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?"

Craig Lassig

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.

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.

"I go back to 1969 with Wayne," Blyleven says. "The first time I met him was in the instructional league down in Florida. He was kind of the clubhouse guy, equipment manager, traveling secretary-slash-everything. I was 18 years old, and to be honest with you, he scared me. He was one guy you definitely didn't want to get on the bad side of. He'd rub down a pitcher's arm before a game, slap him on the back, and say, 'See you in 20 minutes, kid.' I didn't know how to take him. He used to go sit in a chair out behind the outfield fence when I was pitching, and he'd be out there shouting and clapping his hands, 'Hit it to me! Let 'em hit it to me, Bert!'"

Hattaway remembers those days fondly. "I'd always get four or five balls," he remembers. "Bert's one of my favorite all-time characters. He hasn't changed a bit. He's the same guy now as he was the first day we signed him. He was a nut then, and he's still a nut."

Another famous Hattaway story that comes up again and again in conversations with players and coaches involved a long home-run pitcher Rob Wassenaar gave up when he was toiling for a Twins minor league team. The team was driving through the night, headed to the next town; the bus was an hour away from the stadium, and guys were starting to nod off. All of a sudden Hattaway was on his feet in the dark bus, screaming, "Stop the bus! Hey, bussie, stop the bus!" Players were shouting at Wayne to shut up. The bus ground to a halt along the highway, and Hattaway peered out into the darkness and shouted, "There's Wassenaar's home run ball! It's still rolling!"

 

Hattaway was the batboy in Mobile for almost 10 years--a job he got through the intercession of Chuck Connors, star of the old television series The Rifleman. Connors played for the Bears in those years (and later, briefly, with the Dodgers and Cubs).

"Connors and another guy who was a pitcher on that team saw me around the neighborhood and they took me down and introduced me to the owner," Hattaway recalls. "I was just 12 years old, and they made me the batboy. Since that day, other than the time I worked in a grocery store for a few days, I've never had any other job but baseball."

In 1962, the year the New York Mets entered the National League, the team held its minor league spring training in Mobile and hired Hattaway as trainer and equipment manager. The next year the Twins hired him and sent him down to Dallas to run the clubhouse of their AAA team. He spent a couple of years in Dallas, and when the season ended he would head down to Florida for the instructional league. In 1964 he moved again, to work for Phil Howser, the general manager of the Twins AA team in Charlotte. Hattaway would spend eight memorable years in Charlotte, where he was the equipment manager and trainer for teams that included such notable ex-Twins as Lyman Bostock, Dave Boswell, Charlie Manuel, and Tom Kelly.

The most notorious bus trip in Hattaway's long career of endless bus trips was a 1971 debacle that handily deflates any lingering romantic notions about life in baseball's minor leagues.

"We were on the bus headed back to Charlotte after a game in Montgomery," Hattaway remembers. "This was an early Sunday morning in the Deep South, and the bus breaks down about 10 miles outside of Atlanta. The bussie went into town to find another vehicle, but there wasn't nothing open and he eventually came back out with a big U-Haul. It was like four o'clock in the morning, and we piled all the players and equipment in the back of this U-Haul and took 'em on to Charlotte to play a doubleheader. That was probably the funniest thing that ever happened to me, but I probably shouldn't say that, because every time I do, something funnier comes along."

Nineteen sixty-nine was Hattaway's darkest year in professional baseball. He was married on the field that year in Charlotte, with former Twins executive and Rockies general manager Bob Gebhard serving as best man. Charlotte manager Ralph Rowe gave away the bride.

"That was pretty much a bad year all around," Hattaway says. "We won the pennant, but that was also the year our general manager, Phil Howser, pushed a woman out of a window and killed her. I can't prove he did it on purpose, because he was acquitted, but we were in Columbus and this newspaperman came up and asked us if we thought Howser was innocent or guilty. We didn't know what the hell he was talking about, and he told us Howser had pushed this woman out of a window the night before. Ralph Rowe turned to me and said, 'My goodness, do you think he could have done that?' And I said, 'You're damn right he could have!' That same year Howser fired Rowe because his wife brought a snow cone into the stadium. He was pissed because she didn't buy it at the concession stand. Howser was one of those guys who would fire you one minute and bring you back the next. I don't know how many times he fired my ass or I quit. I'd get back to my rooming house and the woman who ran the place would say, 'Mr. Howser called.' I don't know how he did it, but he'd get me to come back every time."

