Most baseball teams begin their home openers the same way, with someone throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. The Mobile BayBears, who play their 2015 home opener Wednesday April 15 at Hank Aaron Stadium against the Biloxi Shuckers, are no different. But the pitch that really marks the start of every BayBears’ home game is the one made by batboy Wade Vadakin when he walks out near the first-base line and tosses the rosin bag toward the mound.
It is the BayBears’ equivalent to the umpire shouting, “Play ball!”
Vadakin’s trademark toss, along with his animated “riding the horse” move following a Mobile home run — he straddles a bat and gallops in circles near home plate and the BayBears’ dugout — are popular with fans and players alike. In truth, Vadakin may be the most popular member of the BayBears’ team. Players, managers and coaches have come and gone, but Vadakin, 36, has been a constant. He’ll celebrate the start of his 18th season with the team — half his life — this week. And he can’t wait.
“It’s great,” Vadakin said recently, in anticipation of a new season. “I get to go out and be here at the park again and get re-acquainted with some of the old players and meet a bunch of new players. It’s my favorite time of the year.”
This may be his most significant home-opener yet. There was concern late last season and into the winter months about Vadakin’s health. He was diagnosed with cancer, just another in an incredibly long list of medical issues he has experienced since birth, and had to undergo chemotherapy treatments. He was born with congenital brain-stem damage and he has impaired vision. He doesn’t have a spleen and has had diabetes since he was 13 months old.
At Christmas, he was declared cancer free, but he remains closely monitored, not just for cancer, but for any number of medical issues. Yet there he was, back at The Hank, welcoming the players and coaches for this year’s BayBears’ team; welcoming a few old friends and a few friends to be.
“The last couple of years have been really crazy,” Vadakin admits. “I knew that I would eventually beat what I had. This last summer, going through the chemo, sometimes it coincided with games and unfortunately I had to miss some of those games because of the pain in my knees and some other stuff. But it feels great just knowing that I beat it.”
Vadakin and his family, including father Jeff and mother Kit, moved to Fairhope from Texas in 1998. The family became friends with Rocky Rockwell, who introduced the family to Bill Shanahan, then the BayBears’ president. Shanahan offered Vadakin a chance to work with the team. The first year with the BayBears, he worked in the press box, but it became apparent he really wanted to be closer to the action, so the following year he was appointed as the team’s batboy. He’s been there ever since.
Vadakin has even earned an upgraded title — director of on deck circle operations.
“It’s everything,” Jeff Vadakin said when asked what Wade’s association with the team means. “He doesn’t drive, he doesn’t date. He’s got a little dog, which we went through cancer with too — he had his last chemo treatment last week and I think Wade was more worried about his dog than he was about himself. We’re just keeping our fingers crossed. He gets another scan this month. He’s ready for the season. He’s gung ho. He keeps up with everybody and stays involved and stays in touch with a lot of the guys and they stay in touch with him.”
While his work with the BayBears has undoubtedly played an important role in Vadakin’s life, those on the team say having him on the team has been a plus.
“He’s just a good kid with a great heart,” said BayBears general manager Chris Morgan, who took over that role in August after 16 years with the Senior Bowl. “He has a great mother and father who are here every night and they even go to some road games. He’s one of those guys that if you go across minor league baseball, you find those kinds of stories and he’s ours. He has helped us as much as we’ve helped him. He’s meant more to us than we have meant for him.”
Outfielder Tom Belsa, who is beginning his second season with the BayBears, said he was pleased to see Vadakin back in the clubhouse.
“I tell you what, coming in last year, my first year in Mobile, we had all heard about Wade but you don’t really know what to expect when you show up,” Belsa said. “But he is an absolute joy to have in the clubhouse. He just brings a smile to everybody’s face because he’s coming in there, running his mouth to everybody, giving everybody some crap. It keeps everybody loose.
“For me, he’s just an unbelievable person to have here. He’s an inspiration. Look at him and what he’s gone through, battling cancer and things that we can’t even imagine. We’re just out here playing a game and he shows up every day regardless of how he’s feeling that day with energy, goofing around with us. It’s a real treat to have him around.”
To demonstrate their feelings for Vadakin, last season the team, led by then-manager Andy Green, arranged for Vadakin to have his own, permanent locker in the clubhouse, complete with a plaque denoting the designation.
