Clubbies gone wild

Updated: May 12, 2007, 1:57 PM ET
By Luke Cyphers | ESPN The Magazine

Editor's Note: This story appears in the May 21 edition of ESPN The Magazine and includes special reporting by Shaun Assael and Amy K. Nelson.

THEY belong on trading cards, these little men behind the grand myths. One was a trainer whose silence speaks volumes about the home run record. Another rose from anonymous cop to right-hand man for Roger Clemens. Yet another was errand boy for the player who took Cal Ripken's place at shortstop. Then there's the Red Sox clubhouse manager who preyed on children, and the Dominican trainer to whom players still flock -- even after police watched him pick up a bag of steroids.

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To their legions we can now add Kirk Radomski, usurper of the mighty Victor Conte (heretofore the Babe Ruth of toadies) as maybe baseball's chief power supply. You can't miss him. He's the guy with the mullet picking up the towels.

This new class of sports celebrity will never take a playing field, fill out a lineup card or pull the trigger on a trade. They are clubhouse staffers and personal trainers and bullpen catchers. And they have long been invisible -- not to mention indispensable -- contributors to the national pastime. Many are legitimate, but more than a few work in the shadows. And now, thanks to a series of scandals, these low-level workers are doing star turns as witnesses to and perpetrators of crimes against their sports, as a curiously interested government decides that it wants to know what goes on outside the lines.

They are gofers and lickspittles, detailers of cars and movers of memorabilia -- and in some cases, procurers of contraband drugs. They program the clubhouse TV so the players don't have to, and at the drop of a $20 bill, they run to Starbucks for the chocolate-covered coffee beans that are all the rage now that the league has banned amphetamines.

These guys, for the most part, couldn't pass a background check at Wal-Mart. And yet they had free run of clubhouses for at least two decades, the two that not coincidentally coincided with the steroids era. You think Radomski, the 37-year-old former Mets batboy who just pleaded guilty to money laundering and distributing steroids to an unknown number of ballplayers, is special? Only in that he violated the one rule required to maintain his status.

He quit keeping secrets.

PRO SPORTS, from the inside, is often as glamorous as a Mississippi catfish factory. There are ugly jobs to be done: washing frightfully dirty laundry, discarding bloody tape and medical waste, cleaning up tobacco spit and chewed seeds. At least once a year, a violent stomach flu decimates a locker room, the viral upshot of many men being in close quarters.

The people doing the off-field jobs don't earn much by ballplayer standards, or even by most standards. Before tips, clubhouse attendants make $15,000 to $20,000; batboys just $5,000 to $8,000. But they're offered a variety of secondary markets -- for memorabilia and tickets, for example -- and someone willing to hustle can easily pad his paltry pay. Before a game, you can trip over a clubhouse kid genuflecting before a superstar who is signing some baseballs. They're "for charity," but players suspect, with good reason, that a few of those autographs will wind up on eBay or at a card show, the proceeds going to an underpaid clubbie near you.

Of course, clubhouses contain dozens of men with tons of disposable income, and that creates another secondary market: for favors. Players have cars that need washing, dogs that need walking, packages that need to be mailed or picked up. These already rich men also get a cash per diem of $72.50 on the road, money just looking for a way to be spent. Clubbies do what they can to be the recipients. They aim to please, whatever it takes.

So when a player misses the laundry hamper with his six-foot jump shot of dirty underwear, a clubbie is there to pick it up and jam it home. He's willing and usually able to help procure last-minute tickets, often for women the players met the night before. Rich buyers, underpaid sellers: It's the definition of the perfect underground economy.

George Mitchell
AP Photo/Mary AltafferGeorge Mitchell will be interested to hear what Kirk Radomski has to say.
For a while, Radomski was a titan of this market. In the steroids era, ballplayers needed drugs, and Radomski knew how to get them. (From whom remains to be seen; there's no telling where the threads may lead. Recently the IRS raided Frankie and Johnnie's Pine Tavern in the Bronx, a hangout for clubbies, players, politicians and the occasional wise guy.) As a Mets batboy, equipment manager and clubhouse assistant for 10 years, Radomski was particularly well situated to develop contacts.

"There were, like, 20 kids in that clubhouse, and you didn't know who was doing what," recalls Brian McRae, a broadcaster for the Royals who played for the Mets and four other teams in a 10-year career. "It was odd to me because in Kansas City and Chicago, access to the clubhouse was limited. In New York, it was looser. You saw people and would wonder, What the hell is going on?"

For Radomski, the answer was a lot. According to an affidavit filed in connection with the investigation, an FBI source said, "If a professional baseball player was currently using performance-enhancing drugs ... that player likely would be getting it from Kirk Radomski" and that he "took over after the BALCO Laboratories individuals were taken down."

To call theirs an insular society is an understatement. Most clubbies not only won't speak to the media, they won't even make eye contact, preferring to stay on the move, always appearing busy, busy, busy. But Radomski has bragged that he could write a book more explosive than José Canseco's. He's had to wait to sell the rights, though, because he's been wearing a wire and telling his story for free to federal investigators for the past 18 months. Now, as he prepares to open up to baseball's investigator, George Mitchell (another condition of his plea deal), dozens, perhaps hundreds, of players worry that he'll name names.

