Goodbye to the Braves' biggest fan

Chuck McGarity passed away last Friday. He was a joy to everyone who knew him and he loved the Braves with all his heart.

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Longtime batboy is a diamond in Braves' Florida dugout

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 03/22/05

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It will be only the beginning of autumn, and Chuck McGarity will ask if spring training is here.

No, Chucky, not yet, his sister Kay Heidt patiently tells him. Remember, first there's Halloween, then there's Christmas, then the New Year. To some, those are holidays. To Chucky, they are mileposts, each one bringing him closer to the happiest time there is.

"Is it now?" Chucky asks his sister on the phone.

No, Chucky. Twenty more days, we'll be leaving for Florida.

The phone rings at Heidt's Albany home the next morning. "Nineteen days," Chucky says. The phone call comes the next morning: "Eighteen days." And the next morning, and the next. . .

All the while, he has been preparing. He has laid out both his blue and his white Braves uniforms, the ones with "Chucky" spelled out across the backs of the jerseys, above the number 1. The uniform has made the trip south over decades now. Chucky was just a 10-year-old boy with Down syndrome when he first touched New York Mets manager Joe Torre and one of his coaches, Joe Pignatano, in spring training.

When both came to the Braves in the early 1980s, Chucky came with them. Now 40, Chucky remains a Braves batboy in spirit even as his body ages. Bobby Cox is his manager and best friend these days.

Weeks before Heidt, her husband and their daughter pick Chucky up at his supervised apartment for the drive from Albany to Orlando, he begins stowing supplies for the trip. There are bags and bags of baseball cards. Another bag filled with wrestling magazines. Oh, and some clothes, too. It is an annual challenge for Kay Heidt to whittle the mountain of mementos down to a manageable travel size.

Finally, last Thursday, it was Chucky's time again. The van was packed and pointed to Florida. By Friday at noon, he was inside the Braves clubhouse having lunch with the skipper. Cox had a plate with one mound of chicken salad, one of tuna salad and saltines. So, Chucky had chicken salad, tuna salad and crackers, too.

Chucky's parents both died within the last three years. It was his father, a traveling sales rep, who drove Chucky to Florida every spring and made baseball his passion. Almost every night during the season, Chucky would phone his mother and celebrate the wins and agonize over the losses.

Occasionally, Chucky's family will bring him to Turner Field for a game, but it is the spring when he really makes contact.

And the manager was happy to see him. "I do [have a lot of affection for him]," said Cox, who keeps a photo of the two of them back in his office at Turner Field. "I've known him so long, I've always tried to take care of him when he comes down. He never forgets a name or a face; he knows everybody."

Cox shows his friend great tenderness and patience. During a game, when Chucky has problems finding the right spot in the dugout box to drop a player's bat, the manager turns his back to the game and helps out.

"The players love to see him come," Cox said. "Chucky always lifts us up a little bit. He's a very spirited kid. We have a lot of fun with him."

On Friday, Chucky re-created the fake belch that former Braves catcher Javy Lopez taught him. It's baseball he's exposed to, not the opera.

Another time, Chucky demonstrated his Gene Garber high leg kick delivery, then demanded a sports writer stand up and do his best imitation of the former Braves reliever. The effort drew a huge smile.

When the Braves won the World Series in 1995, Chucky was recovering from chemotherapy for testicular cancer. When he complained about his hair loss, his family reminded him that David Justice, the Braves right fielder at the time, had a hairless dome. It seemed to help.

Five years ago, Chucky lost an eye when he was struck in the face by a foul ball while watching a softball game. Because of that, the Braves carefully limit his work on the field and keep him behind the dugout screen when the ball is in play.

Still, "he is the happiest person I've ever met," said Chucky's niece, Caroline Heidt. He seemed to live up to that billing when, after helping deliver the starting lineup at home plate, he waved his hat to the spring crowd and soaked in their cheers.

Through the years, Chucky has wrestled around with Jeff Blauser and made friends with Marquis Grissom. Now he sends Eddie Perez to his station behind the plate with a high five, gets a rough hug from Marcus Giles after the second-baseman has flied out, or is the first to the top of the dugout steps to congratulate Andruw Jones after a three-run homer.

Change is the constant in major league baseball, but Chucky bonds with whomever the Braves employ at the moment. He even liked John Rocker.

Just who gets the most of this emotional transaction is debatable.

"Chucky always lightens everybody's day when he's around," said Braves traveling secretary Bill Acree, a longtime friend of the family.

Kay Heidt said: "It makes me see the Braves differently. When I see how good they are to my brother, I fall in love with them all over again."

On Sunday, Chucky's spring was finished. He grudgingly packed up his new collection of signed baseball cards and his dirty uniforms. "He never wants to leave here," said his brother-in-law, Tommy Heidt. "He always says, 'I want to live here.' He's not my friend for about 15 minutes after we have to go."

Then, before long, the question forms again: Is it spring yet?

It's coming, Chucky; it's coming.

This FanPost does not express the views or opinions of Talking Chop.

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