Red Sox batboy Chris Cundiff still having a ball in 20th season
|04.14.14 at 2:52 pm ET|
The hopping gives him away. In the tangle of flying Red Sox that followed the final out of the 2013 World Series, Chris Cundiff — clad in full uniform, whiskers and all — might pass for one if he weren’t awkwardly hopping and hugging at air.
For Boston’s 43-year-old batboy, this pose ‘ the embodiment of an unreturned high-five ‘ is as practiced as it is necessary.
‘I’m not going to dive ‘ I’m not high enough on the totem pole to be injuring players,’ explained Cundiff, an insurance executive by day who’s entering his 20th season moonlighting as the team’s most visible clubhouse attendant. ‘And I don’t want to be the first guy out there, either. In ‘04, I got excited, ran from the on-deck circle, got about halfway out and I thought, ‘[Keith] Foulke’s going to catch [Jason] Varitek and I’m going to land in between them.’
‘The players always give me a hard time about joining the pile. [Dustin] Pedroia threatened to knock me out if I did it last year, but I still got too excited. What can I do?’
Clearly, hanging back isn’t an option. Witness the waning moments of the 2007 clincher in Colorado, the clubbies gathered on the top step of the dugout, receiving their orders for a prompt sweep of discarded caps and gloves. Cundiff went rogue then, too.
‘I’m like, ‘Are you going to run out there?’’ recalled clubbie Dean Lewis, on whose recommendation Cundiff landed his job. ‘He goes, ‘Damn right I am. And, sure enough, he bolted.’
‘We like to say, ‘Oh look. Here’s a World Series picture without Chris Cundiff in it.’ ‘
* * *
Scan all three iconic scrums of the past decade for the bespectacled Cundiff and you’ll indeed spot him, keeping to the margins, straddling the line that so suits his role: hardly a full-fledged member of the team, yet closer than the average fan will ever be.
‘We’re all fans,’ Cundiff said on behalf of the behind-the-scenes crew he assisted in the cumbersome task of unloading the team’s dual-18-wheeler spring training cargo on an early April Sunday. ‘That’s why you see people doing it 20, 30 years.’
Cundiff’s age, of course, makes him an oddity in the big leagues, where most of his peers fit the description. But it’s hard to imagine the end on a day like the home opener, when Cundiff, same as David Ortiz and countless other longtime employees, received his third World Series ring.
‘I just love the job,’ said Cundiff, a Lexington, Ky., native who moved to Marlboro at age 10. ‘You can’t get a better seat in the ballpark. Sometimes, when the sun’s setting over the wall in left field, the view is just awesome. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.’
An authentic albeit numberless uniform is Cundiff’s reward for what he terms the ‘inglorious’ grunt work of a clubbie; a perch between home plate and the home dugout at Fenway Park his payoff for all the ‘15-, 16-, 17-hour’ shifts spent toiling in the bowels of the century-old stadium.
He completes the enviable ensemble with the double-earflap helmet of a switch hitter, an MLB mandate that offers him equal protection when scurrying to either side of the dish to retrieve or deliver bats and balls. But it doesn’t guard against what gets through the earholes, a combination of his apparent, um, experience and the length of the games making him a prime target.
‘I’ve heard pretty much everything imaginable,’ Cundiff said. ‘Sometimes people rip you because you do it and you’re older. A blowout in either direction, yeah, they look for something to entertain themselves with.’
But then, not everybody’s a critic.
‘I had two Rays fans behind the dugout during the 2008 ALCS ask me how old I was,’ Cundiff said. ‘They had been debating it for two games.’
At his home in Bellingham, the heckling is only slightly hushed. It’s not without a flexible full-time employer and an even more understanding wife that Cundiff has his sights set on the next two decades, but let’s just say Michelle ‘ for whom he took a few years off in the mid-’90s to start their family ‘ is eagerly awaiting his retirement.
‘Oh, God, yeah,’ Cundiff said. ‘It’s a long summer for her to be carting our kids (Billy, 11, and Allison, 8) around. There are a lot of things that you miss.’
* * *
Cundiff had dropped out of Framingham State University in the spring of 1992 (he later went back and finished his degree during the strike-shortened season of ‘94) and was preparing to enter the Air Force when Lewis reached out about the position.
