You can call Wade Vadakin a bat boy, sure. But please know that his official title is "director of on-deck circle operations."
Most bat boys aren't esteemed or experienced enough to lay claim to such a lofty title, but Wade is not like most bat boys. He's a Mobile BayBears institution, currently in his 18th season on the job at Hank Aaron Stadium. Wade has his own locker in the clubhouse, identified via a personalized plaque, and when he worked his 1,000th game in 2012, he was awarded with both a key to the city and a letter of commendation from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
That's why Wade's the director of on-deck circle operations. He's earned it.
Wade's accomplishments with the BayBears are impressive, especially considering the litany of health problems that have plagued him throughout his life. He was born with congenital brain damage, suffers from poor eyesight and has diabetes. Furthermore, Wade was diagnosed with cancer during the 2014 season and underwent chemotherapy treatments until being declared free of the disease at the end of the calendar year.
Through this tumult, the BayBears have been a constant.
"I don't know if he's the longest-tenured [bat boy] in the Minor League system, but he's been here for 18 years. That's a long time to be a kid chasing bats," said Vadakin's father, Jeff, who drives Wade to every game from the family home in nearby Fairhope, Alabama. "He was 18 and now he's 36. Half of his life has been on this field, and now he's the most senior staff person in the park."
Wade's tenure with the BayBears began in 1998, shortly after the Vadakin family -- Jeff, wife Kit, Wade and younger brother Jack -- moved to Fairhope from the Houston area. Jeff notes with pride that, while living in Texas, Wade worked as an athletic trainer at his high school before graduating "absolutely dead center" in his class -- 333rd out of 666.
"He's a great speller, does a lot of math in his head and his vocabulary is pretty impressive," said Jeff.
Early in the 1998 season, with the Vadakin family still new to the Mobile area, Wade attended his first BayBears game along with his mother and brother.
"I was a pilot for Delta, so I was out of town," said Jeff. "My wife never met a stranger, and she started talking to a fella who turned out to know [then-BayBears president] Bill Shanahan. … He said, 'Well, I'll have Shanahan give you a call. He might want to meet Wade.' The next day we got a phone call. 'Bring Wade out to the park. We've got tickets for you. We want to meet him.' So she did."
Under the direction of Shanahan, Wade was put to work at the stadium in a variety of capacities. He ran the scoreboard and did some PA announcing, but soon discovered that being a bat boy was what he liked best. The BayBears went on to win the Southern League championship in 1998, which ended with the players carrying Wade off of the field. That would be the first of four Southern League championship ring that Wade would earn.
• Read more about Ben's visit to Mobile on the Biz Blog »
I spoke with Jeff during July 31's BayBears game, as Wade plied his trade in the dugout. During the contest, an eventual 7-4 loss against the Jacksonville Suns, I witnessed Wade do his signature "Riding the Bull" routine. Each time the BayBears scored a run, Wade would retrieve the bat, place it between his legs and gallop back to the dugout.
After the game, his duties complete, I asked Wade how, and why, this ritual started.
"It was in 2001," he said. "It was one of our team's pitchers and the first baseman. They'd say, 'Hey, Wade, let's start having a little fun here. After the first run we score each game, you ride the bull. Like Happy Gilmore.' All right, all right. So I did that for the rest of the season, the first run we scored each game."
He continued, "Then, in '02, one of our pitchers said 'Why don't you ride the bull when we score in this inning right here?' I said that I already rode it when we scored our first run, so many innings beforehand. He said, 'No, Wade. You've gotta start riding it after each run we score.' So that how that started. It's great."
As the above anecdote illustrates, Wade has long enjoyed an easygoing, joking rapport with the BayBears players.
"They rag on him, and he rags right back. He has his favorite players, this has been a really good club for him," said Jeff.
Just don't get on Wade's bad side, like Dale Thayer did in 2007. As improbable as it sounds, Wade served a one-game suspension that season for charging at Thayer after a ballgame had ended. When Jeff mentions this incident, though never quite identifying Thayer by name, Wade's eyes lit up.
"Oh! All right, hold up," said Wade, preparing himself to tell the story. "There was this relief pitcher who threw here from '04 to '06. The guy was a total jerk toward me, like on a daily basis. … Then, in 2007, he ended up with the Rays [organization] and, so, wouldn't you know it? The first time we played [Rays affiliate] Montgomery, there he is.
"So after the game, I go up to the mound to get the rosin bag, like I do every game," he continued. "But either [Thayer] or one of his teammates threw the rosin bag and it bounced off of my shoulder. Then he started badmouthing me. 'Hey, Wade, nice catch.' Saying a bunch of derogatory stuff toward me. 'Dude, Dale, shut up, man!' And he was like, 'Wade, don't go home crying because your whole team sucks.' Now he's no longer disrespecting me, he's disrespecting the team. Then he said some other stuff to me, so I threw some stuff back at him and next thing I knew I was being escorted off the field. So I never actually charged the mound…"
"You did, you did," countered Jeff. "You tried. You got dragged off."
A more recent, and less violent, adventure in the sporting life of Wade occurred earlier this season, during a game in nearby Pensacola. Florida. During a "light delay" (as in, the lights had stopped working), the BayBears players approached Wade with an offer he couldn't refuse.
"When the lights went out, they had a little fun with me at first," said Wade. "They said, 'Hey, why don't you go out there and act like you hit a home run, pimp it, do a bat flip, and dive into home plate?' Some of the guys said they'd pay me some cash for it."
When Wade reached home plate, the players who had gathered to greet him fell backwards in unison and threw their legs in the air. It was a bravura performance all around, for which Wade was paid $60.
"That $60 went toward buying beer for the team," said Jeff. "Good beer -- bottled beer. We weren't gonna keep their money. That's part of being on the team."
It's a team that Wade plans on being a part of for as long as he can.
"Every year people say 'Wade, give it up! You're too slow, you're too old, you've been doing this for so long," he said. "I'm like, 'Nah.'"
After all, on-deck circle operations don't direct themselves.
(Photos courtesy of Chip English)