Every season it becomes clearer that hundreds of athletes get used up and left behind by major league sports. It’s happened in minor leagues and college, and high school, too. Overworked and sustaining massive injuries, they’re left with nothing else to do. It happened to me in middle school.
My hometown of Waldwick, New Jersey had a combined middle and high school, so I started seventh grade barely pre-teen amongst actual young adults. I didn’t have many friends within my own grade, and I looked up to my new, older classmates. I managed to get some of their attention, mainly because I was an eighty-pound, twelve- year-old who carried a backpack twice my size. I stuck out and got a lot of attention from upperclassmen who’d ask if I was just carrying around a sack full of bricks when they saw me. While I seemed to have a knack for making older kids laugh in between classes, what I really wanted was to make more friends.
I’d manage to coast through the school year with no real issues, or anything overly rewarding. But as spring approached, a bunch of seniors noticed me trudging down the hallway and made an offer. “You should be our bat boy for the baseball team!” “Really?” “Yeah, you should wear your backpack.”
As you can guess, I was not a particularly athletic child. While I’d played soccer back in the fall, I mostly sat on the sidelines. To this day that I still don’t know how to stay on-sides, and I’d accidentally purchased football cleats with my mother at the local K-Mart, since neither of us knew the difference.
I went to my first Waldwick Warriors baseball game on a Saturday early in the season. It was an away game, so my parents dropped me off at school first thing in the morning so I could ride on the bus with the team. It seemed like the team had barely run this by the coach, who seemed less than enthusiastic about some random twelve-year-old riding with his team. After my first time retrieving a bat, I was reprimanded for not wearing a helmet (and while it didn’t officially violate any rules, he recommended removing the backpack, which I didn’t). But we ended up winning the game. Everyone was excited, especially given most of our high school’s (losing) sports records. “You’re not just a mascot, you’re a good luck charm!” Coach’s opinion changed fast.
I went on to be the batboy at every Waldwick High School baseball game, both home and away. I was even expanding my role as unofficial mascot. Being that our town was fairly high school sports oriented, I ended up making friends with tons of upperclassmen. Instead of just commenting on how silly I looked in between classes, now they would actually talk to me, sometimes for thirty seconds at a time! The attention from the ladies who thought a twelve-year-old mascot was just “adorable,” was also nice.
Unfortunately my luck didn’t always carry over. During one home game one of our players hit a homer over the chain link fence into the woods. I’d volunteered to try to retrieve the ball, even though we didn’t need it. While I managed to scale the fence on the way over, I had no luck finding the ball. It was the return that gave me trouble. As I jumped back over, I caught one of my belt loops on the fence, leaving me hanging in midair. My pants were slowly starting to rip as I hung amongst low hanging tree branches, everyone oblivious to what had happened. And I didn’t want to disrupt the game by calling out for help. After fifteen minutes, the coach begrudgingly walked over to find me hanging, and helped me down.
I wasn’t the only one having bad luck, and the team’s undefeated streak was soon tarnished. Tensions were high, and the emotions were beginning to go back and forth, with people turning on each other. More specifically, they turned on me. I was beginning to be targeted for a lot of taunts. I’d asked everyone to stop, to little affect. Ever the pacifist, eventually I stopped showing up to the games. “That’ll show them,” I thought. After all, how could they treat me like this? After all my hard work and effort into helping them win this season. Sure, I didn’t actually play, practice, or even know all the rules to baseball. But I’d been skipping track and field practices (I was actually on that team) to make all of the games! I loved all the attention, but I refused to be a whipping boy. I even got a little cocky, passing by the field on my walk home after school as the Warriors played.
After a week, I thought the team would be rushing to take me back, but I was wrong. Even when I volunteered to come back, I wasn’t wanted anymore; apparently they’d managed to get out of their slump without me. My career as batboy/mascot/good luck charm was officially over. The school year finished up, and most of the high school students I’d met graduated and moved on. I went back to being a quiet, unassuming kid.
Years went by before I paid any attention to baseball again, when I started going to minor league games in my late twenties. It was only slightly disturbing when it dawned on me that the average minor league player age was already almost a full decade younger than me. But anytime I see a mascot take the field to dance, or shoot t-shirts out of a canon, I can’t help but wonder what could have been.