If you were a teenaged left-handed catcher whose battery mate, Bill Lee, made it to the major leagues, how far do you think your baseball fantasies would travel? How could you fulfill them?
Rohnert Park resident Leffler Brown, known best for his twenty plus years serving as a trustee with the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District, and a successful executive with Hewlett-Packard and the Santa Rosa Fire Department, and owner of a pool construction company, has lived out his baseball dreams the past twelve years as a San Francisco Giant Balldude.
The Giants describe the Balldude/Balldudette Program as “a unique way to involve fans in the on-field action. During each home game, the team designates two people to don Giants uniforms and field foul balls to hand to children in the crowd.” The Giants were the first major league team to use adults in this role. Originally, this “Senior Involvement Program” used people over 59 “but now includes a broad range of folks, ages 21 and older.”
Brown, a season ticket holder, first went to Balldude Camp in 2007 participating in a Giants Community Fundraiser, where for $750, he could prepare to be a Balldude. Two training camps that day separated the fifty plus from the younger candidates. Ex-Giant players conducted batting practice as well as infield and outfield drills. Then the prospective Balldudes sat on stools and answered trivia questions. Brown remembered that many of the questions were too obscure for even the most dedicated fans, but he knew the answer to one of his: “Who was the Baby Bull?”
And most of us recall that he was Rookie of the Year in 1958 and Most Valuable Player in the National League in 1967.
Brown recalls that Shawon Dunston and Rich Murray conducted the drills that day. He might have missed some instruction as he said, “I was just in awe of being on the field.” And that feeling has occurred the nearly 40 times since when Brown has been the Balldude.
In twelve years, Brown has averaged two appearances a year plus one playoff game in 2016 when the Giants faced the Cubs who went on to win the World Series. Brown and his brother Rich partnered as Balldudes for nine years. One highlight for the brothers and all of the Balldudes of 2014 was marching in the San Francisco Parade celebrating the World Series win. Since Rich retired, Leff’s three sons have taken turns sharing the honors.
One of the sons and Leff covered the Father’s Day game this year. Most recently his oldest son Kevin made a spectacular play and Giants’ television broadcasters, Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper commented on the father/son duo’s abilities. They had already nicknamed Leff the Flopper and accused this left-handed catcher of making a fake fall.
Brown talked about the Balldudes’ fielding experiences in general. His brother, for example, went through his first three years and six games never having a fielding chance. Leff has had many opportunities since his first game when the Giants played the Pirates.
One memorable play happened during the 2016 Division Playoff game against the Cubs. Slugger Anthony Rizzo, according to Brown, “Hit a screaming line drive that ripped my glove off of me.” Giants’ first baseman Brandon Belt signaled safe to Brown. One of Brown’s sons posted a video of this play on You Tube but MLB took it down as it infringed on its rights.
Brown explained a typical day for a Balldude. One hour before the game begins, the Balldude walks through an employee entrance, goes through security and picks up a credential. This gets the Balldude past the visiting dugout. In the employee locker room the Balldude encounters ushers and guards all suiting up by their lockers. Two ladies check in the Balldude and issue a helmet and a stool. Brown presents these ladies with gifts like wine, flowers or candy. Next, the Balldude goes down to enter the field walking with the players and then moves to the position far behind first or third base. Before, during and after the game the Balldude talks with the fans, serving as a public relations agent.
There are some basic rules for the Balldude. First, he or she can never initiate conversations with players and coaches but can respond if spoken to. Second, the Balldude, during the game, must always look at the umpire and wait until a ball is called foul before going after it. Third, the Balldude must always “hand” any fielded ball to a kid in the stands. Balldudes are advised to find potential ball recipients before the game and prior to any possible play.
Brown said that the Balldude’s picture and some biographical information usually appear on the big screen at least once during the game. This also happens at Balldude Camp.
Going to Balldude Camp does not automatically mean that person will be a Balldude in a game. Brown, in 2008, gave a ball to a kid celebrating his birthday. Lucille the Seal threw a Frisbee of a pizza to the kid. Brown sent a note to his ticket agent who passed the story on to the Giants. Suddenly, he received an email offering him a Balldude opportunity. Brown selected a weekday night game so that he would find tickets close to his assignment for his family.
Brown has had some amazing encounters with players and umpires. His best player interaction involved Angels’ star Mike Trout as the outfielder came up to Brown and said, “What’s your name? How are you doing?” Trout seemed genuinely interested. And Brown, a grandfather, felt star-struck just as if he were still a boy.
Third Base Umpire Joe Buck once walked over to Brown for a little conversation. He reported, “Coach made an amazing catch” which was his way of admonishing the Balldude not to interfere.
This year Giants’ bullpen coach Matt Herges teased Brown throughout the game because Brown’s son made a spectacular catch.
Brown has been a Giants fan since they first arrived in Seals Stadium back in 1958. His all-time favorite player, no surprise, is Willie Mays and his favorite teams won the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014.
Following the Giants and being a Balldude return Brown to the childhood excitement that comes with the love of baseball. No wonder then that his favorite Balldude duty is giving a ball to a kid.
And who is the Baby Bull, the 1958 Rookie of the Year and the 1967 Most Valuable Player? Orlando Cepeda. Brown answered the question correctly.