It's well after 1 AM and the Phillies have just pulled off an epic 19-inning win that saw their utility infielder pitch a clean frame against the heart of one of the most potent lineups in the league and, perhaps more bizarrely, saw Danys Baez pitch five shutout innings in relief. The playoff-like buzz in the clubhouse has worn off as the players wrap up their post-game interviews and begin to trickle out.
But I'm here for J-Roll. I've been shadowing the affable shortstop for the last week, trying to get to know the man behind "the talker" more deeply. Jimmy is both the longest-tenured Phillie and the team's emotional leader. In seeing the world through his eyes, I believe we have a chance to understand just what has kept this clubhouse so stable over the team's recent run of success.
I sit in the corner jotting some notes to myself when someone lightly kicks my foot. I look up; it's Jimmy flashing his trademarked playful smile.
"So, uh, me and a few of the guys are gonna stay in the clubhouse tonight," he says.
I'm confused. "'Stay', like sleep over 'stay'?"
"Yeah, sleepover, exactly. It's a day game tomorrow, so there's no point in going home. You're welcome to stay if you want to."
I look down at my watch. I'm fully aware of the time, I just need a moment to think. I know I had made it clear to Jimmy before we got started that I wanted to follow him as much as humanly possible, and based on how well I have gotten to know him up to this point, this is exactly the kind of joke he would pull--testing the limits of my dedication to getting the full story, testing the limits of our "friendship."
"Okay, why not?" I reply, still less than 50 percent sure that he is serious.
"Alright!" He seems genuinely thrilled. "The reporter's in!" he shouts to the few players who are left hanging around as he walks back to his locker.
He wasn't joking.
Only Rollins, Valdez, Baez, and Hamels remain. They have pulled out sleeping bags and pillows and laid them out in a circle in the center of the room. They are pros at this.
"Goodnight guys, I'm leaving, please don't make a mess like you did last time" the clubhouse custodian says on his way out. "Lights off or on?"
"OFF!" they shout in unison.
Not a moment after the clubhouse goes dark do four flashlights click on. They've given me a spare sleeping bag and a pillow, but I'm still sitting in the corner with my back against the wall, observing. Jimmy trains his light on me.
"Hey, reporter. Join the circle!" Jimmy calls.
"Yeah, join the circle!" the others chime in.
Reluctantly, I gather my things and move to the center of the room as they make space for me. I'm sitting between Rollins and Baez, who is still wearing a massive ice pack on his arm after pitching five innings that night.
"Okay, get the stuff," Jimmy directs the others like he is a sergeant giving orders. With that cue, they scatter off across the room in all different directions. Valdez returns first with a bag of marshmallows, Hershey's chocolate, and a box of graham crackers. He rips open the bag of marshmallows and pops one in his mouth.
"I like marshmallows. You want?" He holds the bag out to me and I oblige him.
Next, Hamels returns with five kebob skewers and a metal tub about two feet in diameter. He is followed shortly by Baez carrying an electric fan. Finally, Jimmy rejoins the circle holding a lighter and a bunch of torn-up cardboard boxes and newspapers. Hamels drops the tub in the middle of the circle, Jimmy places his kindling in it, and sets it alight.
"We have to be careful about this," Hamels says to me as Jimmy leans over the small fire, blowing on it gently. "Last time we did this, we lit the carpet on fire and set the sprinklers off."
"Couldn't the sprinklers still go off?" I ask.
"No, Jimmy disabled them a few weeks ago."
"So what's the fan for?"
"To blow the smoke through the tunnel and outside. Chase doesn't like coming in to a clubhouse that smells like sleepaway camp. I think he had a bad experience or something."
The fire is pretty large now, but more substantial fuel is needed if it is to be kept alive. Jimmy is always one step ahead.
"Willie, grab me a few of Shane's bats and have Danys break them in half."
Valdez hops up and retrieves three or four bats from injured centerfielder Shane Victorino's bats. He hands them off to Baez who stands up and snaps them over his thigh like they are twigs, letting out an animalistic grunt with each one.
