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Having a ball

Our Fenway Insider gets a chance at being ball attendant for a day

What would be absolutely the coolest thing you could do at Fenway Park? How about putting on a full Sox uniform, a baseball glove, and sitting out on the field, during the game, and actually getting to play balls hit your way.

Short of actually playing in a game, being one of the ball attendants who collect foul balls is hard to top. Well, I got the chance to do just that recently -- all in the name of dispassionately objective journalism and public service, of course -- and I can tell you it's every bit as cool as you could imagine. More on my experience in a minute.

Every game day, as the Sox players arrive at their locker room, Kelly Barons and Alex Johnston arrive at theirs, a dumpy little changing room buried beneath the left field grandstands that they share with Wally, the Sox mascot. There they change from college juniors -- Kelly's studying broadcast journalism at BU and Alex is a marketing major at BC -- into (play fanfare here) Fenway Ambassadors.

Their work begins long before the game does. They've been chosen to be ball attendants as much for their smiles and gregarious warm personalities as for the fact that they can field a little and know the game. (Kelly caught for the Lexington High and Regis College softball teams, and Alex was heavily scouted when he last played organized ball, for the Cohasset Little League Red Sox.)

Before the game they pick the kids who will be brought out of the stands to act as the honorary bat boy and bat girl for the game. On this night, it's Susie and Sam Collier, 10 and 13, here on a visit from Schaller, Iowa. Kelly and Alex take the kids into the Sox dugout during batting practice and chat with them While Susie and Sam sit agape as the players walk past, preparing for the game.

Alex and Kelly escort the kids on the field for the pregame ceremonies, when they are introduced. One of them also escorts to the mound whomever is throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. Usually it's Kelly, for whom the phrase "million dollar smile" was invented.

Sometimes, they get to catch the ceremonial first pitch. Other duties include escorting VIPs around, serving as hosts at special events ... but the main part of their job begins when the game does. They grab their gloves, head down the foul lines, and take two of the best seats in Fenway Park.

"Definitely the coolest part is being on the field at Fenway, and just being around baseball and the Sox," Kelly said of her stool along the wall outside the baseline. "I just love it. I eat it up."

Especially when she made a major league catch on a screaming line drive last year, which made ESPN's Top 10 list. It (along with her smile) also helped get her a guest stint hosting ESPN's Baseball Tonight last fall.

"It's so much fun," Alex said. "It's the best seat in the house. You get see a whole different aspect of the game. You get to wear the uniform. It's really cool. And you see all these excited kids. I'll never forget those smiles when you give them the ball. That's great."

Of course there are embarrassing moments, too.

"It was my first night," Alex recalls, freckles beaming red as he remembers. "(Kevin) Youkilis was up. First pitch he lines a foul ball right at me. It short hops me. I just froze and fell to the ground. They replayed it on TV a few times. By the end of that half-inning I had ten missed calls on my cell phone. I've heard about it every day since.

Kelly's was recent. "A couple weeks ago. I was down the first base line. A ball hit off the tarp and bounced out into fair territory. So I started to run out for it but I caught my sneaker in the grass and stumbled and stumbled and almost did a face plant. My whole life flashed before my eyes."

They joke about how to score errors on the ball attendants ... E-10 for the left field foul area or E-11 for right.

Of course, they're telling me these stories just before last Friday's game against the Angels (of Wherever). And I am in uniform, glove in hand, waiting to start the game as the ball attendant down the first base line. Stories of glory fly right past. Stories of stumbling ignominious embarrassment go straight to my already-pounding heart. Of course I want to make a play. Ten percent of me wants to make the spectacular leaping Top 10 catch that saves the baby in the arms of the mom sitting behind me, and 90 percent of me just doesn't want to screw up.

Alex walks me down to the stool giving me instructions. "If you aren't sure whether it's fair or foul, don't touch it! Just get out of the way! If the players are running over to make a play, RUN! Try to take the stool with you! Look out for spinning tricky hops off the tarp. For balls that go past the tarp and hit the wall, play the carom. Even if you don't field the ball cleanly, try to keep it from going onto the field and delaying the game! Don't sit in front of the advertising sign on the wall by your seat. Oh, and have a good time!"

He sits just inside the stands behind me in case I totally screw up or have a heart attack or something.

I test my stool to see where I'll need to grab it if I have to flee. It's heavy. I sit, and then Chone Figgins is up, and so is my blood pressure, and I'm keeping an eye on the ump and testing the footing in the warning track dirt and trying to remember everything Alex told me. David Wells throws the first pitch, and I am ready to jump up to field the ball. It really is like being IN the game.

The view is incredible. I'm maybe 75 feet behind Kevin Millar at first. I'm starting to take it all in when, just three pitches into the game, Figgins tops a bouncer, foul, toward the front of the tarp. I hope it goes up into the stands. But it bounces off the tarp into foul territory and rolls to a stop 20 feet past the first base coach. We both go for it.

The coach stops. It's my play. So I trot down to it and pick it up. I'm casual. I'm cool. And I am thinking "Thank God! A slow, easy play! PHEW!"

And I suddenly realize one of the worst parts of being a ball attendant, at least to a rookie like me. For the first time in my life I am actually holding the Holy Grail of baseball fandom ... a foul ball from a ballgame! How many games have I been to a game and never been close to getting a foul ball? And now I have one in my hands! And I have to give it away!

So I look for the nearest cute little kid and plunk it into the hand not occupied by his hot dog, and 10 year-old Michael Hurley from Edgartown makes giving up the ball easy, lighting up with the brightest grin you could ever hope to see. The ball I never got as a kid at all those ballgames, this kid just got. I trot back to my stool hoping I get to do that again.

My next chance comes in the second inning, a hard ground shot off the tarp. It's spinning viciously. I position myself for the bounce but the ball hits the dirt and takes a sharp left, toward fair territory.

I stab at it and make the play, but stumble. But I keep it from going on the field and delaying the game. Alex gives me a thumbs up as I head back and plop the treasured ball into the hands of 11-year-old Michael Frydayk, who gives it to his 7-year-old cousin Paul, who beams wide-eyed at the ball, then Michael, then me, and blurts out, "Awesome!"

The last play is in the third, a sharp grounder off the wall past the tarp. As Alex advised, I jump up and position myself with my back to the field, playing the carom cleanly. In what I think is a uniquely gallant and politically correct gesture, I offer the ball to a senior citizen in the stands.

She declines and points to the little kid behind her, 7-year-old Ethan Wang, who reaches out for the ball with a smile exceeded only by that of his father, who is happier watching his kid get the ball than Ethan is actually getting it.

After the third, I'm done. The Sox have graciously taken a chance on me, never having seen me field a ball, giving me three innings of the experience ... though they wouldn't risk having me play the left field foul area, where the ball attendant sits much closer to home and the hot shots scream in a lot faster. And now the second worst part of the job occurs.

Having to leave the field.

Yeah, being a ball attendant is an unbelievably cool job, though Kelly and Alex don't get paid very much. Still, they sit in the best seats in Fenway, and wear the uniform and their glove on the field during the game. Short of being between the foul lines, they are IN the game.

But more than that they are also ambassadors, not so much of the Sox or Fenway or even baseball, but of the magic of a kid's trip to the ballpark. They get to make that trip a really special time for a handful of kids who, long after they've forgotten who won or lost, will remember that time when that cute ballgirl, or that freckle-faced ballboy, or that bearded old ballgeezer, gave them that foul ball at Fenway.

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Our correspondent spent three innings as a ball attendant.
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