Dave Aichinger might be the only guy allowed in both the Royals' and Giants' locker rooms. As New Era's Senior Manager of Team Services, he's responsible for distributing official World Series caps and replacing playoff patches with championship patches on the game-worn hats some players insist on wearing. If that doesn't sound glamorous, stay with us because he's been pushing his heat seal machine around MLB locker rooms for 23 years and he's seen it all. His seat makes the first row look like nosebleeds. He's the guy who knows how both teams are feeling.
"There is always at least one guy who wants to play with the machine, but the Royals were all over it. It was a pretty fun atmosphere in there," says Aichinger. "The Giants have been here three of the last five years so they know how this goes. It's another business trip."
It's another business trip for Aichinger too and he's got a lot to do. Not only does he have to get new hats on heads - only a dozen players insisted on wearing old hats this year, an unusually low figure - he has to prepare for what he calls "the clinch." When the last out rolls around, he's got between three to five minutes to get official championship merchandise on every member of the winning franchise, including the business guys on the dais. He used to do this in the locker rooms, handing over flat brims that would be soaked, moments later, in champagne. Today, it's a televised event. He estimates there are twenty times as many people on the field as there once were.
Still, if you watch the final moments of last year's game six, you'll see Aichinger's minions dashing around Fenway Park. They move fast.
"When the times comes, you've got to get the right hats to the right guys so there is a lot of planning for those few minutes I spend running around," he says.
It's not just about planning. Aichinger is - in a quiet way - a sort of World Series institution. No current Major League player has been to a World Series he wasn't working. He's helped Red Sox players attach patches without obscuring the stains they wear like badges of honor and Dodgers get the crispy hats Californians demand. He's even outlasted the fabric. When Aichinger left his job selling tickets for the Bills after visiting the New Era factory, the company was making wool caps. Today, there are technical fabrics and the patches are infinitely more detailed than they once were.
The man likes to talk about hats, but baseball is clearly the thing keeping him on the road, where he spends a good deal of the season in and out of equipment managers' offices around the country.
No, Aichinger can't talk about his interactions with specific players, but he describes Game One like it's Christmas. Young players open packages from sponsors (new and old) and "run around showing the stuff to older guys." He has a particularly fond memory of watching a player like that a few years ago, a player who became a "perennial all star." It could have been Verlander, Bumgarner, or Sandoval (maybe Andrus) and it doesn't much matter because Aichinger has seen them all. The shocking thing, he says, is how little the guys have changed.
"Players didn't used to be as focused on nutrition or weightlifting, but it's still baseball," says Aichinger. "The baseball players of twenty years ago and the baseball players of today are basically the same guy. They have to work hard to get there. The minor league system is still tough so they've stayed somewhat grounded."
As for rooting interests, it's complicated. Aichinger admits that on a corporate level he can't help but root for the Royals. No one in Kansas City has had the opportunity to buy championship merchandise for 29 years. As Omar Enfante, Billy Butler, and the bunch swashbuckled their way through the playoffs, they also moved units. A win for K.C. would be a win for New Era.
There's also this: Mike Murphy, the Giants Equipment manager, plans to retire after this season. He's worked for the team since 1958, when the Brooklyn heroes moved west, and is so beloved the locker room at AT&T Park bares his name. "It would be nice to see him get one more ring," says Aichinger. There is - it's clear - a sort of off-field fraternity. There are the guys who play the game and there are the guys who take care of the guys who play the game. For that second group of guys, it's all about the years they've put it.
"These teams look well matched," says Aichinger. "I think this year is gonna be fun."
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