Picture Steffi Graf retrieving her tennis balls at the final of a major match; Patrick Ewing mopping his sweat after a tumble at a gym; Jack Nicklaus roaming a golf course, a club in one hand and scoreboard in the other. Imagine Don Mattingly hitting a double, calling time out and running back to home plate to return his bat to its rack.
Hail to the ball kids, bat kids and standard bearers of America. . . .
Shawn De Rosa: young, impressionable and as faithful as any New York Yankee bat boy could be. Shawn knows the first commandment of bat boys as well as he knows the pattern of dirt under Don Mattingly's cleats: "Do what you're told. And hurry."
So when former Yankee pitcher Dave Righetti ordered him to retrieve a "bucket of steam" two years ago during spring training at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, the freshman from Coral Springs High School grabbed a bucket and bolted in 10 different directions.
"Where's the steam?" Shawn asked one player, who sent him to another.
"Where's the steam?" he asked that player, who led him to someone else. And so on, and so on, and so on, until De Rosa started feeling silly -- not because of the phony request or the bench full of smirking Yankees, but because he couldn't figure out where to get steam.
"It finally dawned on me that it might be a joke," conceded Shawn, now 16 and, at six feet tall and 200 pounds, major-league size.
Typical days as a South Florida bat boy aren't always that eventful, but they have their moments. Most kids would give up their best baseball card -- check that -- all of their best cards to spend days or weeks with their idols. And not just in and out of the dugout running after helmets and bats, delivering "doughnut" weights and pine-tar rags, retrieving foul balls and delivering new ones; but inside the clubhouse (a.k.a. locker room), where uniforms are shed, gulp, and superstars are exposed as what they really are: human beings.
For after they gather sweat-drenched uniforms, remove caked-on dirt from cleats, polish and shine them, get the Gatorade, cups and towels in strategic position, vacuum the clubhouse and clean the bathroom, it's time -- if they've got the nerve -- for bat boys to collect autographs and schmooze with the players.
"Too many people try to take advantage of their celebrity status," Shawn said. "I used to be in awe of the guys. Now I know they're real people."
Gavin Dean, 13, a Boca Raton resident who is a bat boy for the West Palm Beach Expos and Montreal Expos: "It's kind of heavy carrying bats around, but, hey, at least you get to talk to the guys."
Shawn has been a bat boy for the Yankees since 1987. He gets $35 a game during spring training, although he'd probably pay them if he had to. He is so devoted that he meets the team bus at the end of a road trip to clean and polish spikes.
So how does a high-schooler fit this stuff into his schedule? "I cut school," said Shawn, who has a B average and doesn't "goof off," smoke or drink.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime deal. School can wait."
All bat boys (girls are welcome, but rare) are school-age, although Pete Skorput, spring-training coordinator for the Braves, said he won't accept any younger than 12. "I've tried the little ones," said Skorput. "By the second inning they fall asleep. I tap them on the shoulder, tell them to wash their faces, take a sip of orange juice and get to work."
But are they appreciated?
"Bat boys? Heck, they run errands for you, bring you something to eat if you're stretching, tighten your glove if you need it," said Yankee second baseman Steve Sax. "Shawn is great."
Mattingly: "More than what they actually do, I think it's important that young people be around us to learn that we are not supernatural."
Shortly after the "bucket of steam" incident, ex-Yankee catcher Rick Cerone asked Shawn to bring him the "key to the batter's box."
It took him only half the time to figure that one out.
Larry Sahr says he can tell you a story about every player in the NBA.
He's not kidding.
"It's sick," said Larry, 16, a junior at Miami's Killian High School. "The things I could tell you . . ."
Larry is the veteran among 10 ball boys for the Miami Heat. Two kneel below each basket, waiting to mop up monumental sweat when players fall or line up for a free throw. Another six -- three for the visitors and three for the Heat -- take care of the players.
"I'm going to brag a little," said equipment manager John Manoogian. "Trainers around the league tell me our kids are some of the best."
The kids under the basket, who put their lives on the line, get paid by the referees -- usually about $15 apiece. The kids assigned to the visitors get paid in tips. Each of the Heat kids earn $20 a game.
"Who cares about money?" said Larry, who collects discarded sneakers from NBA players like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Patrick Ewing. He stacks them in his bedroom closet and powders them every week because they stink. "It's amazing being in a locker room and sitting next to a Larry Bird or Michael Jordan, knowing every kid in America would kill for that opportunity."
