|PRINT | CLOSE WINDOW|
One of the most emotional scenes of this baseball season-or any baseball season, for that matter-occurred at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 26. That's when Yankee legends Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte walked to the mound together to remove the greatest reliever in history for the final time.
Normally, pitching changes are made by managers. But Yankee skipper Joe Girardi wanted to do something really memorable, so he sent out teammates Jeter and Pettitte to escort Mariano Rivera back to the dugout.
Rivera always had demonstrated extraordinary grace under pressure. No matter how tense the situation, he never flinched, always kept his emotions in check. But this time he couldn't rein them in. He buried his head into Pettitte's shoulder and began bawling like a baby. The sell-out crowd of more than 50,000 erupted in applause. The folks monitoring the Richter scale must have thought an earthquake was rocking the South Bronx.
Closing time for baseball's finest closer joined Lou Gehrig's "Luckiest man on the face of the earth" speech as one of the more poignant moments in team annals.
And a young man from Spencerport-Aaron Patella Ryan-watched it all unfold from the top step of the Yankees dugout. Such are the perks of being a bat boy for the most storied sports franchise of them all.
"That was one of the most memorable nights of my life,'' says Patella Ryan, a 2008 McQuaid Jesuit High School graduate. "I experienced goose bumps all over. I think every hair on my body was standing up. It was electric."
Indeed, it was. And it put an exclamation point on a dream-come-true summer for a 23-year-old who grew up telling people he would don the Yankee pinstripes one day, just you wait and see.
"My plan was to play for the Bronx Bombers,'' Patella Ryan says. "But this has been the next best thing."
A friend of his from Iona College helped him land the job in January, and Patella Ryan flew down to Tampa for spring training the day after the Super Bowl. The first time he pulled on his uniform was surreal.
"I remember, as a kid, telling friends and relatives that I was going to be the next Derek Jeter, and here I was, in the Yankees clubhouse, standing next to Derek Jeter," he says. "I still have to pinch myself sometimes, just to make sure this wasn't all a dream."
That's not to say there weren't many unglamorous aspects of the job. Patella Ryan has lost track of the numbers of spikes he shined and fly balls he shagged and battling helmets and shin guards he retrieved. There were days when he arrived at the park at 3 in the afternoon (after working 5 1/2 hours at his car rental job) and didn't get back to his New Rochelle apartment until 2 in the morning. But it was all worth it.
The Yankees assign three bat boys to the home team. During games, one of them sits on a stool near the box seats down the right field line. Another is responsible for delivering new balls to the umpire and retrieving any foul balls behind home plate. And a third makes sure the bats and helmets are organized in the dugout rack. The bat boy seated in foul territory also warms up the Yankees right fielder between innings.
"I got to do that a few times," Patella Ryan says. "The first time I was playing catch with Ichiro (Suzuki), I was so nervous I think I bounced the ball to him."
Most of the time, Patella Ryan was in the dugout, working as either the bat or ball boy. He'd be perched on the top steps, often next to Girardi.
"My parents and friends joked that I got as much air time on some of the YES network telecasts as some of the players,'' he says, chuckling.
One time, Robinson Cano broke a bat and Patella Ryan quickly brought him a new one. The Yankees second baseman proceeded to smash a hit to win the game, and Patella Ryan felt as if he was living that scene in the movie "The Natural" when Robert Redford's character, Roy Hobbs, hits one into the light tower.
One of Patella Ryan's biggest thrills was being in the presence of Jeter, his all-time baseball idol. "Derek probably will never learn my name, and I understand that completely because he's met millions of people in his life," he says. "But anytime I'm standing in the dugout or in the clubhouse, he'll walk by and pat me on the shoulder and say, 'Hey, what's up, buddy? How's it going?' He always acknowledges you. A lot of people of his stature wouldn't do that."
Patella Ryan hopes to be the bat boy again next season. Ultimately, the Iona College graduate would love to land a permanent job in the Yankees organization, maybe even the front office. (Hey, current Yankees general manager Brian Cashman began his career as a lowly intern.) Regardless of what happens, Patella Ryan will be eternally grateful for the experiences he's had.
He grew up dreaming about becoming the next Derek Jeter. Being next to Derek Jeter has been almost as good.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak's 16th book, a collaboration with rock 'n' roll legend Lou Gramm titled "Juke Box Hero," is available at amazon.com and in bookstores. He provides analysis following Bills games on WROC-TV and is a correspondent for USA Today SportsWeekly.