Over the past couple of years, Major League Baseball has placed more importance on analyzing and ultimately speeding up the pace of play. One group of people plays a surprisingly large role in the flow of a baseball game. It’s not the players. Or the umpires. Or even the coaches or the fans. It’s the most overlooked people on the field: the bat boys.
Bat boys do more than just fetch bats from home plate. Their responsibilities are many, all of them essential to the pace and flow of the game. Bat boys must be hard-working, alert, and on their toes at all times, for not much pay. But they are rewarded with something other than money: They get the best view in the stadium of the game they love, have an intricate role in it, and get to work with some of the players they grew up watching.
Mariners bat boy Joe Van Vleck, 28, is in his third year as one of the Mariners’ two bat boys after taking last year off. His journey started before the 2012 season, when he worked as an on-field security guard.
“I saw the opportunity that a couple bat boys were leaving, and I was lucky enough to get hired,” Van Vleck said. “I just went through the normal interview process; it wasn’t anything crazy. I didn’t know anyone inside the organization. I think that’s a common [misconception].”
Bat boys are a central part of the flow of the game itself. “There’s always two bat boys at a time, [one on bats] and the other guy on balls,” Van Vleck said. “We grab bats — if there’s a broken bat we make sure we get a replacement. The guy on balls will coordinate with the umpire and make sure he has enough balls for the pitcher.”
If the bat boys aren’t alert and ready to do their job at any moment, they can significantly increase the time of the game, which can be annoying to fans and umpires.
Bat boys’ duties don’t start and end with the game, though; they have many tasks to complete before and afterward that are also essential to their clubs. Bat boys usually arrive at the stadium four hours before the game and don’t usually leave until two hours after it ends.
“To start, we normally get the whole dugout ready,” Van Vleck said. “We put in the helmets and bats. We get everything ready from Gatorade to seeds.” Pre-game chores don’t end there. “We’ll go out for batting practice and normally shag balls in the middle of the field and take balls up to the pitcher when he runs out.” Post-game responsibilities include cleaning spikes and filling coolers and fridges with beverages for players.
Being a bat boy isn’t all work, though. “We get to eat a lot. There’s a lot of eating that happens here,” Van Vleck explained. “After the game we eat more. My favorite part is just being part of the game. Just getting to be part of the team. You get to know all of the guys, and they look at you as a friend in a lot of ways.”
By working in the clubhouse, it’s no wonder bat boys get to know the players and become friends with them. “I think there’s an idea that professional athletes wouldn’t be the nicest, but I never feel less than anyone else. Everyone treats you really nicely,” Joe said.
The stories of practical jokes being played on bat boys aren’t always accurate, but they aren’t completely false either. “[Players] go pretty easy on us. We do receive a bit of friendly hazing from time to time, but everybody is careful to make sure you’re on their team.”
When asked who his favorite player on the Mariners was, Van Vleck wasn’t about to tell. “I don’t want them to find out,” he joked. “That might affect my relationship with them. I actually don’t have a favorite. It’s cool to see all of the different personalities on the team.”
Despite being an essential part of the clubhouse, bat boys live in the shadows of their player counterparts. But they’re happy to be part of the team. Added Van Vleck, “There’s nothing usual about being a bat boy.”
Photos: Ted S. Warren/AP