Steve Liddle remembers the day Hattaway got tossed out of the Southern League.

"He used to get tossed out of games all the time," Liddle recalls. "He'd argue with umpires, and if a game went extra innings he'd go off on everybody. He'd be shouting, 'Speed this thing up! We don't get paid for extra innings!' The umps would tell him to put a lid on it, and he'd cuss 'em out and get tossed. But this one time he got kicked out of the entire league. He cussed out the owner of the Jacksonville team because he closed down the hotdog stand after the game and we couldn't get anything to eat."

"I know exactly how many games I've been tossed out of," Hattaway says. "Five. One time an ump claimed I'd spit on him--I was just getting over a cold--and he threw me out and suspended me for three games. That deal in the Southern League was a bum rap. Jimmy Bragan was the president of the league, and his brother ran the Jacksonville club. We always ate at the ballpark concession stand after the game--things weren't like they are now-and for 20 years they'd always left the stand open so we could get something to eat. Well, this time the guy says they'd already closed the concessions, so I 'motherfucked' him. They were just pissed because we'd whipped 'em in a doubleheader, so they shut the thing down just to spite us. They banned me from the dugout for the rest of the year."

Blyleven remembers Hattaway's disastrous interpretations of clubhouse cookery. "Wayne used to make soup every day, and I don't think there were more than four or five guys who would eat it," he says. "You never knew what was going to find its way into that soup. One time there was a hat in there. If you were ever missing a pair of shoes, the first place you'd look was in the bottom of Wayne's soup pot. He'd get pissed off in the instructional league when guys would come off the field without cleaning their spikes. They'd track dirt all over Wayne's clubhouse floor, and he'd yell and scream, and then you really didn't want to eat his soup."

Between 1973 and 1975, Twins minor league director George Brophy kept Hattaway moving, sending him to Lynchburg, Reno, and eventually to Orlando, Florida, where he remained until 1990. During his years running the minor league clubhouse in Orlando he was also working at the Twins rookie league camp in Melbourne, and there was always a period where the two seasons overlapped and Hattaway would drive back and forth between Orlando and Melbourne every day.

A lot of people in the Twins' current organization first made Hattaway's acquaintance during that long stint of double duty.

"Wayne would tape your ankles so tight you could barely walk," Scott Ullger remembers. "You'd see guys walking around like mummies, and you'd know Wayne had got his hands on them. He'd rub down a pitcher's arm and say, 'There ya go, Big Fella, you're ready for nine.' And the guy would go, 'Uh, Wayne, that's the wrong arm.'

"One time we had this guy, Captain Dynamite, come and climb in a box and blow himself up behind second base. He gets a big piece of the box blown into his back and is bleeding all over the place, so they call for Wayne and he comes running out with his first aid kit, gets one look at all that blood, and passes out."

Hattaway shrugs off the episode. "I'll admit it," he said. "I can't stand the sight of blood."

"By the Eighties Wayne was just the equipment manager," Steve Liddle says. "After the agents came into the game, Wayne was no longer the trainer, because of the potential for lawsuits."

Gardenhire had Hattaway as his equipment guy when he was the manager of the Orlando team from 1989 to '90.

"Wayne's a beauty," Gardenhire says. "He used to sit right behind me on the bus, smoking cigars and burning me in the back of the head. The one thing you don't want to get Wayne started on is Alabama. Every time we'd cross the Alabama state line--and I don't care what time of the morning it was--he'd start yelling and hollering, 'Alabama! Alabama, boys! Everybody up--you're in God's country now!' And everybody'd be screaming at him to shut up. His whole life is baseball and anything to do with Alabama--Alabama football, Alabama baseball, the Alabama state lottery. He lives and breathes and smokes Alabama."

