MINNEAPOLIS – He is not one for inspirational speeches. In fact, if Wayne Hattaway ever tried to describe his style, it would be the opposite of rah-rah – har-har – because the man is at his most brilliant when laughing at a baseball player's failures.
He has done this for 58 years now, walked the minefields of baseball clubhouses where ego and fragility commingle delicately, and done so with a tongue as sharp and potent as a stingray's barb. Hattaway is an anachronism: a lifetime survivor of the sport's bluest-collar post, the clubhouse worker, a job of slashes – laundry expert/shoe polisher/gofer/cook/cleaner/enabler/friend.
Only Hattaway adds another slash: comedian. Just looking at him is a study in amusement: the fat, white caterpillar of a mustache above his lip, the mutton chops that curve aimlessly, the eyes covered by two pairs of glasses – horn-rimmed frames to augment his impossibly bad eyesight, and Oakley shades atop those just for the hell of it – and the slight, frail body transported around by a desultory shuffle that is Hattaway's version of walking.
Everyone on the Minnesota Twins can do an impersonation of Hattaway. He is a frequent target inside the clubhouse. They mock his laugh – more a wheeze, really – and his almost indecipherable Alabama accent. And they do this to a 69-year-old man because they know that in the end, he will have dished it out 10 times worse than he'll ever take it.
See, those speeches Hattaway gives – Lord, do they sting. When a rookie struggles, Hattaway will saunter up to him on the bench and say: "Don't blame yourself, big fella, blame the scout who signed you." Or: "It's not your fault, big 'un, it's the Twins' fault for drafting you." Hattaway is all for kicking a man when he's down.
"He's not here to make you feel good," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He's here to keep all of us honest. And laughing."
The Twins need a good chuckle. They trail 2-0 against the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series and must win three straight against the best team in baseball to extend their season. The first shot comes Sunday night (7 p.m. ET) in what could be the last game at the Metrodome, the old stadium that has given Hattaway the best moments of his life.
And right now, he's trying to figure out something he can say that will keep it open for just one more day.
Around baseball, his name isn't actually Wayne or Hattaway or any such derivation. He is Big Fella. When he travels with the Twins on the road, his locker placard reads Big Fella. Twins players call him Big Fella. Anything else just doesn't sound right.
He got the nickname from his own verbal crutch. Hattaway calls almost everyone "big fella" or "big 'un." He is brutal with names, so a catch-all is easier. It's better, too, when longtime Twins personnel tell Big Fella stories. Something about the nickname enhances even the most benign tales. Like, say, about his decades in the minor leagues, when the Twins relied on somebody named Big Fella to serve as their trainer.
"He was a trainer that fainted at the sight of blood," Gardenhire said. "This guy called Captain Dynamite used to come into minor league [stadiums], put himself in a box, set the dynamite around the box and blow it up. Then he'd stand up in a cape.
"One day, Captain Dynamite set it wrong. When it blew up, the wood knocked him silly. He was bleeding. Big Fella went out to help him, and he went down. Right there."
Times were different. Hattaway's routine consisted of rubbing down a pitcher's arm and declaring him ready to go. Sometimes it was the wrong arm, but still. It's not like he ever claimed to be a doctor.
"The only thing I know about medicine is not to take it," Hattaway said.
Academics never entranced Hattaway. He started working for the Mobile Bears as a 12-year-old in 1952. Don Zimmer played shortstop for that team. Hattaway never could play baseball, so he surrounded himself with the game throughout high school and past graduation, when Hattaway's father implored him to pursue a career.
"But I'm stubborn," Hattaway said. "And I don't like them 9-to-5 jobs. I have a 23/7 job, or whatever you call it. Morning, noon and night, it's baseball."
It always was. When the Twins moved their Triple-A team to Dallas in 1963, they hired Hattaway as the clubhouse manager. He turned into a baseball nomad in the following years: Charlotte and Lynchburg and Reno and Orlando. Wherever the Twins wanted Hattaway, he went.
He got married on a baseball field and divorced because he spent too much time at it. His reputation soon grew. Twins rookies wondered about the little gnome of a man who talked so much junk and contemplated whether it was worth it to quiet him with a fist. Hattaway said, with a hefty amount of pride, "Forty-six years with the Twins and still haven't been punched out."
Not that he didn't deserve it once or twice. When Gardenhire called infielder Jeff Reboulet into his office at Double-A to inform him of a promotion to Triple-A, Reboulet asked Hattaway to pack his bats.
"You'll only need a couple, big fella," Hattaway said. "You're gonna be back in a week."
And a week later, Reboulet returned.
Gardenhire noticed how loose Hattaway could keep a clubhouse, so when he took over as Twins manager in 2002, he brought Big Fella along. After running one-man clubhouses in the minor leagues for decades, Hattaway was finally at the pinnacle.
Not that it changed him.
"He doesn't even know my first name," Twins outfielder Denard Span(notes) said. "Actually, he doesn't even know my last name. He calls me Spawnie. One day I said to him, 'Hey, Big Fella, what's my first name?' And he said, 'Aw, man, I dunno, big 'un. You're Spawnie.' "
Hattaway, by the way, has known Span since 2003.
"I know it starts with a D," Hattaway said. "Donnell? Dunnall? Oh, Lord, have mercy. What is it?"
When told it was Denard, Hattaway twice tried to say it before giving up.
"You look around baseball," Span said, "and a lot of teams have someone similar to him. Right?"
"Actually, you're right," Span said. "No one's like Big Fella."
Hattaway is feeling old. He used to travel everywhere with the Twins. This season, he went on only a few road trips. A bout with breast cancer – "For all those big 'uns I stared at," Hattaway said – took its toll on him in 2006. Now he has diabetes from all those years of fast food on the road, and his greatest guilty pleasure, a strawberry milkshake, is no longer a daily option.
"I was thinking about retiring this year," Hattaway said. "But I'm gonna give it one more. I don't have nothing else to do. Baseball is my family."
The Twins, specifically. They took him to the doctor to diagnose the cancer and helped him treat it. They set him up with accommodations on the road. They put up with his crankiness when he's tired during long spring-training days. He is everybody's wacky uncle, down to his daily routine.
Today, Hattaway will awaken between 5:30 and 6. After he showers, he'll meander over to the window at the hotel he lives in and watch the pretty girls walking their dogs. After that it's breakfast across the street, and he's at the stadium by 11:30. In the second or third inning, when all the laundry is done, he usually leaves.
Not this game. The Twins start Carl Pavano(notes) and hope he can shut down his former teammates. Odder things have happened. The 1990 Twins finished in last place in the AL West. The '91 Twins won the World Series. And Minnesota hasn't been back, which places even more pressure on Hattaway to perform tonight.
He's more a one-on-one guy, so he's not quite sure how to translate his regular message – you stink – to the masses.
"I'm supposed to be a motivational speaker," Hattaway said. "But really, all I do is laundry. Even a blind man can do laundry. So I'm not sure what I can say."
He allowed himself a few seconds before unleashing a devilish grin and exasperated wheeze – his personal har-har.
"Well," Big Fella said, "maybe I can come up with something."