The Rookie

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

In 51 years in clubhouses a guy will develop a lot of survival skills, not to mention an innate but sophisticated handle on crisis management and group psychology. A lifer like Hattaway's got to know when to hold his tongue and when to brandish the dagger, all the while taking into account the shifting moods and sometimes volatile mix of personalities in the room. Hattaway is equal parts den mother, confidant, housekeeper, and comic relief. J.C. Romero might have the role on the field, but in the clubhouse Hattaway's the setup man. It's also clear that the Twins, almost to a man, love him like a crazy uncle.

The average fan seldom gets a chance to witness the obvious affection and admiration that managers, coaches, and players have for characters like Hattaway. The clubhouse crew is a hugely important part of a baseball team, and the relationship is one of mutual dependence. When baseball people talk, as they invariably do, about respecting the game, a big component of that is recognizing and respecting the contributions of the people behind the scenes--the little people, as Leona Helmsley might say. People like Hattaway. One of the most endearing qualities of former Twins manager Tom Kelly, a man whose public petulance was legendary, was his appreciation for and kindness toward the average Joes who shared his orbit at the ballpark, and he instilled that attitude in his coaches and players. Baseball has always demonstrated an uncommon reverence for longevity and loyalty, and the reward for guys like Hattaway is that they become, in time, beloved and indispensable parts of a team's character and identity. Witness the outpouring of grief in Cleveland this season when longtime Indians trainer Jimmy Warfield died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. Few baseball fans had ever even heard of Warfield, yet the Indians responded to his death with tears and heartfelt tributes, and have worn his initials on their hats and jerseys all season.

When the Twins finally clinched the Central Division title in Cleveland a couple of weekends ago, Gardenhire made a point in the Star Tribune of singling out Hattaway for his mostly unseen contributions to the team.

 

Hattaway is actually a tiny fellow--he was always too small, he says, to play the game--but he's a fearless, outsize character. He's got a chirpy Southern drawl and walks with a lazy, inimitable shuffle. He looks like he shaves with a steak knife, and he frequently sports a huge cowboy hat and long duster overcoat. Everyone he meets, from superstars to rookies to complete strangers, is addressed as either "Big Fella," "Big'un," or "Biggie." Women are routinely greeted with a courtly sweep of the cap and a bow, followed by, "How ya doin', Big Gal?"

Told of Gardenhire's description of him as the team's head motivator, Hattaway lets loose with his customary machinegun cackle, a dusty giggle that starts as a prolonged wheeze and screws itself up to a high-pitched, staccato howl. It's a laugh that would make Mel Blanc green with envy.

"I don't need no title," Hattaway says. "My job has always been to tell these guys how good they ain't."

 

Virtually everybody who's ever passed through the Twins organization has a Hattaway story, and everyone who's ever met him seems to have a credible Hattaway impersonation in his repertoire. Most of the vintage Hattaway yarns revolve around his rare gift for the deflating needle, and there are a handful of choice lines he seems to have dropped on most players at one time or another, generally when they have been at their most vulnerable or discouraged.

Twins bench coach Steve Liddle first crossed paths with Hattaway in Orlando, when Wayne was the equipment manager and Liddle was still a player. "I remember I'd had a bad game and I was sulking in front of my locker afterwards," Liddle recalls. "Everybody had pretty much cleared out and Wayne comes over and says, 'Hey, Big Fella, can I have your shirt?' A couple minutes later he comes back and says, 'All right, Big Fella, let me have your pants.' Finally, he comes back one last time and says, 'How about the socks, Big Fella?' You know, it was late and he just wanted to get the hell out of there. So he takes my socks, gives me a pat on the back, and says, 'It's all right, Big Fella, you're taking this way too hard. It's not your fault; you shouldn't even be here.'

"Real comforting."

Talk to enough players past and present and you'll hear dozens of variants of that line, the most popular and enduring--heard by everyone from Bert Blyleven to Eddie Guardado--is "It's not your fault, Big Fella, it's the scout who signed you."

Hattaway is also famous for outfitting gullible instructional league rookies with uniforms several sizes too small. When they complain, he'll tell them, "I'm pretty sure it'll fit the next guy. What the hell do you think this is, the big leagues?"

Blyleven, who would win 287 games in the major leagues and is currently a Twins broadcaster, has a typical history with Hattaway.

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