‘Back in those days, somebody would leave and we would look around and go, ‘Anybody got somebody?’ ‘ said Lewis, a 35-year veteran of the clubhouse who started in high school. ‘Now it’s a whole process ‘ it’s really hard to get in.’
Jobless and carless at the time, Cundiff didn’t require a hard sell, and it was on his second day when he was first thrust into on-field duty, the regular batboy a late scratch due to college exams.
Led by Don Zimmer, then a Red Sox coach, the team broke in Cundiff using age-old pranks, one of which resulted in quite the pregame scene.
The anthem had been sung, the pitcher was just about done warming up and here was Cundiff, new and nervous and now in frantic pursuit of the key to the batter’s box.
‘I ran to the bullpen to get it, then they sent me to the Kansas City Royals dugout to get it,’ he said. ‘George Brett sent me back to the bullpen and I think they finally called me in as I was crisscrossing the outfield.’
The incident mirrors what’s perhaps the most public hour in Cundiff’s tenure. With the bullpen phone in the visitors dugout malfunctioning during a Fourth of July tilt with Tampa Bay in 2007, Cundiff was used to relay manager Joe Maddon‘s warm-up orders, which also required Cundiff to traverse the outfield, 36,000-plus watching.
‘[Maddon] could’ve hollered to the second baseman, the second baseman could’ve hollered to the right fielder, and they could’ve had the sign in the dugout,’ reasoned Johnny Pesky at the time, but the Rays skipper reportedly wasn’t at his coolest.
‘With all the good things the Red Sox do, they forgot to pay their phone bill, I guess,’ Maddon said.
* * *
Postseason pig piles aside, Cundiff prefers his anonymity. And it’s a good thing, because clubhouse culture has a way of leveling the playing field.
‘Everybody gets their chops busted,’ Cundiff said. ‘If [the players] didn’t like you, they wouldn’t mess with you.’
The fraternal atmosphere on the inside can make for some blurry lines on the field: Players make the plays or don’t; batboys feel no less invested but helpless.
‘Things go really bad when you’re watching on TV, you can always change the channel or walk away,’ Cundiff said. ‘You can’t do any of that when you’re stuck sitting there. When you’re getting killed a bunch of games in a row, it gets frustrating.’
Cundiff and Andrew Crosby were in a batboy rotation during the 2004 ALCS, and after the 19-8 shellacking in Game 3 at Fenway, a despondent Crosby, who’s now a Boston police officer, handed over his Game 4 assignment.
It was the beginning of Cundiff’s long and prosperous run as the team’s primary batboy. The Red Sox didn’t lose for the remainder of the postseason, and players took note of the change in mojo, requesting his presence on the road as they reeled off eight straight victories en route to the title.
‘I think it was Trot Nixon, that’s what I was told,’ Cundiff said. ‘I think I said, ‘Yeah I’d love to go, I’ll see what I can do.’ And Trot was like, ‘No, he has to go.’
‘The ring is inscribed with ‘8-0.’ I tell people it’s for me.’
Fulfilling as it is to live on forever in photos and YouTube clips, some of Cundiff’s most vivid memories are of candid scenes: Nixon and pitcher Jeff Suppan playing Wiffleball in the main concourse of the old Yankee Stadium to dull the pain of the Game 7 loss in the ‘03 ALCS, the irrepressible positivity of Kevin Millar in the doldrums of the ‘04 rematch, supremely affable 2013 newcomer Shane Victorino lingering into the wee hours to help clubbies distribute fresh laundry.
Cundiff’s son has been photographed with Ortiz just about every year since he was born, which sure beats pencil marks on the door frame for charting growth.
‘I’m hoping I can do it long enough to have him take over,’ Cundiff said, only half-kidding.
Billy is a little young for the family business right now ‘ the minimum age for MLB batboys was set at 14 shortly after the near-flattening of Dusty Baker’s then-3-year-old son, Darren, during the 2002 World Series.
But that hasn’t stopped him from professing to teachers his desire to do so when he grows up.
If he’s like his dad, he won’t have to anytime soon.
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