Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Even in Autumn of Life, You Can Be a Ball Boy for the Giants

The Giants Are Partial to Senior Citizens Who Shag Fouls; Mr. Zarzana's Blooper

                                    Jim Carlton / The Wall Street Journal
Balldudes Daryl Gault (left) and George Zarzana
Sunday at the San Francisco Giants' AT&T Park.
By Jim Carlton, Wall Street Journal
October 18, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO—The San Francisco Giants have fielded their top talent for the Major League Baseball playoffs this week, but even some of their most elite have made errors.

There was, for example, veteran George Zarzana's blooper in Sunday's opener in the National League Championship Series. Mr. Zarzana suited up for the game against the St. Louis Cardinals, jogged confidently onto the field and settled into his position.

Then he promptly fell off the stool.

Mr. Zarzana's position was next to the dugout behind first base, and he would be called a ball boy if he were a little younger. At age 72, he last played baseball when Jimmy Carter was president, and that makes him a balldude in Giants parlance.

He is in good company in this club. Most Major League teams field the familiar teenage ball boys and ball girls to shag fouls outside the outfield foul lines. The Giants are partial to a cadre of foul-chasers mostly over the age of 60.

Now, the Giants' most elite balldudes are getting coveted starting positions in the postseason. That sometimes means, said Mr. Zarzana after his tumble, that "we've got 42,000 people watching us make fools of ourselves."

The Giants' roster of about 70 balldudes and 20 balldudettes take to their stools during the regular season. But the postseason dudes are a cut above, says Sue Petersen, who manages the dudes and says she chose the ones she considers her most reliable to take the field for the championship series.

"It's a thrill I only thought about as a kid," says balldude Gary Fralick, 62, who built the wooden stools. "You get the best seats in the house, and people want your autograph, too."

San Francisco is believed to be the first team in the Majors to start using old ball boys, in 1993, and since then some other clubs have copied parts of the program. The club originally called them the "Spry Seniors," but the team, fans and broadcasters now all call them balldudes. "The team was under new ownership back then, and they were looking for creative ways to do things," says Ms. Petersen, executive director of the Giants' Community Fund nonprofit arm.

The dudes program, which the team expanded to include some younger friends and relatives of old-timers, has attracted some controversy. The two dudes who work the games—one behind first base and the other behind third—used to sit on folding chairs. But after season-ticket holders complained that their views were being obstructed, Ms. Petersen put the dudes on tiny milking stools that make them look even funnier to some.

"You've got these 73-year-old men sitting in these ridiculous little chairs like 5-year-olds," says Jon Miller, Giants broadcaster for radio station KNBR-AM, who often points out balldude antics during his broadcasts.

"You try not to make a fool out of yourself, but the more you do, the more the crowd loves it," says Mr. Zarzana, the balldude manning the first Giants-Cardinals game.

For the balldudes, though, this is serious business. Some pay up to $500 to attend Giants' Balldude Camp, usually in June, at the team's AT&T Park, where as many as 60 balldude hopefuls shag pop-ups and grounders and answer Giants trivia questions. Training includes sitting on the balldude stools while batters hit grounders down the line to them.

Camp also instills balldude rules. Example: Never approach a player or official on the field. Still, there are some dude faux pas. Once, a dudette accidentally grabbed the glove belonging to former star outfielder Barry Bonds when she trotted off to take her post behind third base, Ms. Petersen says; "We can laugh about it, now."

Balldudes can make $15 for each of the three or four games they work each season. For the most part, they are on hand to shag fouls and give the balls to children. But some add a personal touch. Until he retired at age 88 this year, balldude Len Herztein was famous for dancing and preening between innings.

No balldudes have been seriously hurt so far. "It's fun watching them make plays," says Giants right fielder Hunter Pence. "They help us out a lot."

Ms. Petersen chooses her balldudes from several hundred applicants each year. She looks for team loyalty, and something unique.

"I once had an organ donor and an organ recipient on the field at the same time," she says.

Knowledge of the game and quick reflexes are prerequisites, Ms. Petersen says, although actual playing skills are not. "I want them to have enough experience to know what to do—or not to do—in a variety of situations," she says.

At Monday's Game 2 of the Championship Series, for example, balldude Glenn Casias, 54, jumped up from his stool when he saw a pop fly foul from a Cardinals batter hurtling his way. "We're told to grab the stool and get out of the way," says Mr. Casias, a technology executive from Sonoma, Calif. He threw himself partway over a rail—backside protruding—in time for Giants first baseman Brandon Belt to make the catch. "That was one of the best plays we have ever seen by a balldude," says Mike Krukow, a TV commentator for the Giants.

At the Sunday game, after falling off his stool, Mr. Zarzana settled in for the game. He made one play in the second inning, scooping up a grounder from a Giants batter and handing it off to a young boy. Ms. Petersen, observing nearby, said he "looked solid."

Mr. Zarzana, a retired elementary school principal from Fair Oaks, Calif., got his big break when a buddy, Daryl Gault, put his name in to become a balldude about eight years ago as a surprise retirement gift. In 2008, Mr. Zarzana's name came off the waiting list, and Ms. Petersen later selected Mr. Gault, 65, too, so they could work games together.

Mr. Zarzana has family ties to pro baseball. A nephew from a former marriage is Mark McGwire, the Cardinals' hitting coach and former all-star slugger. Mr. McGwire didn't know Mr. Zarzana was a balldude until this week.

"I think it's awesome" Mr. McGwire said before Monday's game, which the Giants went on to win. "It makes them feel young. Where else can you do that?"

After Thursday night's game, the Giants trailed the Cardinals 3-1 in the best of seven series.

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