Little man is big baseball fan

by Brian Clarey

Let’s face facts: minor league baseball is not the big show. That’s not to say you won’t see some amazing play ‘— you will, especially if you’re a regular fan and you catch enough games to know who to watch. Some of these guys may go on to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame and some could be gone from the roster by press time, but all of them can play ball and have inside them the potential for shining moments on the diamond.

What minor league ball lacks is star power ‘— the big names, the crowd pleasers, the guys on fantasy teams and baseball cards who make children hop and women flash. The guys who put asses in the seats.

So minor league ballparks find other ways to jam the turnstiles: beer specials, giveaways, money thrown from helicopters, doofy mascots, rock concerts, fireworks’… the name of the game is mass appeal.

‘“Sport Shirt’” Bill Veeck was the acknowledged master of baseball promotion. The man who planted the ivy on Wrigley’s outfield wall early in his baseball career went on to own the Cleveland Indians, the St. Louis Browns and the Chicago White Sox. Along the way he sowed the seeds of baseball legend.

In Cleveland he signed Satchel Paige and visited every bar in town and promised patrons not to trade Lou Boudreau. While with Chicago he conducted player trades openly in a hotel lobby and induced Harry Caray to sing ‘“Take Me Out to the Ballgame’” during the seventh-inning stretch for the very first time.

Before he died Veeck predicted he’d be remembered most for something he pulled in St. Louis which will forever be recorded in the annals of baseball lore.

He sent Eddie Gaedel to the plate.

But this was no ordinary pinch-hit. Gaedel, a 3-foot-7 dwarf, had earlier popped out of a cake between games of a double-header against Detroit and took his at-bat under an official contract that Veeck had sneaked through the system.

People are still talking about it. The move changed the baseball rulebook and Gaedel’s jersey, with the number 1/8 on the back, hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

You can bet that Donald Moore, president and general manager of the Greensboro Grasshoppers, has heard this story before. He’s been using promotions at First Horizon Park to fill the stands since the day it opened last spring: Thirsty Thursday, tricycle races, fat-suit fights and the infamous bobble-head are but a few.

This season, in the spirit of Bill Veeck and Eddie Gaedel, Moore has put a man of small stature in a Grasshoppers uniform.

In the belly of the arena, clubhouse manager Bob Perry makes the rounds, distributing clean uniforms and dropping packages in front of the players’ lockers. He deposits an armload of boxes marked ‘“Louisville Slugger’” in front of No. 16.

‘“Think Sanchez got enough bats?’” he asks.

Chris Rohm, the littlest Grasshopper, guffaws.

‘“It’s probably in his contract.’”

Probably. Gabriel Sanchez, the 6-foot-2 infielder has already posted 19 RBIs off 22 hits, seven of which were home runs, in the season’s opening weeks. He’s hitting .407. And Chris Rohm is a fan.

‘“Gaby’s the one who hit that walk-off grand slam the other night,’” he tells me.

Rohm stands about four feet tall, a 20-year-old kid from Baltimore spoon-fed on Cal Ripken’s Orioles, who came to Greensboro College two years ago to pursue a degree in athletic training.

‘“I want to work for a college hockey team,’” he says, noting that it would be a tough job to find in North Carolina.

‘“That’s why I’m moving when I graduate,’” he says.

But this summer he’ll become one of the city’s most famous faces as the bat boy for the home team.

‘“I’ve been doing it for seven games now,’” he says. ‘“I already have a following. People are already asking for my autograph.’”

He’s bewildered by his popularity, shaking his head when he talks about it, but it’s true. Fans wait for him after the game, asking him to sign baseballs, programs, hats, T-shirts’….

‘“It’s hard to sign a T-shirt with a Sharpie when you’re standing in the tunnel,’” he says.

Rohm’s duties are much more businesslike than Gaedel’s. As a batboy he’s stationed during home games on a folding chair next to the dugout. Among other things, he’s responsible for keeping the umps stocked with baseballs and keeping the plate area on the home side clear of bats.

‘“It’s usually just grabbing them after they get a hit,’” he says, ‘“or a home run, which Gaby gets a lot of.’”

And unlike Gaedel, whose contract lasted but a single day, Rohm is in it for the long haul. Or at least until he finishes college.

‘“Yeah,’” he says, ‘“getting paid to sit down and watch the game, interact with the players, I mean’… it’s a lot different from when you’re a patron and just watch the game.’”

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