The Rookie

After five decades in the bush leagues, Wayne Hattaway talks his way to The Show.

A couple of hours before a game with the White Sox at the Metrodome last month, Twins hitting coach Scott Ullger was crouched in front of a temporary backstop behind home plate, lobbing soft-toss pitches to Wayne Hattaway. Hattaway flailed helplessly from the right side, drawing catcalls from a number of Twins players who had gathered around to watch. Hattaway's a slight man whose face is all but obscured by a giant pair of beat-to-shit first-generation Oakley wraparound sunglasses and an overgrown Yosemite Sam mustache. As he wobbled under the weight of the bat, he looked like a cartoon catfish trying to swing a sledgehammer underwater. Frustrated, he turned around and tried a few hacks left-handed, with similar futility. Even for a guy who is 62 years old and almost blind, Hattaway's swing was a disaster.

"You need to stay short to the ball," Ullger counseled, as Hattaway kept swinging and missing, his wheezy, exasperated giggle carrying up into the empty blue seats of the Dome.

Twins designated hitter David Ortiz was looking on, leaning on a bat and convulsed with laughter. "Well, Wayne, it looks like you ain't a lefty and you ain't a rightie," Ortiz said. "What the hell are you?"

That's a question people have been asking Wayne Hattaway for most of the 51 years he has spent as a fixture in professional baseball clubhouses. Since the day in 1952 when he took a job as the batboy for the Mobile Bears, then the AA Southern Association farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Hattaway has lived the life of a baseball gypsy, traveling the furthest outposts of baseball's bush leagues (Elizabethton, Reno, Dallas, Charlotte, Lynchburg, Melbourne, Orlando) laboring as a clubhouse jack-of-all-trades--equipment manager, trainer, resident agitator and curmudgeon. Throughout his long career Hattaway has more or less played the part of the Twins organization's Pee Wee Marquette, the irascible, pint-sized former MC at New York's Birdland, a man saxophonist Lester Young once affectionately called "half a motherfucker."

And this year, after more than five decades in the minors, Hattaway is getting his first extended taste of the big leagues. Throughout an amazing Twins season that has been alternately snake-bit and charmed, he has consistently been in the thick of things in the Twins clubhouse, serving as the team's whipping boy, mad chemistry professor, and lucky charm. He also does a lot of laundry.

Hattaway's officially retired--on paper, at least--but Twins manager Ron Gardenhire conferred with general manager Terry Ryan in spring training and decided to bring him north to spend the season with the club.

"Wayne's just awesome," Gardenhire says. "He's retired from like 18 different jobs, so nobody's ever really been sure if he's retired or not. We had to get him up here to stir things up and keep things interesting. He's our head motivator; that's his title. Everybody in this organization knows and loves the Big Fella."

The life of a professional baseball clubhouse lifer is hardly the most glamorous of professions, but it's all Hattaway has ever known. For most of his life he's packed gear, done laundry, polished shoes, scrubbed floors, and cleaned up after ballplayers. He's spent some time thinking about actually retiring in recent years, but at this point he can't imagine doing anything else.

"I don't have any other hobbies," he says. "This is my whole life. When you're always on the road or at the ballpark for all but six hours a day, there isn't much time for anything else. I was married for a while, but that didn't work out. My wife never saw me. People ask me what else I like to do, and I don't have an answer. If you asked my ex-wife she'd tell you it sure wasn't makin' love. I played golf one time a long time ago, and it took me about 15 shots to make it through one hole before I just said, 'This ain't my game.' I get up in the morning, drink my coffee and watch TV, and then head over to the ballpark. I think it's probably too late for me to do anything else."

 

A major league clubhouse can be a remarkably claustrophobic and fragile experiment in communal living. There are those who will insist that chemistry is overrated in professional sports, yet there is no denying that a baseball team's clubhouse character--for better or worse--shows up on the field, if not always in the standings. For more than seven months of the year, a group of guys from wildly disparate backgrounds is thrown together in ridiculously close quarters; they eat, dress, shower, travel together, and play the longest schedule in professional sports. The clubhouse is a crucible of egos and insecurity, and players spend incredible amounts of down time there, watching television, eating, playing cards, answering mail, and just hanging out before and after games. In that environment guys like Wayne Hattaway play an important and underrated role in defusing tension and deflating egos, all the while ensuring that the daily operations run smoothly. A big part of their job is just to provide continuity, to keep the players grounded and put things in perspective.

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