"You are using Shane's bats?" I quietly ask Jimmy.
"He doesn't need them right now," he replies, flashing that smile again.
The bats are placed into the tub, and before long, we have a serious campfire going.
We sit around the fire finishing our s'mores, telling jokes, talking baseball, and just generally shooting the shit. The utter surreality of the night's game and now the impromptu camping trip has dawned on me. I need to pinch myself to confirm that it is all actually happening. Still, I feel a certain comfort being here with these guys--Jimmy in particular. I'm thirteen again and I'm camped out in the back yard with my best friends on a beautiful summer night.
Everyone has stuffed themselves to the limit except for Valdez, who, with a stack of at least five marshmallows, is in the middle of constructing his biggest s'more yet. When he bites down, the excess marshmallow oozes out the sides of the graham and onto his chin. He tries to wipe it off but to no avail; it's too sticky and his his chinbeard is too long.
In his Cuban accent, Baez breaks the silence, "I did no... 'ave...sexual..relations..with tha woman. Ms. Lewinsky." We burst into laughter. Valdez doesn't get the joke.
A silence settles over the clubhouse, but it is broken when Hamels loudly passes gas. Everyone laughs again.
"Sorry. It's all this sugar. My stomach isn't used to it anymore. Heidi has me eating all this healthfood and vegetables and stuff," he tries to explain.
Jimmy cuts right to the heart of the issue, however: "You are so whipped, Cole."
Resigned, he nods. "I know," he replies.
"But that's why you're here tonight. Some times you just need a night away, right? A night with the guys," Jimmy reassures him.
This is the Jimmy I have come to know over the last week. A man who won't hesitate to playfully rip into his friends, but who is also acutely aware of their needs and always willing to lend a helping hand. It's not difficult to see how he has been such a positive, stabilizing influence in this clubhouse over the past few years.
"Let's do scary stories!" Valdez suggests excitedly.
"Yeah!" the others agree.
"Alright, alright. I've got something special for tonight," Rollins says, taking charge again.
He pulls a boombox from his locker and pops in a tape. A grainy song starts playing. I recognize the tune from middle school music class as Marian Anderson's famous recording of Franz Schubert's Der Erlkönig. The piano intro casts an eerie vibe over the clubhouse--it is spookier than I could ever imagine a Major League clubhouse being. When Anderson's beautiful contralto voice cuts in atop the haunting melody, a shiver runs down my spine. Holding his flashlight below his chin so only his face is illuminated, Jimmy is now narrating the action:
"Late at night a father carries his sick son on horseback. He needs to see a doctor. They are chased by a mysterious spirit."
He gives a perfect translation of the second stanza:
"My son, wherefore seek'st thou thy face thus to hide?"
"Look, father, the Erl King is close by our side!
Dost see not the Erl King, with crown and with train?"
"My son, 'tis the mist rising over the plain."
As if this night could get any weirder, now I am in the Phillies clubhouse, sitting around a campfire, listening to the starting shortstop translate an operatic interpretation of a German folk tale. I look around the circle. The others are completely enthralled by Jimmy's performance.
"The Erl King whispers to the boy," he says before he starts translating again.
"My father, my father, and dost thou not hear
The words that the Erl King now breathes in mine ear?"
"Be calm, dearest child, thy fancy deceives;
the wind is sighing through withering leaves."
Baez now looks truly frightened. The music reaches a crescendo, the finale is near. Jimmy stands and begins to translate as dramatically as Anderson sings.
"My father, my father, and dost thou not see,
How the Erl King is showing his daughters to me?"
"My darling, my darling, I see it alright,
'Tis the aged grey willows deceiving thy sight."
"I love thee, I'm charm'd by thy beauty, dear boy!
And if thou aren't willing, then force I'll employ."
"My father, my father, he seizes me fast,
For sorely the Erl King has hurt me at last."
