The Williamsport Crosscutters, like most Minor League teams, have several "directors" on staff. Most of them are typical front office positions, such as "director of ticket sales" and "director of food and beverage."
And then there's Rhashan West-Bey, who holds a title that is unique within the industry.
Director of Smiles.
It's fitting that it's a unique title, as Rhashan is a unique individual -- a 29-year-old "gentle giant" in a 5XL shirt with an irrepressible enthusiasm that has made him a favorite of players and fans alike. His ascendance to Director of Smiles is one of those "only in Minor League Baseball" stories, one indicative of the generous spirit and outside-the-box thinking that helps compensate for the low pay and long hours that characterize a career in the industry. Because where else could one have a co-worker like Rhashan?
Entering the picture
Rhashan, a mentally challenged young man from Williamsport, first came to the Crosscutters' attention during the 2002 season when he was living in an apartment behind the ballpark. As vice president of marketing, Gabe Sinicropi wrote in an article published in the team's 2004 game program: "I recall seeing him at Bowman Field for the first time during the 2002 season and wondering to myself 'Who is this guy?' ... As the season progressed he kept coming around. ... Little by little, we learned more about him. He had attended Williamsport High School. He lived near the ballpark. Most children knew him by his nickname 'Bubbles'. ... In the 2002-03 offseason, I would see him more and more as he walked around the neighborhood. But he was still mostly a mystery man."
The mystery dissipated when, one day just prior to the start of the 2003 campaign, he was invited into the office to say hello. This led to daily visits, which in turn led to the team giving him odd jobs to do (such as breaking down cardboard boxes) in exchange for game tickets. Soon he was reporting to the ballpark every morning, leaving at 2 p.m. to swim and socialize at nearby Memorial Pool (where he had the duty of announcing when it was time for adult swim), and then returning in time to lead cheers during the Crosscutters game. The team won the New York-Penn League Championship that season, and Rhashan was in the thick of the action each and every day. And then came the offseason.
"After that championship, it was 'What happens now? Is he going to show up, or just say adios?' We didn't know," Sinicropi said in a phone conversation earlier this week. "But first thing every morning, there he was, just like he was reporting to work in a factory. He'd have his hat on and his lunch pail in his hand, come in, put his hat in the shelf and his lunch in the refrigerator, then sit down and wait for something to do."
Here, Sinicropi laughs. "Well, I guess he's coming to work every day, then! We weren't telling him no. He's like the CEO -- he makes his own hours and does what he wants."
And so it has gone. Rhashan is year-round presence at the stadium, and he helps out with a wide variety of tasks (this week, one of his duties involved helping to make bookmarks for the team's reading program).
"But even when he doesn't have a project he's working on, Rhashan keeps himself busy," said Sinicropi. "Watching old TV shows and wrestling on YouTube -- that's his thing right now. For a long time before that he was always doing word searches, and before that it was coloring. ... Making cards for people is one of his special things. If anyone he knows has something coming up, he'll make them a card.
"And then there's the way his mind works," he continued. "If for some reason I need to know, say, what number Brian Bixler wore when he was here in 2000-whatever, Rhashan can tell me. He has that number recall, and he's right 100 percent of the time. I'll go back, and check, but he's always right on. Rhashan is fun to have here. Sometimes I think what it would be like if he wasn't here, and it'd be weird. It'd just be really weird."
Director of Smiles
Rhashan was bestowed with the title of "Director of Smiles" in 2004, and Sinicropi notes that "of all the things that I've ever come up with, that might be the best. It just tells the story. It is exactly what he does."
And along with the official title came an increased role at the ballpark. Rhashan would be inside Bowman Field before the gates opened, ready to greet all arriving fans. He often sings during the seventh inning stretch (he has a remarkably good voice), his rally cries are recorded and played over the PA system, and last season every game began with Rhashan on the scoreboard yelling "Play Ball!"
The team has sold Rhashan T-shirts, issued his baseball card as part of the team's "Legends" series and even staged a bobblehead giveaway. (The money from any merchandise bearing Rhashan's likeness, as well as that earned from companies that sponsor him each season, is put into a slush fund that helps defray his food and living expenses).
"There's a real thin line when it comes to how we use Rhashan," said Sinicropi. "We never want to come across like we're using him just for other people's entertainment. But people love it and he loves it... Sometimes I wonder what it must be like for people from out of town, coming to a game for the first time. Like, 'What's going on here?' But I think they understand pretty quickly, and know we're helping."
Rhashan has also become a favorite of the Crosscutter players. Director of ticket operations Sarah Budd explains that "whenever the team goes on the road, he gives a pep talk before they go out. He pumps them up, tells them to play well and sings."
In his recent book Just A Minor Perspective, 2010 Crosscutter Eric Pettis described the aftermath of this ritual.
"Our spirits were lifted," he wrote. "The once droopy faces were splitting with uncontrollable laughter. He wasn't the Director of Smiles for nothing. It's people like Rhashan that make the journey through the Minors unique."
Pettis certainly isn't the only one. Budd relates how 2007 Crosscutter Matt Rizzoti bought Rhashan a pet frog, which was summarily christened "Little Rizz" and kept in the stadium office. And during his stint as manager of the Auburn Doubledays, Dennis Holmberg would make a point to bring him gifts whenever his team visited Williamsport.
"[Holmberg] still sends Rhashan packages, size 14 sneakers and 5XL shirts. He probably gets Rhashan two or three pairs of sneakers a year," said Sinicropi.
Part of the family
The Crosscutters have clearly been a tremendous boon to Rhashan's life, and in the past have even taken him on regular shopping trips and shuttled him to doctor's appointments. But Sinicropi notes that the most important thing they've been able to do is help find Rhashan a new living situation. He moved from his apartment behind the stadium and now resides with several roommates in a house run by an organization called Hope Enterprises.
"It's an awesome place, and that's something we're very proud of, helping him to get out of a situation that wasn't as comfortable," said Sinicropi. "[Rhashan and his roommates] live on their own, but someone is there throughout part of the day to help out. ... He's been eating healthier and always takes his medications."
And at the end of the day, this isn't a story about the Crosscutters -- it's a story about all of Williamsport.
"We liked to think that we did good things for Rhashan, helped him out, and took him under our wing," said Sinicropi. "But we soon realized that there are multiple people just like us, who have been affected by him and want to help him.
"He's the man, and that's it. And if you tell Rhashan that, he'll agree: 'I am the man!'"