While his name might not appear on the Albuquerque Isotopes' staff page, James Keefner has long had his own title: Ballpark Mayor.A 27-year-old with Down Syndrome, Keefner has been a constant presence at Isotopes Park for the past decade. He can often be found dancing in the aisles, mingling with
While his name might not appear on the Albuquerque Isotopes' staff page, James Keefner has long had his own title: Ballpark Mayor.
A 27-year-old with Down Syndrome, Keefner has been a constant presence at Isotopes Park for the past decade. He can often be found dancing in the aisles, mingling with fans and players and, most prominently, working with the team's grounds crew.
"You just can't not smile when you're with James," said Isotopes general manager John Traub. "He's just a good guy."
Keefner and his family -- dad Jim, mom Patricia and sister Angelique -- moved to Albuquerque in 1998. Jim retired from the Army 10 years later, saying, "I pulled my family around for 27 years. So I figured, 'Hey, now they can push me around.'"
Jim's newfound free time, and the desire to spend it with his family, led to his acquisition of Isotopes season tickets. Thus James, a lifelong baseball fan whose early baseball memories include attending Albuquerque Dukes games at old Albuquerque Sports Stadium, became a ballpark regular.
"We started going to the Isotopes games and you know the deal, you're going to know the ushers, you're going to know the vendors selling food," said Jim. "And the second season we were here, [former] grounds crew chief Shawn Moore asked, 'Hey, what do you think about letting James come on the field?' And we thought that was pretty cool. That's how it started."
James Keefner, right, can often be found at Isotopes Park alongside his dad, Jim.
And so, James became an honorary groundskeeper. The Isotopes were a Los Angeles Dodgers affiliate at the time -- they're now with the Rockies -- and James' field access helped him meet new players and deepen his relationship with those whom he already knew. When it comes to favorites, he and his dad reel off a host of names including A.J. Ellis, JD Closser, Russ Mitchell, Dee Gordon and John Ely (who, James said, is "the best.") They've maintained many of these relationships by attending Spring Training games in Arizona as well as Major League contests in both Los Angeles and Colorado. Sometimes, however, it's the players who visit James.
"A.J. Ellis came to one of your [softball] games and he was the scorekeeper," said Jim, addressing his son. "The manager of the team had no idea who he was and said, 'Do you think you know how to do this?' And A.J.'s like, 'I think I can figure it out.'"
James' current softball team is called the Dukes, in honor of Albuquerque's pre-Isotopes franchise. He plays all over the diamond, including second base, third base and left field. But still, nothing can compare to being at Isotopes Park.
"The best thing is going with my dad to a game," James said. "And my girlfriend, she comes to the games sometimes. Her name is Bernadette. I love her. She's the best."
Moments after James expressed his love for Bernadette, a propulsive EDM track (perhaps selected byJosh Fuentes) played over the Isotopes Park PA. James immediately shifted into dance mode, showing off his flossing moves before concluding with a dab. He excused himself shortly thereafter in order to meet up with his fellow grounds crew members in advance of dragging the field.
"Every once in a while I just have to pinch myself," said Jim, after James had departed. "It's one thing to come to a ballgame, it's one thing to get a ball or something, but to go on the field like he's able to do and be so well received by the grounds crew and the whole organization here... I mean, I feel safe, as a dad, to let him go wherever he needs to, because I just know that there's going to be eyes looking out for him and taking care of him.
"That's his identity, too. With his friends and the community of young adults, his friends with special needs, it's, 'I work with the grounds crew.' He gets to share that. 'I work for the Isotopes on the grounds crew.'"
The Isotopes' current head groundskeeper is Clint Belau, who began working for the grounds crew in 2013.
"When I started as an assistant, [James] was more in the role of just being down here to hang out with the guys," said Belau. "So I tried to help him along to give him a sense of purpose down here. He started doing more things on the field -- the bucket and scoop with the drag, and pregame I'd have him clean up these walk-ups. And then in the past couple years, we've started doing paychecks. James will get $20 in an envelope, spend it on his dad. His dad gives it back to me and I put it in the envelope. 'James Keefner's paycheck.' It helps make it feel more official. But it helps me. It's always humbling to be in a relationship like that, where you feel like you're changing somebody's life for the better."
Whether Albuquerque or elsewhere, Keefner is sure to find his friends at the ballpark.
James called Clint "the best boss" and said the other grounds crew members were "like my brothers."
"I love to work. I like to rake, do the walk-ups, water, help out with bases," he said. "I dance [with the grounds crew]. We do 'Shake It Off.' I love to dance and do the entertainment. My dad is happy for me. So is my mom."
As for James's longstanding "ballpark mayor" designation, Jim attributes it to the Isotopes general manager.
"I think Mr. Traub whispered it to me one day. 'James is like the mayor here. He can go wherever," he said. "If he wants to go on the field, he can. If he wants to visit someone on the other team, he can. Whatever James wants, James gets."
Traub, for his part, said that he can't imagine Isotopes Park without James and his family in the stands.
"[The Keefners] are good people, just salt of the Earth, and we know how much this place means to them," he said. "But it's the other way around as well. They mean a lot. And James, he's just been a part of the fabric of this place for over a decade now. And it's awesome. He's grown up with this place. He's just part of the family."