The father now gallops, with terror half wild,
He holds in his arms the shuddering child;
He reaches his farmstead with toil and dread,-
The child in his arms lies motionless, dead.
With that, the music cuts out and Jimmy turns off his flashlight. There is a momentary silence and I hear a faint sniffling from across the circle. It's Baez. He's crying. Hamels pats him on the back and offers words of comfort.
"Hey, what's wrong buddy?"
"It's so sad," says Baez, trying to hold back his sobs. Valdez has now moved next to him and has put his arm around his shoulder. "The little boy...he died."
"It's only a story," Hamels reassures him.
"Sí," Valdez adds. He has rested his head gently on Baez's shoulder. There is another silence. The fire has been reduced to glowing embers--the smoldering remains of Victorino's bats are in a pile in the bucket. It is an unexpectedly tender moment between men in the very place where such tenderness is so rare and, perhaps, frowned-upon.
"I have an idea," Rollins says, breaking the silence. He pops open the tape deck, turns the tape over, and presses play. It's MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This." He has the dance down to a T and the good humor is restored to the clubhouse--or should I say "our campsite"?
I'm awakened after what feels like only a few minutes of sleep by the horrifying sensation of being unable to breathe. It feels as if my airways are being obstructed. With both hands I clear my mouth and nose frantically. I sit up and open my eyes but they won't focus and after a moment they begin to burn. My entire face has been covered with what seems like a whole can of shaving cream. I manage to clean most of it off and look around the room. The other four are sleeping, or at least feigning sleep.
I run my hand through my hair. Something sticky is in the hair on the back of my head. It must be vaseline or ointment of some kind. Feeling my pillow, I realize that my pillowcase has been filled with it.
"Oh, damn it!" I exclaim out loud as the others continue to pretend to sleep. I get up to find a a new pillow and a towel to clean myself off. With my first step I put my foot in what a bowl of warm water.
It is only then that I realize my left hand is wet and am able to put two and two together. With those nights camping out back with my buddies came the hijinks, of course. Patting the crotch of my jeans, I am relieved to discover that they are dry.
"Nice try," I mutter.
Rollins lets out a snort as if he is holding back laughter. This is followed by a chorus of stifled giggles. I guess I'm one of them now.
I am awakened again--this time for good--when the lights come flickering on.
"Rise and shine!" It's the clubhouse custodian.
I prop myself up and, yawning, rub the sleep out of my eyes. Looking around, only Hamels and Baez are still in their sleeping bags.
"Where's Jimmy?" I ask the custodian.
"Outside with Valdez, I think."
I go clean myself up, gather my things, and head down the tunnel to the field. Under the morning sun, Jimmy and Valdez are getting a light catch in before the groundskeepers arrive to do their thing. I take in the gorgeousness of this sight from the dugout for a few moments. Between throws, Jimmy looks my way.
"Reporter! Top of the morning to you," he says, giving no indication that he was responsible for last night's pranks. "What's up?"
"I'm gonna go up to the pressbox and try to get some writing done before the game. I'll see you after the game though, alright?"
I take a step back towards the tunnel and stop. "Hey, I had fun last night," I say. "Thanks."
"Any time," he replies, flashing that smile once more.
If following Jimmy for that week has taught me anything, it's that there is far more to being a "team leader" than being the public face and voice of the players. What fans often don't realize is that baseball players are human beings with obligations, worries, and fears just like them. In my time following him, I have learned that Jimmy understands this and has a true gift for keeping close tabs on the day-to-day lives of his teammates away from the baseball field. When queried about what it takes to have success on the field, most players cite "staying loose." It is simple common sense that a comfortable work environment will lead to happier and, in turn, more productive workers. While the Phillies are a diverse bunch of personalities, Jimmy knows precisely what it takes to keep each one of his teammates loose--the right thing to say, the right place to take them, the right joke to make, the right song to play. He knows how to make work comfortable for them.
And if all else fails, he'll just call a sleepover.
(Note to the reader: this story is entirely a figment of the author's imagination.)