Longtime Twins bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek, who shares a Minneapolis apartment with Hattaway and rooms with him on the road, first met Wayne in 1978 in the instructional league.

"I remember this one Saturday," Stelmaszek recounts. "There was an Alabama football game on TV that Wayne wanted to watch, but this guy Buck Chamberlin, who was the head trainer there at the time, put a power play on Wayne and made him go on a road trip. Wayne got so pissed off that he harpooned the TV with a broomstick. By the time Wayne got back from the road trip Randy Bush had fished the TV set out of the dumpster and doctored it up with athletic tape and put it back on the stand. Wayne went ballistic and took the TV outside and impaled it on a fencepost."

 

By the end of his time in Orlando, Hattaway was starting to think about the end of the road. Dick Martin, the trainer for the Lynchburg team in the A league, had long since been promoted over Hattaway to the major league club, and when Ray Crump was dismissed as the Twins' big league equipment manager, Hattaway was passed over for that job as well.

"Everybody wants to get to the big leagues," Hattaway said. "But they always told me I was too valuable where I was. I asked Bert one time, when he was the player rep, if he'd put in a good word for me for Crump's job, but he told me I didn't have a chance. He said, 'Right now you're one guy doing the job of three guys, and they aren't going to find anybody else to do it.' I knew that anybody could do this job up here, but nobody would want my job down there in the Southern League, working from six in the morning until midnight."

From 1991 to '95 Hattaway served as equipment manager at the Twins minor league complex in Fort Myers. Then, he says, his eyes went bad, cigar smoking and a poor diet the purported culprits. Anyway the game had started to change for the worse. "I decided maybe it was time to leave it to the younger guys to take care of it," he says. "On paper I was retired, but papers or no papers, I kept working. What else was I going to do? I stuck around Fort Myers helping out the equipment manager. I still hung around even though I wasn't getting any money for it."

Hattaway has maintained his primary residence at the Taylor Motel in Mobile since the 1980s, and he still has a couple of sisters living there in his old hometown, but he doesn't get back much anymore. When he does he usually finds himself getting restless for the clubhouse after only a few days. "I don't drive anymore," Hattaway says. "And I don't know too many people in Mobile these days. Whenever I get back there I just get up in the morning and go up to the McDonald's for coffee, and then go back to the Taylor to watch TV all day. That's really about all I have to do there." Invariably he finds himself headed back to Florida, back to the ballpark, where he knows he can find the only family to which he has ever really belonged.

Hattaway was thrilled to get the call from Gardenhire this spring, and he's happy to be in the mix of the Twins clubhouse, happy to be involved in the daily routine and the grind of the long season. Watching him shuffling through the Twins clubhouse with his arms full of dirty laundry, stopping to needle players at their lockers or tease their children, you know you're seeing a man in his element. Whenever Hattaway's in the clubhouse he always seems to be right in the thick of the action.

"They let me do whatever I want to do," Hattaway says of his arrangement with Gardenhire and the Twins. "But like I told [equipment manager] Jim Dunn, don't treat me no different than anybody else. I'm just another spoke in the wheel, and I'll help out wherever I can. I'll do the laundry, whatever needs to be done. Mostly, though, I'm just an agitator. I know how to agitate with the best of them. And there's no better bunch of characters than in our clubhouse. I had most of these guys in the minors, and I know how to get to pretty much all of 'em."

Hattaway has some unfinished business with Twins catcher A.J. Pierzynski and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, who tied Hattaway to a chair and threw him in the shower a few years ago in Salt Lake City.

"Wayne's one of those guys that you run into once in a lifetime," says Pierzynski. "He's always fun to have around. He's one of the nicest guys in the world, and he'd do anything for you. But he just loves to put everybody down and he gets himself into trouble. Everybody pretty much wants to kick his ass all the time. I'm happy that he's up here, but you'd think that now that he's made it to the big league clubhouse he'd have mellowed out a little bit. Definitely not the case. I'm afraid Wayne's got a bad case of big-league-itis."

"I still haven't had my revenge on those guys," Hattaway says. "Them's my whipping boys, and let's just say I'm playing for my moment."

