The last at-bat at Yankee Stadium (cont.)
Ray had arrived five hours before game time in a white stretch Jeep limousine along with a group of young players, mostly rookies and marginal relief pitchers. His last official duty of the season was to chaperone the group to a tribute for fallen police officers in Queens. When he walked inside the Stadium, a few thousand fans were in the stands and the Yankees were taking batting practice. Ray walked down the front aisle, a press credential hanging from his neck, and onto the field.
"Let's try to be a family today," Ray said.
"I told Randy Levine and Brian Cashman today they're not my bosses," he said referring to the president and general manager of the Yankees. "I went to a wake yesterday for a friend who died of cancer. I knew her from the Doc Gooden days. Today is another wake. I don't want to see anyone angry today."
Joe Morgan chatted with Derek Jeter behind the cage, then had his picture taken with Robinson Cano. Reggie Jackson, looking fit in a white shirt and slacks, stood next to Val Kilmer, a little round around the middle, decked in a Yankee cap, aviator shades, blue blazer and jeans. Ray would not be needed by Mr. October on this night.
"Reggie kicks everybody's ass, but not mine," said Ray. "If after all these years I didn't know how to deal with Reggie, I feel sorry for me. Hey, Reggie walks with Val Kilmer but I walk with Richard Gere. I'm giving him my last tour today."
Ray is not famous, but like most famous people he has an almost compulsive need to be accepted. "My greatest goal would be to win an Oscar," Ray said once. "It doesn't matter what it's for -- acting, writing, directing, producing. I just think that would be the ultimate. An Oscar. How much bigger does it get than that?"
Ray's phone chirped: Willie Randolph. He listened for a moment and said, "Just wear a suit jacket, that way you can just take it off when you put the uniform on."
Ray likes his famous friends. They offer him validation. "I babysat for Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, the Alomar boys, Sandy and Robbie. The White Sox were in town last week and someone was goofin' on me and Griff says, 'Hey, get off my babysitter.'"
Scott Clark from a local news station was waiting for Ray outside the Yankee locker room with a cameraman. They made their way down the busy corridor that runs up the first base line. Ray moved quickly and seemingly without effort, he glided. He's deceptively fast -- if you don't pay attention you could fall behind easily. Every 10 paces someone stopped to say hello, an electrician, a reporter, one of the carpenters. He slapped hands with one of the bat boys, gave a playful shove to Cano and told the security guard sitting in front of the indoor hitting cage that he'd be back when the game was over.
Around the corner from the hitting cage was a large, unremarkable storage room filled with boxes of blue replacement seats. In the middle of the room was a column with three figures painted onto it: Lou Gehrig, Thurman Munson and Jeter. In 1973, his first year as batboy, Ray was asked to look after Gehrig's widow during Old Timers' Day. She told Ray about the place in a back storage room where her husband would go to pray after he discovered that he was ill in 1939.
"This isn't on the official Yankee Stadium tour," said Ray, "because they say it isn't a documented fact, so it's not officially recognized. But Lou Gehrig came in here to meditate by himself. How is that going to be documented?"
Ray finished with the TV guys and his phone chirped. Richard Gere had arrived. Aris Sakellaridis, press credential in hand, was waiting just outside the Stadium when Gere's Escalade pulled to the curb. Aris, 47, a good-humored, square-jawed man who grew up in Washington Heights, calls himself a "Ghetto Greek." He was decked out in a white Everlast track suit with a black fanny pack. A retired prison guard with a steady pension, Aris does some writing, plays semi-pro baseball, and mostly, hangs out with Ray. He's Ray Negron's Ray Negron.
Gere and his friend and their two 8-year old boys hopped out of the black SUV and followed Ray and Aris into the Stadium. Gere looked younger than 59, his face open and unguarded. The two boys were excited. Ray explained how he had met Gere on the set of The Cotton Club.
"He was the waiter," said Gere.
"I was the waiter," said Ray.