“That was amazing,” Jeff Vadakin said. “That was Greeny and the players who got together. That was just great. He’s had everything from a bathroom stall to a portable crate thing in the hallway as his office [and] locker. Now he’s got his own official locker. That was the greatest thing they could have ever done for him. There were a lot of tears in the clubhouse that day, there really was.
“We all need some kind of fulfillment, and Wade is Wade. But he has something that he’s a part of, that gives him that fulfillment. It gives him some focus.”
Belsa said the locker is equally special to the players.
“He absolutely, 100 percent deserved it. He’s as much a part of the BayBears as anybody who has ever played on this team. He’s been here longer than most anybody. It was something that he deserved and I feel fortunate to have been on the team that did that because we got to see the emotion on his face and on Mr. Vadakin’s face and it was awesome, just terrific.”
Vadakin himself said the locker is “fantastic.”
The emotion comes not from Wade having a place to put his things in the Mobile clubhouse, Jeff Vadakin said, but from what the locker represents: acceptance.
“It makes him a part of the team, makes him feel a part of the team,” Wade’s father said. “The guys that are a little more mature realize that, (and may say to themselves) ‘He’s older than I am and look what he can do and what I can do.’ You find a lot of heart in most of these kids. There have been a couple who haven’t had that, but 95 percent of them have been great. Wade is usually the butt of their jokes, but he can give as good as he gets and hold his own pretty well. He’s still a little shy on initial contact, but he’s getting better. You get him with those guys, there’s no shyness at all when they get in that clubhouse.”
For sure, the BayBears are Wade Vadakin’s team — he has a tattoo featuring the team’s original logo high on his right arm and the team’s new logo on his left arm — and his expectations this year are high.
No pressure. The BayBears, the Class AA affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, will be seeking a sixth consecutive spot in the Southern League playoffs this year. At a team luncheon last week, Morgan said he didn’t want to put any pressure on this year’s team, but then he noted the team’s playoff run. Morgan went even further, telling new manager Robby Hammock the previous two BayBears’ managers (Andy Green, Turner Ward) have been named Manager of the Year in the Southern League.
After a 3-2 start in Birmingham last weekend, the team opens its home season April 15 with the first game of a five-game series against the Biloxi Shuckers. The Shuckers are in their first season; the team was previously located in Huntsville. Games begin at 6:35 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 7:05 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2:05 p.m. Sunday afternoon, all at The Hank.
While Morgan has high expectations for the team, he said he also is expecting big things from himself and the BayBears’ front office staff as well.
“The couple of things that we’ve always talked about as a staff, the areas that we can control is, food and beverage operations — which in minor league baseball is very important — and you’ll see a difference there,” he said. “And one of those areas that some may not think much about but if you have a problem in that area you’ll definitely hear about it, and that’s the cleanliness of the park, the music, all those things. We want to make sure when the fans come out they have a great time. If we do a better job of controlling the things that we can control, then we feel the fans will come out and keep coming out, which is the key. You can draw fans here, but you’ve got to make the experience such that they want to come back. I’m excited. I’m ready for the season to get started.”
Each night of the week has a special designation — including Thirsty Thursdays and Every Monday Matters. Individual game tickets are available for the weekend, but the organization also offers season tickets and seven or 12-game family plans, along with promotional opportunities.
No one is more ready for the opener than Wade Vadakin.
“I’ve got a feeling that we’re going to get our sixth straight playoff appearance,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll get another ring. That would be nice. I’ve got four.”
More importantly, Vadakin has his place and his team is back in town. He’ll toss out the rosin bag for the first time this season Wednesday and with any luck, he’ll “ride the horse” as his BayBears pick up another win and the players on this year’s team look to build their own identity and success and through that, look to enhance their individual futures in hopes of reaching The Show.
There have been 40 former BayBears that have realized that dream, 41 former BayBears who have been named Southern League all-stars. But there is only one director of on deck circle operations, the one and only Wade Vadakin.
“We’ve been watching him throwing the rosin bag out for years,’’ Jeff Vadakin said. “We’ve seen just about every possible style there is. I think we have finally decided on this underarm, sidearm, aim over here and hit over here style. The guys keep score. If he makes it, the guys have to win.”
For more on the 2015 Mobile BayBears roster, see this week’s Upon Further Review.