Playing for the Boston Red Sox was Jeffrey’s dream job. As a kid, he watched every single game. If his parents were using the television, he would listen on the radio instead. He clamored over baseball cards and baseball magazines, and when he would be out shopping with his mother, he would swing an imaginary baseball bat or pitch an imaginary baseball down the grocery aisle. His wish was to be a starting pitcher, but he would settle for centerfield if it gave him a spot on the team.
Over the years, however, it became apparent to him that he would not be good enough to make it to the big leagues. For one thing, he never got that growth spurt he was hoping for. For another, he was a mediocre baseball player anyhow.
This is why getting the news that he would have an opportunity to work on the Boston Red Sox grounds crew was so special for him in the summer before his senior year of high school. A friend of a friend had a connection to the team and had landed him this seemingly impossible job. He wondered aimlessly about what it would be like to work at Fenway Park every day.
That dream quickly became something of a nightmare. After about a week, the luster wore off, and Jeffrey started to view the job as a chore. He lived an hour away from the stadium and had to wake up at 5am every morning to make it to work in time for a 7am start. When he arrived to work, he would spend the first two hours of the day walking around the track of the entire stadium with a rake, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow, cleaning up all the peanut shells, beer cups, and other debris from the game the night prior. Even that early in the morning, the hot sun was out, and Jeffrey felt vastly unimportant doing the most unglamorous job in what he considered to be the most glamorous place.
When he was done cleaning up peanut shells, he then would have to hose down and clean out the dugouts and bathrooms. He learned very quickly that baseball players were not very considerate. It was not uncommon to deal with human feces in places where there should be none. Rarely, if ever, was Jeffrey asked to work up until game-time in the evenings. This job that seemed to put him in the spotlight of his own dreams was anything but that – he felt like a glorified janitor.
One morning, all of that seemed to change somewhat. Jonathan Bonpapel – a star rookie pitcher – was jogging around the track of the field at 7am when Jeffrey appeared for his daily routine of cleaning up peanut shells. Jeffrey had actually been to the game the day before to watch Bonpapel pitch, since it was a day game and Jeffrey had the day off. One of the perks of working on the grounds crew was that you could attend any game you wanted as a spectator. Jeffrey was not going to miss Bonpapel’s first game and miss a chance at seeing history unfold. And history did indeed unfold – Bonpapel pitched a shutout through 7 innings and earned his first major league victory.
As Jeffrey peered out into the sun from the left field wall to start his day, he could see Bonpapel from a distance and knew instantly that it was a player for his beloved team. His heart started to skip a bit and he felt himself getting clammy. He had been taught not to really engage with the players, but then again, the older members of the grounds crew seemed to do this all the time. As he walked out onto the track, he tried not to be too obvious staring at the player as he was jogging towards him and he started trying to at least pretend he was focused on doing his job. But he couldn’t resist looking out the corner of his eye as Bonpapel was about to pass him, and in that moment, he was starstruck: the player he had come to see yesterday was now jogging alongside him. This was the closest he had ever come to realizing his childhood dream.
As Bonpapel jogged away from him, Jeffrey’s mind began to race. Bonpapel was one of the most promising young players in the league. Jeffrey was sharing the field with him – just the two of them, and he was keenly aware that his idol seemed not to notice him much at all. “What a strange dynamic,” he thought to himself, realizing that only one of them was so interested in the other.
Remembering that his boss often timed how long it would take him to finish his job cleaning up the track of the field, Jeffrey quickly re-collected himself and started raking piles of peanut shells together. But such a mundane task is difficult to focus on for too long. Bonpapel was making his way back around.
“I should say something to him,” Jeffrey muttered to himself. But what could he say? Maybe he could tell Bonpapel that he was a big fan of his. But then again, maybe that would make it sound like he wanted something from him. And then if Bonpapel complained about it, Jeffrey would lose his job, and then he would never be this close to the players ever again. Besides, he was jogging, so whatever exchange they might have would need to be quick and not interrupt Bonpapel’s workout.
As Bonpapel passed by, Jeffrey looked up to possibly say something, but he said nothing. All he noticed were the chiseled features of Bonpapel’s face and his stoic glare straight ahead to wherever he was jogging to, as if Jeffrey did not even exist.
“You’re fucking embarrassing,” Jeffrey thought to himself, vowing to say something the next time Bonpapel passed by him on the field.
