Call Me Dr. BallDude
By Richard J. Cohen ’57
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.
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!”