As explosive as the Radomski revelations promise to be, they shouldn't surprise anyone. For years, Clubbies Gone Wild was the burlesque in even the most storied clubhouses. Some clubbies were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 2000, Boston police pulled over Red Sox clubhouse aide Carlos Cowart at a traffic stop. The 19-year-old had borrowed a car from Manny Alexander, who'd once replaced Ripken in Baltimore. The cops found an envelope containing steroids and syringes in the glove compartment. Both Cowart and Alexander denied ownership, and no charges were filed. Players later said that Cowart was a model employee, but he never again worked for the team.

Other clubbies were just plain wrong. After several former spring-training clubhouse boys filed suit in 2001 alleging that they had been molested, Red Sox clubhouse manager Donald Fitzpatrick pleaded guilty to four counts of attempted sexual battery on children under 12. Barry Bonds' personal trainer, Greg Anderson, was one member of the entourage that owned a corner of the Giants' clubhouse through 2003. Now convicted in the BALCO case for conspiracy to distribute steroids and for money laundering, he's in jail for refusing to testify in Bonds' perjury investigation.

In 2005, Mets groundskeeper Dominic Valila pleaded guilty to felony charges for his work as a runner in a multimillion-dollar mafia gambling operation. Last year, the New York Daily News reported that in 2001, Canadian Border Service agents snagged Juan González's trainer, Ángel Presinal, as he unloaded an unmarked bag of steroids and needles from an Indians charter at the Toronto airport. Presinal said the bag belonged to González; the player said it was Presinal's. No charges were filed. Presinal was banned from MLB's clubhouses, but he still trains many Latin American players.

It's a tale as old as Shakespeare. When the low and talentless -- or at least the less talented -- aspire to mix with the great, it's amusing, inevitably a bit tragic ... and almost invariably pathetic. So what does it say about the players who take advantage of the underlings? And of the clubs that let them keep the game's darkest secrets? What if now, the clubbies end up with the last word?

It's hard to say if any of these cases spurred teams to rethink their clubhouses' accessibility. In 2004, Major League Baseball announced a crackdown on non-team-affiliated clubhouse people, even as officials admitted that they can't control whom the players choose as private trainers. And the players, clearly, aren't too discriminating. In the 1990s, Brian McNamee, an ex-NYPD cop, worked his way up from bullpen catcher to strength coach with the Blue Jays, where he worked with Clemens. He went to the Yankees when Clemens did, and by 2001, he was "Roger Clemens' guy," the pitcher's de facto trainer and on the team payroll. But on an October night in St. Petersburg, after a game with the Devil Rays, McNamee was found naked in a hotel pool, having sex with a woman rendered nearly comatose by the date rape drug GHB. Had security not dialed 911, the woman could well have died. Cops began a rape probe, and records show that McNamee lied repeatedly during his initial interview, even denying that he knew a team staffer who was also at the scene. But there were holes in the woman's story too; she failed to say that she came to the hotel to have sex with a third Yankee employee she'd been seeing. McNamee wasn't charged, but the Yankees quietly let him go.

Last year, journeyman pitcher Jason Grimsley was investigated for distributing growth hormone. A trainer, whose name was redacted in an affidavit for the case, referred Grimsley to an amphetamine source. Though other trainers were rumored to be the source, The Los Angeles Times tabbed McNamee. But McNamee has denied any involvement with performance-enhancing drugs. Then-U.S. attorney Kevin Ryan said the Times story had "significant inaccuracies," but a spokesman for Ryan, when asked by The Magazine, would not clear McNamee. Meanwhile, Clemens (and Andy Pettitte) continues to employ McNamee. Says Clemens: "I'll train with him anytime."

Not every clubbie has that kind of lifeboat. Five years after he borrowed Alexander's car, Cowart told The Boston Globe that the incident ruined him. He was in and out of work and cutting himself, leaving scars between his toes. "I just shut down," he told the paper. "How can you go from chilling with millionaires to washing dishes for old folks?"

THERE'S A story that Yankees beat writers of a certain age like to tell, about a low-level staffer who, as a salaried employee, was given a World Series share. The money at least equaled his annual take-home. Soon after the checks were doled out, he was showing off a shiny new ride. It was right out of Goodfellas, when Johnny Roast Beef drives up in that Caddy. Players told the guy never to bring the car to the park again. The message was clear: Don't flaunt it, because it's not really yours. You may have played in high school, even college. We may let you hang with us, even pick up our cast-off women. But you'll never be one of us. Never forget that.

It's a tale as old as Shakespeare. When the low and talentless -- or at least the less talented -- aspire to mix with the great, it's amusing, inevitably a bit tragic ... and almost invariably pathetic. So what does it say about the players who take advantage of the underlings? And of the clubs that let them keep the game's darkest secrets? What if now, the clubbies end up with the last word?

Might be time to trade your two Greg Andersons for a Radomski rookie card.

Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Luke Cyphers is a former senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.