It's 90 minutes before the first pitch of the Lexington Legends' game, and Zach Ball and Christian Yates are roaming Whitaker Bank Ballpark.
Christian pounds muddy cleats against the ground and soaps them clean. Zach dashes to the box office with up-to-date ticket information. Moments later, Christian stocks the dugout with paper cups. Zach carries a load of towels to the clubhouse laundry room.
Much like the players, bat boys Zach, 13, and Christian, 14, are preparing for the Legends' 12:05 p.m. game against the Kannapolis Intimidators. However, Zach and Christian will have much different roles than the players for the Single-A affiliate of the Houston Astros.
Well into the second half of their 70-game season, the Legends have hired seven or eight bat boys to work each game. Zach and Christian began working regularly for the club since this summer.
The teens can't hide their excitement as they slip on their uniforms a half-hour before the Wednesday game.
"I feel good," Christian said, asking whether the "26" on his back is visible. "I feel like I could play."
After gearing up in the laundry room, tightening belts and fitting helmets, the boys go over the list of pregame tasks with clubhouse manager Matt Resar.
At this point, the only task left is taking the six dozen game balls from the umpires' room to the dugout.
As they haul the ball bag past the players stretching in right field, Zach says the team treats the bat boys like one of their own. The players have given Christian nicknames — "Lil Wayne" and "Popsicle." Zach doesn't have a nickname.
"I bet you they could find you one," Christian says to Zach. "They find one for everybody."
As they head to the dugout, Legends pitching coach Dave Borkowski offers the boys last-minute advice.
"You ready to work?" Borkowski asks. "It's all about the first step: getting out there. Don't face-plant it. Be quick."
Christian knows what happens if the first step isn't a solid one, especially on a wet field after a rain delay.
"I ran out to go get a foul ball and I slipped and fell in front of everyone," he said about a recent game. "I was embarrassed. They started laughing."
Growing into it
Things didn't always go as well for the two bat boys as they do today. It was a process.
Andy Shea, Christian's Big Brother in the Big Brother/Big Sisters Mentoring Program and Legends president, says he had trouble getting Christian to wear the uniform at the start of summer. But after experiencing the camaraderie of the dugout — and some lighthearted teasing from visiting players (typically referencing the hip-hop artist Lil Wayne) — Christian grew into the role.
"After his first game of bat boy-ing, he said, 'Andy, I don't like it. It's boring, and I look stupid in this uniform,'" Shea said. "Literally the next time he comes back, he's like, 'I had fun today.' He's like, 'The other team was making me laugh the whole time.' And I said, 'Good, that's what it's all about.'"
Gary Durbin, the vice president of facility operations, who hires the bat boys, said Zach at first didn't speak up as much as he should have, particularly when it came to the stadium's policy of not handing fans foul balls and broken bats. Fans can pick up a foul ball if it rolls outside the net and is within reach, Durbin said. However, to be fair to everyone, Durbin doesn't allow the boys to give the balls to fans who want them.
"I had to get him to be more aggressive," Durbin said. "But he's done good. He's done better. He's stayed focused on the game."
Durbin says he is selective in hiring bat boys. Zach and Christian are among the finest he knows because, as he puts it, they're just as vital to the Legends organization as anyone else.
"We have to see them; we have to watch them grow," Durbin says. "They've got to get along with the managers. You've got to know who you have back here, just like a regular clubhouse person. It's a big, trusting job."
Focus on the game
In the moments before the pregame introductions Wednesday, the boys talk crowd attendance, which swells, they say, depending largely on the popularity of the ball club's promotions.
It's quintessential day for America's Pastime: 92 degrees and clear skies. The plastic seats in the stands are scalding, but a soft breeze cools the shaded wooden benches of the home dugout. Legends Manager Ivan DeJesus follows, taping up the starting lineup on the wall.
It's almost show time. Christian pulls his baseball pants down to his cleats, as he says he does for cooler weather.
Precisely at noon, the players fill the dugout and take the field. Infielder Justin Gominsky fist-bumps the boys. After the national anthem, Legends pitcher Luis Cruz hurls the first pitch: ball one.
For every foul ball within reach of the dugouts, the bat boys use the "Whitaker Bank" sign directly behind home plate to divide up territory: All fouls that land to the left of "Whitaker" — the first base side — are Zach's responsibility to scoop up; all that land to the right of "Bank" — the third base side — are on Christian's turf.
Zach sees his first action on a foul tip in the first inning.
"Ball!" DeJesus barks. Zach runs out and grabs it. The umpire flashes two fingers for two more from the dugout. In a matter of seconds, the game resumes.
Zach sees more action after the top of the second inning, but it's his least favorite duty as bat boy. Home plate umpire Dan Merzel makes eye contact with him and gestures for a drink of water. Zach trots out with two sloshing paper cups of water.
"Thanks, man — good job," Merzel says curtly.
Sometimes, the visiting players don't make the bat boy job any easier. After striking out to end the third, Kannapolis left fielder Grant Buckner flips his bat and slams his helmet in frustration, and Christian then has to run to retrieve them. He exchanges a few cordial words with Intimidators Manager Julio Vinas, who pats him on the helmet.
Deep into the eighth inning, as the Legends' lead tightens to one run, the boys pop from the dugout as they have all game. No dropped bat, stray ball or hand signal from home plate goes unnoticed.
"You have to hustle in this game, man," Durbin said. "You always hustle."
After the Legends stave off a ninth inning rally by Kannapolis and secure a 3-2 win, one more "nitty gritty" task awaits the boys as they change back into their shorts and T-shirts: taking out the trash in the coaches' office and the training room.
Christian talks about leaving for basketball camp; Zach plans to dine with the team.
They each take a bag, and their day is over just after 3 p.m.