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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Stories from the Stool: An Inside Look at the Life of a Field Usher

This past week I had the pleasure of interviewing Aaron Borchelt, a field usher for the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. You can find him along the 1st base line, sitting on his stool with his helmet and glove, waiting for a foul ball to come near and some lucky fan to get it. But his job is much more than retrieving foul balls and giving them to fans; rather, Aaron brings a whole new perspective to what it's like to watch a ballgame at Busch. His experiences add to the diverse body of Cardinal Nation, and there's a chance he has been a part of your experience at the ballpark if you have sat along the 1st base line. I hope you enjoy this interview, and hopefully Aaron will be able to contribute from time to time here in the future.

For those not familiar with what you do, what is your job title and what are the basic duties of that position?

I am an usher for the St. Louis Cardinals. Basically, we are the ones that meet the fans as they enter the ballpark, provide direction to those that might be "misplaced", be a presence in each of the sections, provide a measure of security for all attendees, and strive to provide a fun, family-friendly environment by providing customer service. My gameday position is on the field down the right field line. It is a misconception that I am "better" or "more important" than the ushers in the seating area, but that is not true. I have just as much responsibility as they do. I am there to make sure that no one runs out onto the field or in any way interrupts the flow of the game. Part of that involves the catching of foul balls and tossing them to a lucky fan.

How long have you been working for the Cardinals?

I have been working for the Cardinals since I was 17. So, doing the math, I am now in my 10th season as an usher for the Birds.

I'm sure you have interacted with many fans, but what has been the most memorable interaction you have had with a fan?

The fans are the reason I, along with the other ushers, am there. It is hard to narrow down my interactions to just one memorable moment. Being in the same position every game allows me to create a friendship with the "regulars," those fortunate few that have season tickets. I regularly get emails from some of the ticketholders. I think other moments that stand out are when I can give a ball to a young fan and see their face light up. There was one such time this year that I gave the kid a baseball and he turned around and held it up in front of the entire section. Needless to say, baseball's best fans gave that little kid a standing ovation, as well as a memory he will not soon forget. It's the little things like that that make my job worthwhile. I know it sounds cliche, but it's true!

A while ago there was talk that the Cardinals are catering to a more well-to-do crowd at the ballgames. People are less apt to stand up and cheer, and the tone is more subdued, so they say. Since you're at all the home games, have you noticed any change in fan behavior over your ten years with the Cardinals?

That is quite an observation, or shall I say accusation. As it appears, the clientele has changed dramatically over the course of the past decade or so. It used to be a place where families could come for a night out, fathers could teach their kids how to keep score, people would do the wave, etc. Nowadays, you see more business suits, client meetings, and a more corporate look in the stands. It appears as though the focus of the fans is gone .... it's no longer a fun night out, but rather a status symbol as "I was at the game last night" or "I was in an all-inclusive party area entertaining a big client yesterday". I think part of this is due to the escalating prices of tickets and other inclusions to an experience at the ballpark. A family of four should expect to pay around $300-$400 in one night when you consider tickets, parking, food, souvenirs, gas, and everything else that goes along with a trip to Busch Stadium. Is this due to the magnitude of players' salaries? Perhaps. Is it due to the greed of ownership? Maybe. Whatever the reason is, one can certainly see a difference on a nightly basis. It's not necessarily a bad change, but it is noticeable.

We've occasionally seen field ushers make the Sportscenter clips with a great pick or an embarrassing dive and miss. Have you experienced any moments of glory and/or failure when going after a ball that you care to share with us? Have you encountered any great fan catch in the stands or along the line?

I have indeed made some catches, but nothing that would be Sportscenter-esque. I will say, though, that one of the more memorable moments involving a field usher was when a guy from the other side fielded a FAIR ball. Great play, clean hands, but FAIR!!! (Pardon me while I pick myself up off the floor from laughing) He fielded the ball, looked up, realized what he did, and then dropped it as if nothing happened. "NO, 40,000+ people and a regional television audience didn't just see you do that ...." HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA Needless to say, that was quite embarrassing for him, extremely hilarious for me and the other ushers, and a moment that will live in infamy for years to come. Follow-up question ... did he get fired? No ... he is still there.

Are there any extra perks to being an usher that go unnoticed by the ordinary fan?

Other than a paycheck twice a month, there aren't any "perks" that are notable. Yes, I get to meet the players .... that's pretty nice. I get to see every game, including the playoffs and World Series ... AWESOME! I can't get autographs (usually one of the first questions asked by fans).

You mention forming relationships with season ticket holders. Have you been able to interact with the players at all? Have you formed any relationships with them?

