By Ben Walker
AP Baseball Writer
LAKELAND, Fla. — This rookie got caught looking.
Eager to do well, Braeden Ward reported to the Detroit Tigers on Monday to work his first day as a bat boy. It didn’t take long for the college freshman to fall prey to a clubhouse prank that’s been around forever.
“They asked me to get the key to the batter’s box,” he said.
Despite his best efforts — oh, and plenty of help from the Tigers, New York Mets manager Terry Collins and the umpires — the 18-year-old nicknamed “Bugsy” never got it locked down.
“The oldest trick in baseball,” Ward said, laughing. “Yes, sir. They got me good.”
He won’t be the last one, for sure. Every year, stories grow about teams sending earnest, young employees on searches for nonexistent ballpark items. It’s a playful rite of passage throughout the majors and minors.
Mets assistant general manager John Ricco recalled an intern at Citi Field last season who was dispatched to retrieve the left-handed fungo bats.
“They went to 15 different departments and never did find them,” Ricco said. “It’s a tradition in the game, it’s fun. But the key to batter’s box — that’s the gold standard.”
This gag played out at the Tigers’ spring training park, fittingly named Joker Marchant Stadium in honor of a former local official.
Ward’s quest began when Detroit third base coach Dave Clark said he needed the key and suggested the umpires might have it. Wearing his Tigers uniform and a batting helmet, Ward knocked on the door at the umps’ locker room and politely asked.
Veteran umpire Bob Davidson quickly sensed what was going on.
“First day?” he inquired.
Having seen this routine before, Davidson pointed the Florida Southern College student toward Collins. When Ward left, the ump deadpanned: “He might be back for the box of curveballs, too.”
Ward then went over to the Mets’ locker room and told a clubhouse worker why he needed to see Collins. The skipper is no stranger to these sort of shenanigans, either.
“He tapped me on the chest and said, ‘Don’t worry, son, you’ll find it,’” Ward said.
Eventually, a staff member in the Tigers’ clubhouse clued in Ward.
“I can’t believe I fell for it,” a smiling Ward said after Detroit’s 9-2 win. “I’ve played baseball my whole life. I’ve lived in the batter’s box. I played tricks like that on the freshmen in high school.”
“But this time, yup, they got me,” he said.