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Columbia College Today May 2004
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Call Me Dr. BallDude

By Richard J. Cohen ’57

Dr. Richard J. Cohen '57, aka Ball Dude
Dr. Richard J. Cohen '57, aka BallDude

During the day, I am in private practice as consulting oncologist and clinical professor of medicine at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. But at 5 p.m., I’m off to SBC (formerly Pac Bell) Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. Off goes my suit, shirt and bowtie as I switch into a full Major League Baseball uniform and take my position as … drum roll, please … BallDude.

What is a BallDude, you ask? At each Giants home game, two individuals are selected to sit on stools in foul territory, one in left field and one in right field, out by the bullpens where the relief pitchers warm up. These inveterate fans catch or retrieve foul balls hit on the ground or off the railings and present them to youngsters sitting in the stands.

For me, this is a dream job.

I grew up in the 1940s and ’50s in Brooklyn, when New York was the center of the baseball universe with three major league teams: the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants and those “Damn Yankees.” Those were happy days, sitting in the bleachers at Ebbets Field with my dad and my kid brother, or with school chums, passionately debating who was the best center fielder — Duke Snider, Willie Mays, DiMag or Mickey Mantle. After the games, we would stand at the locker room exit and wait impatiently for autographs from Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, PeeWee Reese, the Duke and the rest of The Boys of Summer. At World Series time, all classrooms had at least one radio with the games on low, with all of Brooklyn seemingly sharing in the perpetual sadness and depression resulting from another Yankees triumph.

Move ahead with me to 1955 and my days at Columbia. That year, the Dodgers finally beat the Yankees in the World Series in seven games. For me and other Dodger fans listening in the dorms and at the Lion’s Den, there is pandemonium and utter joy. But as my graduation approaches, memories of baseball days in New York begin to dissipate, the Dodgers and Giants finalize plans to move west and Ebbets Field is razed to build apartment houses.

I go on to medical school, marriage, family, residency and fellowship training. My path leads me to San Francisco in 1968 to begin a career in a consulting practice and medical school teaching of oncology and hematology. I bid farewell to Dodger loyalties and embrace my new hometown team with Mays, McCovey and Marichal. There are periodic visions of perhaps going to a Fantasy Baseball Camp, but these are merely fleeting illusions quickly overshadowed by the responsibilities of family and career.

It is now 1974. On my schedule, I see a consultation with a member of the Koufax family. Sure enough, into my office, together with family members, comes Sandy Koufax — the great Hall of Famer, gray-haired but trim and distinguished. He sits across from me to discuss medical recommendations. Word spreads throughout my building and beyond, and within minutes, hundreds are waiting for a glimpse of the legend, a scene that is repeated upon each of his several visits. He graciously presents me with a signed baseball for my son, and some signed photos from his no-hitters.

At home, I am struck by how friends and visitors, when viewing these items, quickly “remember when my sisters and I saw him pitch that shutout against Cincinnati,” or how “my dad and I were there for the first 18-strikeout game,” and so on. I realize how many of us “adults,” both men and women, retain so much “kid,” and readily conjure up special memories of the impact of baseball on our youth. It does not matter where this youth was spent — Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Boston — the memories from each city, each ballpark and the stars and events of each era flood back. It is then that I begin to collect autographed baseball memorabilia, and over time, the walls and bookshelves in my consultation and examination rooms become filled with baseballs and pictures signed by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig ’25, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Ty Cobb and other legends.

In Spring 2002, I receive a nondescript envelope from the community services office of the San Francisco Giants. Having been a season ticket holder for many years and thinking it to be a donation request, I’m ready to lay it aside for future response, but something makes me open it. Imagine my reaction as I read: “We have heard of your special interest in baseball and would like to invite you to be a BallDude for a Dodger-Giants game at Pac Bell Park. Would you consider accepting this opportunity?”

After I recover from near-hysterical excitement, and with my staff in paroxysmal ecstasy, I stabilize enough to call in my acceptance. I am told to bring a standard Giants baseball cap, black sneakers and baseball mitt and report for duty to the employees entrance two hours before gametime. When I arrive, I am escorted to the uniform desk, where sizes are checked and I am given a complete Giants uniform including underliner shirt, leg stockings, belt and team jacket. I am then shown to a locker room, adjacent to the team’s locker room, given a combination lock and personal locker for my street clothes, and the next most essential item, a large plastic ID card identifying me as BallDude. After dressing, I receive my final badge of honor — the four-legged stool on which I will sit during the game. It is a circular seat of pine, finely crafted, with an elegant National League emblem painted on it.

From that point on, the park is my castle. Nearby is the employee food court, where hot dogs and other ballpark fare are available at a discount off regular prices. The employees are incredibly cordial to the new man in uniform and happy to talk about yesterday’s game or today’s starting pitchers. Then, the big moment approaches — I am directed down the tunnel that connects the clubhouse to the field. The security guards greet me with “Hi there, Dude,” as I float down the steps past the indoor batting cage (my goodness, there’s J.T. Snow right in front of me, swinging away), up the dugout steps and onto the playing field, brilliantly lit by a warm sunny sky.

Dr. Richard J. Cohen '57 with Barry Bonds and Willie Mays
Cohen is flanked by Giants star Barry Bonds (left) and Hall of Famer Willie Mays.