Hattaway and Stelmaszek would seem to be the oddest of couples. Stelmaszek is the longest-tenured Twins coach, and he has a home and a family in Chicago. Yet when Gardenhire proposed bringing Hattaway to town for the season, Stelmaszek was more than happy to share his apartment.

"I'll tell you what," Liddle says. "Stellie's going to go straight to heaven for taking Wayne in. You have to have the patience of Job to put up with Wayne Hattaway."

"Wayne has his quirks about him,"Stelmaszek allows. "Our place is right downtown, so Wayne can come and go as he pleases, and he walks to the ballpark. I'm not a morning person, but he's up at the crack of dawn, and by the time I'm up five minutes he's filled me in on the box scores, the weather report, what the terrorists are up to, and what the stock market's doing. He's also a neat freak, which is nice. If I go to Chicago I'll come back and the floors have been scrubbed, the carpet's vacuumed, and the bathroom's been cleaned. Neither of us is around much, and though we watch the cooking channel all the time, we never cook.

"There's nobody else like him. He's really just an honest-to-goodness good person." "

 

Baseball is historically a sport of characters, and many of the most legendary don't figure in the game's records or encyclopedias. The clubhouse guys, the groundskeepers, the front office functionaries--these are the behind-the-scenes people who do the grunt work through the course of careers that often span decades. They are keepers of the secrets, repositories of the game's rich anecdotal history. There aren't a lot of people who manage to hang around baseball for 51 years; Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell is retiring this year after 55 years in the booth. Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer is in his sixth decade in professional baseball. Both those guys have a record of achievement; they have written books and received their accolades. And then there are the Wayne Hattaways, unknown to all but a handful of baseball fans, whose exploits bridge generations of players, coaches, and managers.

"People in this game appreciate a guy like Wayne," Blyleven said. "They see the dedication he has for this organization and the love he has for baseball. Guys like that are important to have around. I think baseball's what keeps Wayne going. If he didn't have baseball we might not have Wayne around for very long."

Twins utility man Denny Hocking agrees. "Wayne's an important guy in this clubhouse," he says. "He's a legend to the guys in this room, as well as the wives and the kids. Everybody loves Wayne. It definitely wouldn't be the same without him."

If in fact this is Hattaway's last hurrah, he's enjoying the Twins run and looking forward to at least one more victory party down the road.

"This has been a lot of fun, because, you know, this is a tough business," he said, "You're always bouncing around, it's hard to keep track of where you are, and it's hard to make a home somewhere. But that's just the way it is. That's baseball. These kids today don't even know how much the game has changed and how good they have it. If they saw our field conditions in the minor leagues back in the old days they'd never believe that anybody could have played on those fields, let alone made it to the major leagues."

If pressed he will admit that he misses some of the old characters, the guys like Blyleven and Puckett, who would play the game the right way between the white lines and then come right off the field and light up the clubhouse. And guys like Calvin Griffith and George Brophy, whom Hattaway calls "the best bosses a guy could ask for.

"You know, Calvin used to come around when we were down in the instructional league and he'd park his car and walk right across the field to take us to dinner at a waffle house," Hattaway remembers. "Who'd believe that a millionaire would eat at a waffle house?"

Despite all the changes, despite the fact that, as he says, "there's not as much loosey-goosey stuff going on as there used to be," the clubhouse is still Hattaway's domain, and in the clubhouse everybody is just another hotshot who could stand to have some of the air let out of him. That hasn't changed in 51 years, and big league clubhouse or no big league clubhouse, Hattaway is still the man for the job.

"You know how people will say, 'Why don't you get a real life?' Well, I ain't ever had a real life. People are always asking me why I don't retire, but I know as soon as I get out of the game I'll be gone in a year or two. What the hell else am I going to do? It's like Mr. Griffith always told me, 'Wayne, the day you stop hanging around at the ballpark every day you'll be a goner.' That was true for Calvin, and I'm pretty sure I'll be doing this until they bury me."

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Minnesota Concert Tickets

Around The Web

Loading...