I've happily surrendered my age, weight and Social Security number to Hollywood casting director Felicia Fasano. But I draw the line when she asks me, point blank, if I've ever had any "sag-related" experiences. That, surely, is privileged information, a private matter between a man and his urologist.
But when I learn that SAG is an acronym for the Screen Actors Guild, I confess—with relief and some embarrassment—that I have no experience whatsoever with SAG. Indeed, I have never acted in my life. And yet, for reasons that I cannot fathom, I've been cast in a prime-time, hourlong CBS baseball drama called Clubhouse, a coproduction of Aaron Spelling and Mel Gibson, whom I will come to know, collectively, as Spell & Mel.
Spell & Mel meet Air & Space on Oct. 5, when I'll appear on Clubhouse as a bald sportswriter covering the 26-time world champion New York Empires, whose star third baseman, Conrad Dean, is played by ex-Princeton defensive back Dean Cain. When I tell Cain at rehearsal that mine seems destined to be the most wooden performance since Pinocchio's, he suggests that I find the humor in public humiliation. As a rookie with the Buffalo Bills, says the 38-year-old Cain, who suffered a career-ending knee injury before playing a regular season game, "I had to stand in the dining hall with my left hand on my nuts and my right hand on my heart and sing my school song. If I had to do that again, I'd have fun with it."
This puts me at ease. In fact, after 10 minutes on the clubhouse set of Clubhouse, holding my nuts proves irresistible. "When you make a Western, everybody working on it starts walking like a cowboy," says executive producer Ken Topolsky. "When you make a baseball show, you'll notice everyone—cast, crew, everyone—instinctively starts grabbing themselves."
It helps that the set in Van Nuys, Calif.—from the filthy phone on a clubhouse wall to the sunflower-seed-dappled dugout—looks alarmingly authentic. "Christopher Lloyd is the perfect equipment manager," says Tony Scruggs, a Clubhouse extra and former Texas Rangers outfielder, while cocking a glance at the Taxi alumnus. "Seems like every equipment manager I ever had was this blue-collar, shamanistic wise man who could inspire you one minute and rip you a new butt hole the next."
Nobody knows that better than Matt McGough, whose forth-coming memoir of his years as a Yankees batboy while a high school junior and senior inspired Clubhouse. Now 29, McGough is vicariously reliving his life under legendary Yankees equipment manager Nick Priore. " Don Mattingly really did tell me to find him a bat stretcher on my first day on the job," says McGough, referring to a scene in Clubhouse that is scheduled to air on Sept. 28. " David Cone would call guys to the bullpen and ask for a bucket of steam from the shower." McGough can testify to many ballplayer kindnesses—Mattingly and Jim Abbott mailed money to his brother, Damien, a Yankees batboy himself, during the strike of 1994—and a great many excesses. "One player," he says, "and he shall remain nameless, would bring his laundry from home for us to wash in the clubhouse."
At the heart of Clubhouse is a batboy played by Jeremy Sumpter, an enormously likable 16-year-old who never stoops to "Creekspeak." (That's writer and executive producer Daniel Cerone's coinage for the kind of irony-drenched, 15-going-on-50 dialogue that Dawson's Creek loosed on a generation.) Rest assured, should Clubhouse find a wide audience, Sumpter—whose credits include the title role in the 2003 film version of Peter Pan—will leverage his fame for the same worthy ends that you or I would. "I'm going to throw out the first pitch at a Giants game," says the San Francisco Giants fanatic. "I might golf in the AT&T. I'm a Lakers fan: It would be cool to sit next to Jack Nicholson...."
It would be. And so on Friday afternoon in my trailer I spend four final hours reciting my 34 words of dialogue. When the cast is summoned to rehearse at 6:30 p.m., my cue comes up, but my first lines—"You looked good at the plate tonight. How's that shoulder holding up?"—abandon me. Instead, I am a Trevi Fountain of flop sweat, finally blurting, "I've completely frozen up!" For a moment there is no other sound but the soft flapping of Spell & Mel's money taking flight. And then Cain, convulsing with laughter, puts a hand on my shoulder and says, "I love it! I love that you just did that!"
The actual shooting of the scenes is enormously complicated, involving a Steadicam snaking its way past two dozen clubhouse characters. Says Fred Keller, the director of this episode, "Not since the statehouse scene in A Night at the Opera have so many people appeared in one shot."
And so we shoot and reshoot for the next nine hours. In that time, inexplicably, I don't blow a single line. Indeed, when I wrap, 30 takes later at 3 a.m., the director praises my portrayal of...me. "Your first day on a set is the most exciting day of your life," Keller says. As members of the crew stifle yawns, he adds, "Your second day on a set is the most boring day of your life." But of course, all I've really heard is "second day," suggesting that I could, conceivably, work again.