I do get to interact with the players briefly. I spent one year out in the visitors bullpen (they used to have ushers out there) so I got to know many of them. To this day, they still come by and see how I'm doing. As far as Cardinals go, I really got to know David Eckstein and Scott Rolen well over the past few seasons. I went up to Cleveland this past weekend to see them play. David was on the DL but Scotty was there. After BP, he came over to talk to me and signed whatever items I had for him. I was the only person he signed for which was rather special. All in all, the players know who I am and I know who they are, so the interaction is normally a "Hey how ya doing" or "Great game yesterday" type of convo.

That's interesting about your relationship with David Eckstein and Scott Rolen. I think the way Rolen left the Cardinals may have misconstrued his personality as one of being overly stubborn and maybe even bitter. But to see that he took the time to talk to you presents a completely different story than the one we grew used to. Any comments on the difference between the Rolen that refused to back down to La Russa and the Rolen that stopped by to say hello to you?

I think that the Scott Rolen that I saw (as well as the fans saw) was totally different than the Scott Rolen that was in the clubhouse. I have heard that there were some rather heated moments between those two behind closed doors in the confidentiality of the clubhouse. I cannot confirm or deny those types of moments as I did not see them. I would also protect the confidentiality had I seen them. It has been documented (and confirmed) that there were "differences in opinion" between LaRussa and Rolen. That's a known fact. I only know Scott Rolen in the times that I have interacted with him and those times were very pleasant, very sociable, and never awkward. Whether or not there was an incident in the clubhouse prior to seeing me, I would have never known it. He was always quite cordial and friendly.

Albert Pujols hits a home run and an excited fan decides to celebrate by running onto the field. What is the first thing you do?

First and foremost, we keep in mind the safety of the fan. Running onto the field during a game can be quite dangerous. (Heck, attending a game can be quite dangerous, but I digress) There are strong men swinging bats, throwing baseballs at very high speeds, and numerous other potential problems. While running on the field might seem appealing, it is really not safe, whether the game is in play or between innings. IF a person were to run on the field, our job (the field ushers) is to "catch" (for lack of a better term) the person and escort them off the field (to the hands of the police waiting for them) as quickly and orderly as possible. That being said, if someone is disorderly or not cooperative, special treatment can be administered, and I will keep it at that.

I said that our first priority is the safety of the fans. Our second is the safety of the players and coaches. Remember back to the incident in Chicago when the Royals first base coach got attacked by the fan? It is stories like that that really speaks volumes to me as an on-field employee. Or the time in Boston where Gary Sheffield of the Yankees almost got into a fist fight with a fan. Yes, the position has its perks and can be very fun, but it is also one of the places where you have to be the most alert and serious.

Here's the golden question: how do you determine who gets a foul ball when you give it to the fans?

Ahhhhh, the golden question. Well, there is really no rule as to who gets the foul balls, but I make it a personal policy to give it to kids. They are the future of the game. It's amazing how a scuffed up baseball can brighten their day. I've had kids come back and ask for my autograph before on the ball that I gave them. It just really makes their day. It becomes their next school show-and-tell object. I could give it to any hot-looking female and probably never see them again, or I could give it to a 30-something guy and see it on eBay the next day. (I know these are extremes) But the kids are the ones I target. Besides, it makes for better TV!!!! ;-) Now I will say that there is one exception to my policy. On Mother's Day, I make it a point to give the foul balls to the moms and grandmas in the stands. (Typical follow-up question: What about Father's Day? Who cares about them ... I give it to the kids) Moral of my story: NEVER FORGET YOUR MOTHER!!!!

It's interesting how you can be an integral part of some child's lasting memory of going to the ballgame by simply giving that child a foul ball. That would seem to make the job worthwhile just based on that fact...

Very satisfying to please a kid and be a part of their show-and-tell story. The kids are the future of this game. If a simple baseball can bring a kid back, or get them to watch games on TV, the sport will be around for generations to come. If they have a bad experience, parents might stop bringing their kids and then there might not be an interest in America's Pastime at all. I know that sounds extreme, but you never know. Baseball has to compete with basketball, football, hockey, and every other sport out there, most of which are fast-paced and high scoring. There aren't too many sports in which every 10-15 minutes or so you take a break, or the contest lasts 3+ hours, or there can be a delay of which a game might be canceled. I know you can point to hockey as being a potential evening of "boredom" with the possibility of a 1-0 score, but at least you have guys flying around on an ice surface and a lot of physical moments. You don't get that in baseball.

Aaron, thank you very much for your candid remarks over the course of this interview. I appreciate you taking the time to inform the fans about what life is like doing a job that most of us have never experienced. Being a field usher may seem simple, but it definitely has its complexities, which you have so aptly described. I feel assured knowing that we have an individual of such character and love of the game manning the right field line, giving baseballs to fans and protecting the players' security.

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