He was trying to make the play. He was trying to do something, anything, to help the Dodgers.
For the last 11 years of his life, that's who Javier Herrera has been, a Dodgers batboy-clubhouse assistant who is still dragging lumber and washing jocks at age 29 for one simple reason.
“My biggest thing is, I want to be there when the Dodgers win a World Series,” he says. “I want to experience that.”
He is the oldest and most veteran of the four Dodgers batboys. He knows what you are thinking — how can you call somebody his age a “boy”? — but he shrugs it off because he knows he is doing a job for men. He works until 2 a.m. after night games, he shows up at 3 a.m. to meet the equipment truck after road games, and he does it all for about $9 an hour while also holding down a day job at an optometrist office.
He loved baseball so much, shortly after joining the Dodgers' clubhouse staff as an 18-year-old, he put a tattoo of the major league logo on his inner left arm. He loves the Dodgers so much, he has vowed to get a Dodgers world championship tattoo when they finally win it.
“Even if that tattoo is the size of a quarter, I'm getting it,” he says. “I do what I do because the Dodgers are my team.”
And so Sunday afternoon, 10 minutes before the first pitch of the Dodgers' game with the Cincinnati Reds in the steamiest heat of Chavez Ravine, Herrera shrugged when he was informed that he would have to take one for the team.
One of the two ball girls who sit on overturned buckets along the foul lines didn't show up. He was asked to replace her. It would be only his third time working as a ball boy all season, because this year the Dodgers' marketing folks decided the job should be done strictly by women, but he had done it often in previous years. It was nearly 100 degrees, and he hadn't planned on it, but he was ready.
“No big deal,” he says. “There's padding on the bucket, the fans are real nice, you just get your glove and get out there.”
As with everything in baseball, it was no big deal until it was a huge deal. On this day, with the Reds batting in the fifth inning, it became a huge deal.
Tucker Barnhart, the Reds' catcher, lofted a slicing foul ball that soared over third base and headed for the stands behind Herrera. In that position, one of Herrera's main jobs is to protect those stands.
“It's pretty brutal over there, the sun can be bad, the ball is moving, we just want the ball knocked down so nobody gets hurt,” says Mitch Poole, Dodgers clubhouse manager and Herrera's boss.
As the ball gently sailed toward the seats, one could spot fans in the first row eating, drinking, looking down at their phones. Maybe the little white dot would crash into them. Maybe it wouldn't. Herrera couldn't take a chance, so he stuck his glove high into the air and leaned back, back,
And then he tumbled backward over the blue railing, over a white tabletop in the stands, and down onto a concrete floor where he landed on his back.
While the ball bounced out of his grasp and up into the stands.
It was such a dramatic tumble, Vin Scully interrupted his play-by-play to say, “Oh my goodness.... Is he OK?”
Sort of. Not really.
“I made my final stretch, I thought the ball was going to land in my glove, and then the wall just took my legs,” Herrera recalls. “I saw the ball … then I saw the sky.”
The moment he landed on the ground, the pain of humiliation was far worse than the eventual ache in his back.
“I lay there thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what did I just do? I just embarrassed myself on national TV!'” he recalls.
National TV? It was on national everything. Social media lit up with comment, the blogs filled up with the video, and by Monday afternoon the scene was the rage of sports talk shows everywhere.
But Javier Herrera won't remember any of that. What he will remember was the noise made by Dodgers fans after he had quickly leaped to his feet, climbed back over the fence, and sat back down on the padded bucket with his helmeted head in his hands and sunglasses thankfully covering his dazed eyes.
He will remember how his career's most embarrassing moment was overcome with it's most unusual sound.
He will remember the standing ovation.
“I thought I might get heckled,” he says. “I did not think I would get cheered.”
But that's what happened, hugely, grandly, thousands of fans reacting to the replay by roaring their appreciation of his effort. It was as if they knew how much he cared, because that's how much they cared. Here's a guy with his first name on the back of his jersey tumbling into the stands after a meaningless ball as if it was the final out of the World Series. Here's a guy missing, falling, then getting back up.
The hopes of lots of Dodgers fans in this town have spent the last 27 years missing, falling, then getting back up.
“I think the fans kind of feel like he was them,” says Poole.
It was as if they knew Herrera literally cried in frustration last season when the Dodgers lost in St. Louis in October. Or that, nearly three years ago, he and wife Vanessa set up a Dodger Stadium backdrop for photos at their wedding. Or that he loves their Highland Park home mostly because it is seven minutes from Chavez Ravine and, from a back porch, one can see the Friday night fireworks.
Herrera is so superstitiously devoted to the Dodgers, before every game he'll grab the bats belonging to guys in the starting lineup and bang them together to “wake them up.” When he brings rubbed-up balls to the umpires when the Dodgers are at the plate, he'll hand them the lighter-colored balls first so maybe the Dodgers will see them better.
“None of that stuff makes a difference, I know,” he says.
“But it's just something I feel I have to do.”
To Dodgers fans, all that stuff makes all the difference. To Dodgers fans, as they proved Sunday night, guys like Javier Herrera make a difference.
Neither hit nor error, it should be scored as simply a nice reminder.
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