As he turned back to his work, he started to occupy himself thinking about what he could say to Bonpapel. He imagined one scenario where he said something nice to Bonpapel, compelling Bonpapel to stop his jogging and to have a pleasant conversation with him. Maybe he would ask Jeffrey if he wanted to hang out sometime after work and talk about baseball. When Jeffrey was growing up, he had always told his father that he would sign autographs for all of the fans before and after the game. Surely Bonpapel could be just as altruistic.
Bonpapel passed by once more, but in the moments leading up to that, Jeffrey became filled with doubt once more. After all, this daydream of becoming best friends with a professional baseball player was exactly that: a daydream, no more realistic than the daydreams Jeffrey had as a child swinging an imaginary bat in the grocery store.
Staring at Bonpapel’s back once more, Jeffrey felt like a loser. He was yet again unable to muster the confidence to say a simple thing to somebody who he admired. Maybe this is why he would never make it in sports. You needed to have confidence.
“I’ll just tell him he did a good job yesterday,” Jeffrey thought to himself. This felt innocuous enough. Short and sweet, and Bonpapel could acknowledge it and move on. Yeah, that was the ticket.
Jeffrey had made his way down to around home plate by this time, and Bonpapel was all the way out in centerfield, so he had some time to ruminate about his plan. Naturally, the closer and closer the time came for a reckoning with his fears, the more and more Jeffrey allowed doubt to enter his mind.
“What if someone sees me, and I get in trouble?” he asked himself, or, “What if he just completely rejects me? That will be embarrassing.”
Yes, now the idea of rejection was sinking in. After all, Bonpapel had passed by Jeffrey multiple times at this point and he seemed to be completely disinterested with him. Why was the onus on Jeffrey to say something? As Bonpapel crept closer, Jeffrey decided to say nothing once more, for fear of rejection. He turned his attention back to the peanut shells.
As Bonpapel passed by a couple more times, Jeffrey began filling his mind with negative, self-defeating thoughts. “You’re a loser, cleaning the peanut shells. Look at what you could have been – he’s jogging around you,” or, “You don’t even have the balls to say two words. No wonder you clean up peanut shells.”
As the swarm of negative thoughts continued to fill his mind, Jeffrey began to tear up a little bit. He was beating himself up mentally, all while his idol seemed to pass by with little fanfare or attention whatsoever. Everything compounded on everything else: now that he was wiping tears out of his eyes, he was beating himself up even more for being a loser who cries.
Fortunately, the negativity seemed to teach Jeffrey some sort of lesson. What did he have to lose? The worst case scenario was the one he was already living in, the world of fear and regret and self-deprecating thoughts. At least if he said something, there was a chance for a positive outcome. As Bonpapel approached him once more, he resolved once and for all that he would say something.
By now, Jeffrey was working up the right field line, and Bonpapel was at home plate. Jeffrey somewhat awkwardly half-did his job so he could keep an eye on Bonpapel’s progress towards him. As Bonpapel was about ten yards away, Jeffrey stopped, turned to him, and nervously uttered three words: “Great game yesterday.”
Bonpapel stopped instantly, his fixed gaze out in front of him suddenly turned towards Jeffrey, as if he was rudely awakened from a trance. Jeffrey felt a pit in his stomach – this was going as poorly as he thought it might go. Bonpapel looked angry.
With hands on his hips and sweat dripping from his brow, Bonpapel walked quietly towards Jeffrey. There was complete silence and Jeffrey did not know what to say. His mind just started to feel fuzzy.
Within seconds, Bonpapel was standing one foot in front of Jeffrey, towering one foot taller than him and looking down at him with something of a scowl. Then he said something.
“Thanks, kid. Thank you for all of the hard work that you do.”
Jeffrey’s eyes lit up. He was not expecting to get a compliment in return. But he also sat there in silence, completely dumbfounded about what to say next. Bonpapel filled the void.
“You know, we all put our pants on the same way, you and me. You know that?”
Jeffrey nodded his head nervously. Bonpapel reached into his pocket and pulled out a baseball.
“This is one of the balls from yesterday’s game. Put it away so no one sees.”
“Wow, thank you,” Jeffrey gushed, fumbling around for a place to put it away. Bonpapel was starting to turn back toward the dugout now, his workout seemingly over. Looking over his shoulder, he bid Jeff farewell.
“Remember the thing about the pants. Good luck, kid.”
For the first time all summer, Jeffrey had a big smile on his face cleaning up those peanut shells.