Eli Tako, a senior at Gulliver Prep, said his status has skyrocketed since becoming a ball boy: "When Chicago comes to town I have 30 new friends."
But nothing, nothing could compare to the moment when Atlanta star Dominique Wilkins -- Eli's all-time hero -- stood inches away in the visitors' locker room.
"When I got Dominique's shoes," Eli said. "I was like, 'No way!' I died right there."
L Some NBA tidbits you won't be reading about in game stories:
* Mop-up man Donnell Timmons, 15: "When Patrick Ewing sweats, it's like a hurricane has struck and you're left with a flood."
* Larry Sahr: "Karl Malone asked me for a hot dog. I ran to the concession to get one, and put ketchup on it. He got mad and threw it on another ball boy. . . . He said he wanted mustard."
* Eli Tako: "The Detroit players had dripped sweat from their chairs on the sideline. Bill Laimbeer says the 'F' word. He says, 'What is this? F-ing grease?' I say, 'No, it's water.' I wipe it up and he yells, 'It's on my shoes now!' I give him a towel, he throws it on the ground and says, 'You ball boys should do your job.' "
Said Heat center Rony Seikaly, a more mellow fellow: "Our ball boys are very energetic. They like what they do. In other cities they just sit around and basically watch you get dressed and undressed."
Forward Billy Thompson: "They're errand boys, but they've become family. And they make this family run a lot smoother."
NTC "Three years ago I was ball-boying for Steve Denton," recalled Marc Horowitz, a 5-6, 105-pound Cooper City High senior.
"I started daydreaming. All of a sudden, I get nailed in the stomach by an 80-mile-an-hour serve.
"I felt pain -- like a bee sting. I crouched down to catch my breath. Basically, it knocked me over."
Nancy Horowitz, Marc's mother, is a pro tennis umpire who directs the ball kids for the Lipton International Tennis Championships. Her ball kids are immaculate, courteous, well-trained, and above all, inconspicuous. They attend training sessions, miss at least two days of school ("awesome," say the kids) and work a minimum of five sessions -- many of them in intense sun and temperatures that exceed 100 degrees on-court.
"I don't think they get enough recognition," Horowitz said of her kids, who are at least 14 years old. "They're supposed to be not noticed, but they are among the hardest workers in the tournament."
Ideally, there are eight ball kids: two at the net, one stationed near each corner of the court, and one assigned to get water and towels for each player.
"I got to give water once to Chris Evert in 1987," said Chris Proietti. "Every changeover I gave her a fresh cup whether she took a sip or not. A goddess, that's what she was."
Not all tennis pros are worshiped.
Last year Kathy Jordan constantly told ball kids to "get the F out of the way" during a doubles match, Proietti said. "She'd wait till the ball kids were in midaction and would swat the balls right out from under them.
"Let her pick up her own balls. Maybe she'll appreciate us more."
"Finally," thought Vanessa Velasquez, 16, of Miami. "It's almost over."
When the 18th hole of Doral's Blue Monster was upon them, Velasquez and partner Lellany Guevara, 14, rolled their eyes, took a deep breath and heaved up the eight-pound metal sign for the last time.
The second round of the Doral-Ryder Open golf tournament had ended, and the last thing on both girls' minds was which pros had made the cut. "Oh, I ache so much now," Vanessa said. "My shoulders. My legs. My feet. My forearms.
"I just knew I shouldn't have gone out dancing last night."
Standard bearers are the young volunteers who hold up the scores of the professional golfers they trail for each round. Usually they're shorter than the signs, and by the end of 18 holes are ready for a nap.
"I feel sorry for them when the wind is blowing really hard and the kids are thrown all over the place," said LPGA standout Nancy Lopez. "The little guys are sweating up a storm just trying to keep those things up."
And then there are the ones who can take the wind, but not the excitement:
"About 10 years ago we had a kid so excited about holding the standard for David Graham that as he was raising the sign it caught the asphalt, flipped over and banged Graham on the head," said Doral volunteer Tom Giunta, 30.
Being close has its advantages, too.
After standard-bearing for Paul Azinger at Doral, Scott Arp cut 10 strokes off his scoring average in Southwest High varsity matches. "Watching these guys in person is breathtaking," he said. Most standard bearers eagerly return to carry their burdens year after year. But not David Okun. The sixth-grader from Coral Springs learned his lesson, thank you.
"I thought I was going to be like holding up a little flag," he moaned. "I didn't know it would be anything like this. You don't have to walk six miles around the world in mini-golf.
"Golf is just not much of a sport. I like things that you really have to work at -- like skateboarding."