The dream encapsulates me. I’m on a major league baseball field in full uniform, with players filing before me to take batting practice. And it’s my Giants against the L.A. Dodgers, no less. For a lifelong baseball fan, it is a moment that can be captured to this intense degree only once, a theatrical moment that seemed flooded with light and music, a scene familiar from The Natural, the classic baseball film starring Robert Redford. I walk freely around the field, watching up close how the field crew prepares the diamond, how the TV cameras are positioned and how the ushers prepare for their section assignments. I wave to some early arriving fans and walk over to say hello, many of the regulars inquiring as to how I reached the revered position of Dude.

Suddenly, I am summoned to the dugout. Two of the pregame announcers have learned that I witnessed baseball at Ebbets Field and want to record my reflections, since Dodger baseball in Brooklyn predated their sportscasting careers. A few seats over in the dugout, then-Giants manager Dusty Baker listens to our conversation, and confirms and expands on my recollections. All around me, ballplayers are arriving with three or four bats to place into the batting rack — the great Barry Bonds, Benito Santiago, Jeff Kent, Andres Galaragga. Shortstop Rich Aurilia sees my Dude ID card and throws me a big smile: “Welcome, Dude. I hear you grew up in Brooklyn. That’s where I started my baseball career. A helluva baseball town, even these days.” I enthusiastically agree. (Strict BallDude etiquette: You do not address a ballplayer unless spoken to, and under no circumstances do you approach one for an autograph.)

My surprise interview completed, I find myself with a some free time. I head onto the field, walk behind the batting cages and watch the balls soar out into the incredibly distant outfield stands. I meander to the visiting team batting cage, awed by the beautiful swing of Shawn Green, and feel a brief pang of regret that my baseball passions had taken the necessary shift away from the Blue and White (Dodgers) to the Black and Orange (Giants). I amble up and down the foul lines, drinking in the spaciousness and beauty of the park as the field crew lays down the pure white bases.

My assignment is the left field line. I head back into the dugout to retrieve my stool as the teams gather for the national anthem. As the home team races onto the field, it is time for me to rush down the line to my position. I crouch on my stool, partially protected behind some lower stands in the left field foul area, while directly in front of me, at eye level, a major league baseball game unfolds.

During play, I must always watch the batter, so I am prepared to pick up a foul grounder or chase a careening foul line drive off his bat. Between innings, I am permitted to stand up and walk along the foul line. I chat with fans along the left field line, laughing when they pledge their home, car, girlfriend, free hot dogs and so forth for a game ball if I retrieve one. But I stick to the essential rule: It is BallDude’s responsibility to identify a young fan, usually between 6 and 12, and to whom I present any ball that I retrieve. If I need a bathroom break, I must run quickly the dugout in between innings, where I am free to use the player’s rest room — as long as I’m back on my stool by the time the umpire yells, “Batter up!”

I don’t make any spectacular catches, just retrieve four soft grounders, which are ceremoniously presented to four absolutely thrilled youngsters. It is wonderful to behold the huge smiles on their faces and to think that for them, the memories and excitement of being at a baseball game will be preserved.

As the game wears on, relief pitchers come out to the bullpen to warm up. Barely three feet away from where I sit, 96 mile-per-hour fastballs come smacking into the catchers’ mitts from Giants relievers Robb Nen and Felix Rodriguez. It is absolutely awesome to behold the movement and aerodynamics of a baseball twirling at that speed, and to respect the accomplishments of Bonds, Williams, Mays and other great hitters in making contact against such pitches.

The game ends, an exciting 5–4 loss to the Dodgers, with more than 41,000 fans passionately shouting until the final out. I pick up my stool and return to the dugout, joining the weary players as they head for their lockers and I head for mine. I shed my uniform, put on my street clothes and return the uniform, the BallDude badge, the lock and the stool to the attendant.

“Hope I get to see you again, Dr. Cohen.”

“Thanks, I hope so, too.”

I head out to the near-empty parking lot and drive home. My wife, a practicing psychologist, couldn’t get to the game because of patient obligations. When she asks what it was like for me, I find that I can’t adequately communicate to her the full sense of what I had experienced, so wrapped up was I in reliving each and every moment as if they were digital images on a CD. Only the next day, as I return to my world of physician, can I begin to verbalize the dream that had become a reality.

One more story, about how my two worlds overlap. In my debut as BallDude, I used a beat-up first baseman’s mitt from my high school days. Three days later, a client who had been at the game came to the office with two beautiful, expensive new fielder’s gloves. “I’m not going to let any respectable doctor of mine appear on a major league playing field with such a shmatteh (Yiddish for rag),” he said. “These are for you.”

Richard J. Cohen ’57 remains in private practice as consulting oncologist and clinical professor of medicine at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. Since this first experience, he has been added to the regular rotational roster of BallDudes. He worked five games during the 2003 season (the Giants won all five) and was in the lottery for a postseason assignment, which never came to pass. “Although still in a dream state with each assignment, I have settled down to a calmer condition as the 2004 season unfolds. If you are visiting SBC Park for a game, or watching a Giants home game on TV, glance over at the Dudes on either side of the field and see if I am working. If you’re at the game, come on over and say hello — it may be the easiest autograph you get all day. Go, Giants!”




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