I grew up just outside New York City, an avid Yankees fan, a pre-teen devotee of Don Mattingly, the team's captain and All-Star first baseman. When I was 16, I handwrote the Yankees a letter asking how I might apply to become a bat boy. My long-shot letter led to an interview with the team's gruff equipment manager; after a few questions, he told me to return in six months, on opening day.
Waiting impatiently all winter for that first day of work, I was not ignorant of the baseball stories making headlines that off-season, in 1991: the ongoing saga over whether Pete Rose gambled on baseball and how that should affect his legacy; a sex scandal involving alleged exhibitionism in the Shea Stadium bullpen; various players arrested on drug charges or suspended after testing positive for cocaine.
Though I read the newspaper every day, I don't think I was old enough to know whether all the sordid revelations were indeed "bad for baseball," as the sportswriters frequently put it, and even if they were, what that should mean to me.
When opening day finally arrived, with my childhood idol Mattingly standing just feet away, my mind couldn't have been further from the scandals.
Here I stood dressed in pinstripes in the heart of Yankee Stadium a few hours before the first pitch of the first game of the new season, feeling not only a fan's normal opening day blend of hope and uncertainty as to how the Yankees would do that summer, but the added fear of how I myself would do with the Yankees; I was far too anxious and full of excitement to look on the scene with cynical eyes.
By the end of that first homestand, I understood that in addition to game-day duties, being a Yankees bat boy entailed answering endless questions about the players and what really goes on inside the clubhouse, not only from my teenage friends but from adults as well -- teachers at school, friends of my parents, even the occasional stranger.
For a serious baseball fan, the curiosity was not unnatural or misplaced; getting to know the players was certainly a driving motivation in my pursuit of the job.
But what surprised me was the tremendous appetite for damaging information, and how the questions asked more frequently than any others were about which Yankees were jerks; whether I'd ever seen drugs in anyone's locker; which guys doctored balls or used bats that had been hollowed out and filled with cork.
After I returned from a road trip to Toronto and Baltimore with the team, I grew weary of being prodded for stories about groupies, preferably with names of players attached.
I suppose I can't say for sure that no one on the 1992 or 1993 Yankees ever used drugs, or hit with a corked bat, or strayed from their marriages while away from home. One or two may indeed have been jerks. But I can also honestly report that at the end of two full seasons, my faith as a baseball fan was far from shaken -- a player taking the time to learn a 16-year-old's name and where he's from, or ask how school's going, or offer advice on how to ask out a girl you like, or pull a practical joke on you, or make you feel as if you're a member of the team, even though you know you're just a kid who six months before was sitting in the bleachers.
These were not necessarily newsworthy events, but all were far more typical of what I saw and learned from the Yankees than anything I'd read about Rose or drug charges.
Ballplayers have only become bigger celebrities in the decade since I left to begin college. And there's been no decrease in baseball-related tabloid fodder. The teenage kids working in the clubhouse this year can count on fielding as many questions about steroids as I ever answered about drugs in my day.
But it's worth remembering on this opening day that the latest series of obituaries for baseball will also prove premature.
Sometime in the next few weeks, a rookie bat boy in the Yankee dugout will begin to understand that the two-dimensional icons he grew up admiring are three-dimensional men. Soon, maybe even tonight, Derek Jeter will make a play that will take an even younger boy's breath away, and make him a life-long fan.
The current scandal will pass; the game will continue. That's baseball.