With ABC reality show set to debut, Baltimore's "Ball Boys" unsure of what fame has in store for them

March 23, 2012

He had sat at the same desk, in the same store, serving the same customers, answering the same phone for more than 20 years.

“Hello, Postal USA and Robbie’s First Base,” Robbie Davis Sr. would say cheerfully, in the back of his nondescript postal store/sports-memorabilia shop, in a nondescript strip mall, between a nondescript Chinese takeout and a nondescript hair salon, in a nondescript suburb of Baltimore.

Davis’s was a wonderful but nondescript life. He loved his work. He loved his family. He loved sports. And they all blended together at his store, where he and his son and a couple of trusted employees, whom Davis considered his other sons, sat around and argued about sports all day, every day, interrupted only when some old lady came in to ship a package, or some kid dropped in to buy his dad a Cal Ripken-autographed baseball for his birthday.

But on that fateful day in the spring of 2010, when Davis, now 62, answered the phone at his desk in the back of the store, a voice on the other end explained that he was calling from a television production company in New York called Leftfield Pictures.

“Have you ever heard of ‘Pawn Stars’?” the voice asked.

So began a two-year journey that culminates at 3 p.m. Saturday, when ABC airs the first of 12 half-hour episodes of “Ball Boys” (marketing slogan: “Every great moment in sports leaves something behind”), starring Robbie Davis and his crew: Robbie Jr., 32; Robbie Reier, 29; and Lou Brown, 25.

The producers of “Ball Boys,” who scored a hit with “Pawn Stars” on the History Channel, were forced to confront one awkward problem immediately after selecting this gang, out of the nearly 300 stores they screened, for the new show: how to get around the fact their four-
person cast included three Robbies. Which is why the quartet came to be known on the show as “Senior,” “Junior,” “Shaggy” and “Sweet Lou.” (Asked about his artificially acquired nickname, Shaggy Reier says, “Hey, they can call me [expletive] if they’re going to put me on national TV.”)

In the last few, innocent days of mid-March, before fame, with all its mysterious, life-altering powers, descends upon them, the Ball Boys and the store itself are filled with a nervous, eerie quiet. They will attend the premiere in New York, but none of them are quite sure what awaits on the other side of that first episode.

“I can’t say I’m ready for it,” Senior says. “I’m just being honest with you. I don’t know how to be ready. Because I think when people find out about it, it’s gonna be off the hook. I think it’s going to be crazy in here.”

Only Sweet Lou, the dreamer of the quartet, has a definitive image of what fame will mean for himself. “I’m buying an Escalade — the EXT,” he says. Out of his pocket comes his iPhone. “See?” he says. “It’s the wallpaper on my phone. Just a little extra motivation.”

Sweet Lou probably won’t be getting an Escalade with the season one money. Senior, who calls himself “the best negotiator in the world,” says the Ball Boys were paid “just a few hundred bucks” per week during the 3½ months last fall when the series was filmed — owing to the fact they had no leverage.

“There was no negotiation — because what was I going to say, ‘No’?” Senior says. “They held all the cards. We won’t get any real money until season two, if there is one, because then we’ll negotiate with the network.”

For Shaggy, with his blue eyes, spiked hair and tight jeans, fame doesn’t so much equate with money as it does with sex appeal. Running his hand across the chipping blue paint of a rusty turnstile from the old Tiger Stadium in Detroit, which stands in one corner of shop, he jokes, “I’m going to need one of these in my house — to count all the women.”

According to Senior, Shaggy (well, he was just Robbie at the time) was 6 years old when he started coming around the store with his mother. One day, when the still preteen boy asked if he could work at the shop, Senior told him he had to wait until he turned 16.

“So one day, years later, I’m working in the store, and Robbie walks in, and his mom drives away,” Senior says. “I said, ‘Wait, your mom just left. Where’s she going?’ And he goes, ‘This is my first day of work. I’m 16 today.’ ”

Shaggy just rolls his eyes. “He loves to tell that story,” he says. “There’s no way it happened like that.”

It doesn’t take long to understand what the folks from Leftfield saw in this crew. They have all the bases covered, so to speak: They are multiracial (the Davises are black, Reier and Brown are white), funny and outsized in personality. There is a barbershop feel to their banter when they argue about sports, which is basically all day.

“These guys really ‘popped’ to us,” executive producer David George says. “The guys had dynamic personalities. We saw it early. They had opinions, and they weren’t afraid to express them.”

It also didn’t hurt that Senior had a Rolodex (yes, an actual Rolodex) full of sports stars, many of whom are longtime friends he first came to know as the owner of a car dealership called All-Star Dodge in the 1970s and ’80s. Baltimore Orioles stars such as Eddie Murray and Brooks Robinson filmed commercials for him in exchange for free leases. And as the guys at the shop pointed out, since both ABC and ESPN are subsidiaries of Disney, there was plenty of access to additional big-name stars — all of which helps explain how “Ball Boys” is full of cameos from ex-athletes such as Pete Rose, Jim Brown and Warren Moon.

The show zips by at a furious pace, with colorful group-banter interspersed with Senior’s cutthroat negotiations and star-athlete cameos, most of it played up for either dramatic or comic effect. There are staged road trips, so that deals that normally would have been done over the phone could be filmed.

In reality, though, life at Robbie’s First Base, at least in this pre-fame lull, is pretty boring. Senior works on administrative tasks at one desk, while Junior surfs auction sites and makes phone calls at another. Shaggy’s principal job appears to be helping old ladies carry in packages from the trunks of their cars. And Sweet Lou, who is part time, goes home before noon. (“See ya later, Pop,” he says sweetly to Senior. “Goodbye, son,” Senior replies.)

Over the course of six hours one recent day, only one of the dozen or so people who walked in the door of the store were sports-memorabilia customers. The others were there to ship packages, pick up mail or pay their utility bills.

“I can’t drop the shipping thing,” Senior says. “Some of these folks have been customers of mine for more than 20 years. I couldn’t do that to them.”

But the one memorabilia customer was worth the wait. A man in his 20s, with a gaunt face and a baseball cap, came in lugging a framed, autographed poster of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Senior greeted the man as if he knew him.

“How much’ll you give me for this?” the man asked.

“I’ll give you 40,” Senior said.

“Okay,” the man said, a little dejectedly. “I ain’t gonna haggle you.”

Senior stepped behind the counter, pulled a pair of twenties from the cash register and handed them to the young man.

Asked later how much he would sell the poster for, Senior said: “I’ll probably put 499 on it. Might get that much, might not.” He went on to explain: “That guy is a drug addict. He used to be a pretty big [memorabilia] dealer, but when things start to go bad, these are the first things they sell.”

And then it gets quiet again under the dull fluorescent lights at Robbie’s First Base, and everyone stands and looks at the front door, as if wondering what’s coming in next.

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.
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