Picture Steffi Graf retrieving her tennis balls at the final of a major match; Patrick Ewing mopping his sweat after a tumble at a gym; Jack Nicklaus roaming a golf course, a club in one hand and scoreboard in the other. Imagine Don Mattingly hitting a double, calling time out and running back to home plate to return his bat to its rack.
Hail to the ball kids, bat kids and standard bearers of America. . . .
Shawn De Rosa: young, impressionable and as faithful as any New York Yankee bat boy could be. Shawn knows the first commandment of bat boys as well as he knows the pattern of dirt under Don Mattingly's cleats: "Do what you're told. And hurry."
So when former Yankee pitcher Dave Righetti ordered him to retrieve a "bucket of steam" two years ago during spring training at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, the freshman from Coral Springs High School grabbed a bucket and bolted in 10 different directions.
"Where's the steam?" Shawn asked one player, who sent him to another.
"Where's the steam?" he asked that player, who led him to someone else. And so on, and so on, and so on, until De Rosa started feeling silly -- not because of the phony request or the bench full of smirking Yankees, but because he couldn't figure out where to get steam.
"It finally dawned on me that it might be a joke," conceded Shawn, now 16 and, at six feet tall and 200 pounds, major-league size.
Typical days as a South Florida bat boy aren't always that eventful, but they have their moments. Most kids would give up their best baseball card -- check that -- all of their best cards to spend days or weeks with their idols. And not just in and out of the dugout running after helmets and bats, delivering "doughnut" weights and pine-tar rags, retrieving foul balls and delivering new ones; but inside the clubhouse (a.k.a. locker room), where uniforms are shed, gulp, and superstars are exposed as what they really are: human beings.
For after they gather sweat-drenched uniforms, remove caked-on dirt from cleats, polish and shine them, get the Gatorade, cups and towels in strategic position, vacuum the clubhouse and clean the bathroom, it's time -- if they've got the nerve -- for bat boys to collect autographs and schmooze with the players.
"Too many people try to take advantage of their celebrity status," Shawn said. "I used to be in awe of the guys. Now I know they're real people."
Gavin Dean, 13, a Boca Raton resident who is a bat boy for the West Palm Beach Expos and Montreal Expos: "It's kind of heavy carrying bats around, but, hey, at least you get to talk to the guys."
Shawn has been a bat boy for the Yankees since 1987. He gets $35 a game during spring training, although he'd probably pay them if he had to. He is so devoted that he meets the team bus at the end of a road trip to clean and polish spikes.
So how does a high-schooler fit this stuff into his schedule? "I cut school," said Shawn, who has a B average and doesn't "goof off," smoke or drink.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime deal. School can wait."
All bat boys (girls are welcome, but rare) are school-age, although Pete Skorput, spring-training coordinator for the Braves, said he won't accept any younger than 12. "I've tried the little ones," said Skorput. "By the second inning they fall asleep. I tap them on the shoulder, tell them to wash their faces, take a sip of orange juice and get to work."
But are they appreciated?
"Bat boys? Heck, they run errands for you, bring you something to eat if you're stretching, tighten your glove if you need it," said Yankee second baseman Steve Sax. "Shawn is great."
Mattingly: "More than what they actually do, I think it's important that young people be around us to learn that we are not supernatural."
Shortly after the "bucket of steam" incident, ex-Yankee catcher Rick Cerone asked Shawn to bring him the "key to the batter's box."
It took him only half the time to figure that one out.
Larry Sahr says he can tell you a story about every player in the NBA.
He's not kidding.
"It's sick," said Larry, 16, a junior at Miami's Killian High School. "The things I could tell you . . ."
Larry is the veteran among 10 ball boys for the Miami Heat. Two kneel below each basket, waiting to mop up monumental sweat when players fall or line up for a free throw. Another six -- three for the visitors and three for the Heat -- take care of the players.
"I'm going to brag a little," said equipment manager John Manoogian. "Trainers around the league tell me our kids are some of the best."
The kids under the basket, who put their lives on the line, get paid by the referees -- usually about $15 apiece. The kids assigned to the visitors get paid in tips. Each of the Heat kids earn $20 a game.