Ray took the group onto the field to watch batting practice and introduced them to Joe Girardi, Bobby Abreu, Jeter and Randolph. Then it was on to the blacked-out seats in center field and Monument Park. After that came the indoor hitting cage, where Aris tossed the boys BP. When they arrived in the Gehrig room, the boys were quiet and respectful as they listened to Ray's story, a more detailed version of what he'd told earlier. But this time he wasn't talking to a local TV station, he was talking to a movie star. As Ray spoke, he looked into Gere's eyes and delivered a relaxed, unhurried, emphatic version of his tale. Without saying anything, Gere brought out the best in Ray just by listening.
After he delivered the Gere gang to their seats, Ray went downstairs and slipped into the Yankee locker room. Less than a minute later he came out with Jeter's autograph on a small glove. "For a sick kid with cancer that I'm going to visit this week," said Ray. A man in a suit approached. Next to him were a cameraman and a sound man.
"Ray, Ray, we need you to show us the room. Can we get you now, real fast, Ray?"
"Where you been all season? Five minutes 'til game time and you need me. You must be hitting the bottom of the celebrity barrel if you need me."
Ray waved his hand and started walking down the hall. "This isn't an official tour," he said. "Gere was still the last one."
Ray's phone chirped again. "It's Darryl Strawberry."
Ray grabbed a box lunch from the spread in the hallway and ducked into the auxiliary locker room where the Yankee old-timers were housed that night. Ray reported that Darryl was upset not to be at the Stadium. "The Mets are giving him s--- about coming here, so he stayed away."
The locker room was empty except for clubhouse man Lou Cucuzza, a heavyset guy with a sympathetic face who has been with the Yankees for 32 years. He was sitting on a chair near the back of the room, looking up at a small TV set that hung in the right hand corner of the room.
Ray sat in front of the locker closest to the TV, the locker that would be David Wells' for the night. He ate a chicken sandwich, while out on the field the retired Yankees were introduced to the crowd. The crowd noise was muted by the audio feed from the TV which came directly from the P.A. It was as if Ray were sitting in a coffin.
"Can you believe Sparky [Lyle] isn't here?" said Cucuzza. "No Mickey Rivers either. I had 70 guys in here for Old Timers' Day. Got less than half that tonight."
Ray, sandwich in one hand, cell in the other, shook his head.
When Thurman Munson's son trotted on the field, Ray said, "He's big like his dad but he looks like his mother."
"You remember Thurman, Ray," said Cucuzza. "He was rough with the press. He wanted them to think he was mean, but he was a sweetheart in the clubhouse."
Ray stood up, dumped what he hadn't eaten in the garbage can and walked out of the locker room. He passed the press room and the Yankee clubhouse, then turned left down the corridor that led to the dugout area just north of the Yankee bench. The sound of the crowd grew louder. Ray moved past the cameras, up the steps and stood on the field where everything was loud and alive, 56,000 people on their feet. Spike Lee was a few feet away snapping pictures. Flash bulbs popped all around the park like a convention of fireflies. Ray stood on the sidelines, arms folded, nonchalant.
Babe Ruth's daughter was wheeled in front of the pitcher's mound, where she threw out the ceremonial first ball. The crowd cheered as the players -- Yogi Berra and Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez and Moose Skowron -- made their way back to the dugout, laughing and slapping each other on the back. Bernie Williams walked with his arms around Abreu and Cano. Ray bumped fists with David Wells, said hello to Dave Winfield and then hugged Bobby Murcer's son, Todd, who was on the field with his sister and his mother. Ray escorted the Murcers upstairs to the loge level, through the crowd to the Elston Howard Suite. The room was boisterous and cheerful, like a family reunion.
Ray hugged Catfish Hunter's widow and then Diane Munson. The players' wives had always treated Ray like a kid brother when he was a batboy.
"Thurman will be in my next book," Ray whispered in Diane's ear.
"That's sweet, Ray," she said. "Do you miss him?"
"Yeah, I miss him."