She handles the tough calls
Red Sox have smooth operator
The trucks have motored down to Fort Myers, Fla., manager Terry Francona has dug out his red pullover, and Johnny Damon still hasn't cut his hair. It can mean only one thing: Spring training is here, and soon it will be time for Della Grallert to start manning the phones.
Grallert loves her job -- both of them. By day, she works for AIS, a company that provides the National Marine Fisheries Service with collective data from fishing vessels. By night -- as soon as the first pitch of the 2005 baseball season is tossed -- she answers the phones on Yawkey Way while home Red Sox games are in progress.
"It's amazing what people call for," Grallert said. "It's everything from, `That was a lousy call. Can you connect me to the umpires' room?' to `Who is this guy the Red Sox have on the mound? Let me talk to Francona.' "
Grallert, a lifelong Red Sox fan, remains astonished that people actually believe she will put them through to Theo Epstein about arranging a romantic dinner, or to Francona to discuss his use of the relievers, or to team president Larry Lucchino to berate him for allowing male enhancement advertisements to air while the children are still up.
If nothing else, her job is unpredictable. Consider this midseason call:
Della: "Thanks for calling the Boston Red Sox."
Female caller: "Yes, can you tell me how long the game is?"
Della: "Well, there's no set beginning and end to the game. It's however long it takes to play nine innings."
Female caller: "I see. Well, what time did the game start?"
Della: "At 7:05, ma'am."
Female caller: "And what time do you expect it will end?"
Della: "I can't say for sure, but typically games last somewhere around three hours."
Female caller: "Great. That's all I need. My husband is at the game and I want to know if he's coming home on time or not. If he's not, I guarantee you, he's in big trouble."
Grallert is a former baseball player herself who grew up playing catch with her father and three brothers, and loved to go to Fenway to watch Jim Rice hit. She switched to softball when she got to Acton-Boxboro High School, but still loves hardball more. She decided on a lark to fill out an application for the position with the Sox.
Her job description requires an even-keeled approach. She is supposed to lend a sympathetic yet impartial ear. In other words, if she had any feelings on Mientkiewicz vs. Millar, she'd best keep them to herself.
Some nights, the phones are quiet, and she'll poke her head out of the offices into the park and soak up the atmosphere. Other nights, when the Red Sox are playing poorly, badly, she barely has time to breathe.
"Whenever there's a pitching change or an error, that's when you know the phone is going to start ringing," she said. "Like the night Manny [Ramirez] tripped out in left field. We all looked at each other and said, `Here we go.' There's not much you can do about it. You have to sit there and just let people vent."
Grallert was also working the phones the night the Red Sox fell behind to the Yankees, 3-0, in the American League Championship Series. Many of the calls were vulgar and vicious. Each time the phone rang, she braced herself for the worst.
One caller said nothing at first. Grallert said, "Thanks for calling the Boston Red Sox," then repeated herself when there was no response. And that's when she heard it -- the chant of "1918 . . . 1918 . . . 1918 . . ."
"I burst out laughing," she said. "I know I shouldn't have, but I couldn't help it."
Most of the calls are for Epstein and Francona, asking everything from why they are wearing the white uniforms to why they don't sell hamburgers at the park.
"One night, we had a gentleman who was very agitated," Grallert said. "He lived near Fenway and the blimp flying over the park was keeping him awake. He demanded to speak to Theo about it. I told him, `Sorry, sir, we have nothing to do with the blimp.'
"My friend Jack had one of the best calls. A woman wanted to talk to Larry Lucchino about singing the national anthem at the game. She told Jack, `I have a very nice voice. Should I sing it for you?' It was a slow night, so he said, `Why not?' She sang the whole thing, and he told her, `That was very nice.' She got all excited and said, `So do you think I have a chance? Should I come down there right now?' "
There are repeat callers whom the switchboard operators get to know well. Grallert becomes uncomfortable each night the same woman calls asking to be connected with Ramirez.
"She says every time, `I need to talk to him,' " said Grallert. "She just calls over and over."
Grallert has never met Francona and has only exchanged pleasantries with Epstein in the hall. Neither of them is likely aware of what a fine buffer she is for all those angry fans who want to know why Byung Hyun Kim is making all that money, and why Mark Bellhorn is in the lineup when he strikes out so much.
"I should probably give her a call," said Francona, reached in Fort Myers. "I'm sure in May, June, and July she had a pretty hard time. The good news is we won 98 games and the World Series."
Grallert said Francona instructed the operators, for a brief time, to forward calls for him to his voice mail.
"I think someone called one day and said, `What should I do about all these calls?' " Francona said. "I said, `Hell, just put them through.' A lot of them are from the eighth inning when a guy's had six beers. But every once in a while, if someone puts some thought and some time into what they've said, even if I think it's totally absurd, I might shoot them a quick e-mail back."
The ones he doesn't get to -- and there are thousands -- are fielded by Grallert and her fellow operators. For $50 a night, they monitor the ecstasy and heartbreak of a fervent baseball town.
"To be honest, I don't even think about the fact I'm getting paid," she said. "I'm at Fenway, I'm watching the game, I'm working with some really fun people, and I'm letting fans get whatever it is they need to get off their chest."
Like the time some angry caller spewed a string of expletives toward Grallert simply because she worked for the Red Sox on a night they were getting smoked -- as if she was the one who booted two grounders.
"He called me every name in the book," she said. "He was going on about how I was a blankety-blank."
The flip side was the man who called during Game 2 of the World Series to tell her, "Thanks for beating the Yankees," as if she had given up just one run and one hit in Game 7, instead of Derek Lowe.
Night after night this season, Della Grallert will tell Red Sox Nation, "Thanks for calling the Boston Red Sox."
What Larry and Theo and Terry should say in return is, "Thanks for taking my calls."
Jackie MacMullan's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.