Turk Wendell. And Uni Watch design director Scott M.X. Turner has pointed out another problem with the calendar-based format: There are going to be big problems once we hit 2010, because the bat boy numbers will roll over from 09 into the realm of "real" uni numbers.
Bat Boy Two says he likes "BB," but Bat Boy One prefers to have a uni number, not only because it looks cool but because he works for a team that also has uni numbers on the front of the jersey, below the chest insignia. "If you don't have a number, that spot is blank, so it looks kind of weird," he says. But if the bat boy has a number there, it looks more official-like.
Home bat boys with uni numbers usually get a nameplate -- occasionally last name, usually first name. (Road bat boys, of course, never get a nameplate, because the visiting team can't know who'll be wearing the jersey.) "It's better to have your name, instead of having it blank," says Bat Boy Two. "That way people can actually address you by name, instead of, 'Hey you!' or 'Hey bat boy!' That's always the problem for the visiting bat boy."
Bat boys all wear helmets (or at least they're supposed to), which Bat Boy Two describes as the bane of the job. "It's this big, heavy thing and it's annoying," he says. "Nobody else has to wear it for the entire game like we do. And they never seem to fit right -- one team's size 7 might be tighter than another's, and it's not like a cap where you can stretch it or wet it and shrink it. Like, if you're wearing a tight 7, you're wearing a tight 7 for the whole four-game series. And if you move up to a 7 1/8, it'll be too wobbly and fall off when you're running."
Bat boys in the minors sometimes wear facemasks, but Bat Boy Two says he never went for that -- not even after getting his jaw broken by a foul ball. In fact, he was back at work the next day. "The players and I had fun figuring out what I could eat by putting pretty much anything and everything in a blender," he says. "Fudgsicles in a blender? Excellent! Stuffed shells in a blender? No good."
Some bat boys wear their pants hiked up high, while others favor the pajama style. Bat Boy Two is old enough to have toiled in the days of stirrups, which led to a problem during his first days on the job: "Believe it or not, I had never played organized baseball before, and the first couple of games I put my stirrups on backwards, with the higher opening in the front, instead of the higher opening in the back. I took a lot of abuse for that from all the players."
Occasionally there'll be a "celebrity" bat boy, usually a player's kid (as if it weren't enough of a privilege just to be a player's kid) -- call them brat boys. No "BB" or calendar-based uni numbers for these special cases, who usually get to wear whatever their fathers wear. Matt McGwire, for example -- a fixture during his father's 1998 home run campaign -- wore No. 25, just like daddy. Dusty Baker's impossibly cute son, Darren, wore No. 12 during the 2002 World Series (where, as you'll recall, he had to be rescued from harm's way by J.T. Snow). And No. 49 in this photo is Jose Mesa Jr., wearing his father's number. But Uni Watch will cut him some slack, because anyone who has to wear a Rockies uni deserves a break.
Brat boys presumably don't have to deal with all the rather unglamorous behind-the-scenes chores that regular bat boys have to do. Many of these tasks, as it turns out, are uni-related. Here's a quick sampling, as explained by Bay Boy Two:
• "In the clubhouse we have to take care of all the equipment -- socks, jocks, all of that -- and arrange it in the lockers. Some guys will have their uniform number written on their stuff, but others just have their nicknames, which is a huge pain in the butt if you're working the visiting clubhouse, because you don't know everyone's nickname. There was this one guy named Gary Green, and all his stuff had G-squared on it. And I'm like, 'Who the heck is G-squared?'"
• "We also have to polish the players' shoes, which is an interesting art. First you take 'em out into the runway between the clubhouse and the dugout and you bang 'em against the wall or the ground and use a wire brush to get all the mud out. Then you wipe 'em down with a damp cloth. Then, when they're dry, you polish them. There are some clubhouses that use actual colored polish, others use clear. For the A's [whose shoes are white], they use clear."
• "We'd also polish the shinguards, batting helmets, all that stuff. Sometimes the equipment guy will tell you whose stuff not to polish. I mean, I wouldn't wanna be the bat boy who makes the mistake of polishing Vlad Guerrero's helmet. We had this one guy who liked his helmet kinda scuffed up. At some point his helmet got chipped, so they had to give him a new one, and he asked us take it out and bang it against the dugout steps to scuff it up, so it would look used and broken in."
Despite such drudgery, Bay Boy Two really really misses his days of bat-boying. "When I watch a game nowadays, I see things that the average fan would miss," he says. "Like sometimes you see a guy on TV charting the pitches on a clipboard. And I know that, yeah, he may be charting the pitches, but he's also got a copy of Maxim underneath there. I love knowing that."
Don't look now, but the NHL season is right around the corner. The biggest uni-related news has been coming out of Buffalo, where this new logo design was leaked back in June. Dubbed the "Buffaslug" by disgruntled fans, it promptly became a source of an anti-Buffaslug petition campaign, a MySpace page, and lots of jokes about hairpieces. Meanwhile, at least one fan came up with lots of vastly superior logo and uni concepts.
Despite the controversy, the team stuck with the new logo design when unveiling the new uniforms at an open practice last Saturday. Further details, including Uni Watch's take on the new threads, are available here. And look for full NHL season-opening coverage in this space next time around.
NCAA Football, Continued
OK, one last round of college football updates:
• Cal's Golden Bears now have golden pants.
• Here's the throwback jersey and helmet that Georgia Tech will be wearing Thursday night against Virginia. And here's the original uni that the throwbacks are based on. (And as an aside, Uni Watch will be discussing the throwbacks and other uni-related topics on Georgia Tech's flagship station, WQXI 790, tonight at 6 p.m. Eastern.)
• For this Saturday's game against Notre Dame, Michigan State will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Spartans/Irish "Game of the Century" by wearing a white helmet stripe and old-school Spartan decal, and both teams will wear a commemorative jersey patch. (Further details here.)
• The numbers, shoulder stripes, and "Ole Miss" chest logo on Mississippi's road jersey have switched from red with blue trim to just red, reminiscent of the Archie Manning era. Interestingly, the uni numbers on the new jerseys are inconsistent: Compare the different "8"s here, or the difference between the "7" here and the "7"s here.
• Navy has changed its school name to Nayv. OK, not really -- that's sophomore kicker Zach Weatherington, who got stuck wearing a major typo in last Saturday's game against Stanford.
Uni Watch's recent discussion of NCAA teams whose nameplates feature the team name or school name prompted a few readers to cite additional examples, including the Virginia soccer team (with thanks to Kevin Zdancewicz) and the Hawaii volleyball team.
And finally, a source who prefers to remain anonymous checks in with this news regarding the Browns' brown pants (which are included in the team's official specs but have never been worn): "In 2003-04, Browns petitioned league for permission to wear brown pants as an alternate. The design was going to be brown pants with the 'elf' logo on each hip. Despite the fact that the league approved the pants, Browns owner Randy Lerner didn't like the design and nixed the idea."
Uni Watch doesn't know about you, but the idea of putting Brownie (which is the elf's official name) on an NFL uniform is just too perfect. C'mon, Dawg Pounders -- demand the elf!
Paul Lukas wrote about Tigers bat boy Phil Schettenhelm (but not about his uniform) in the Sept. 11 issue of ESPN The Magazine. His Uni Watch blog, which is updated daily, is here, his answers to Frequently Asked Questions are here, and archives of his columns are available here, here, and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted? Contact him here.