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.