The Associated Press
FORT WORTH (AP) - Eager to make his way and live independently, Eric Vanderwerken has labored at a number of nondescript jobs since the former special-education student finished high school more than 20 years ago.
He washed dishes. Sacked groceries. Swept floors as a night janitor.
"Hey, Brian!" Eric sang out.
Brian Fryer, the Fort Worth Cats center fielder, turned around and looked up at a cheerful, heavyset man standing in front of the elevated scoreboard behind the outfield fence at LaGrave Field.
Vanderwerken operates the scoreboard for the American Association team.
Dressed for work in shorts, red shirt and blue Cats ball cap, Eric asked who was on the mound for "us" — the Cats — that night.
"Joel Kirsten," Fryer replied.
When the game began, this outgoing, sweet-natured man born with a mild form of autism rocked gently from side to side and began announcing the action — "Thuh pitch. Striiiike one!" he said to himself — the joy of a boy lighting his face and filling his happy heart.
"This," Eric said proudly, loudly, "is the greatest job I've ever had."
Vanderwerken is paid $25 each home game to hang numerals on the big green scoreboard.
During a pitching duel the parallel rows of white zeroes resemble a necklace, a double strand of pearls. On nights like this one, when bats come alive and runners circle the bases, Vanderwerken stays busy, continually updating the line score, recording each hit, each error, totaling each run scored.
One game last year — a wild afternoon event — put his dedication and patience to the test.
"Suddenly this big wind came up," Cats Manager Chad Tredaway recalled.
The American flag unfurled, snapping and popping in the strong breeze.
Gusts began playing havoc with the scoreboard, snatching numbers from its facing like roofing shingles.
Eric dutifully replaced one missing numeral only to watch in frustration as others peeled away and took flight.
The scene had a comic quality, not unlike that I Love Lucy episode when Lucy, working in a candy factory, tries to box chocolates as they travel along a conveyer belt, faster and faster and faster.
"Eric was trying his best to keep things under control," Tredaway said. "But it just wasn't happening."
"I was angry with the wind," Eric confessed. "But not at anybody else."
He embraces every game as an adventure — a treat — especially when a Cats player hits a home run.
Eric gets to celebrate the feat by ringing a big brass bell.
He also greets fans before games and dances to music between innings from his catwalk.
As a member of the Cats family, the scoreboard operator is part of the novelty and charm of the minor league experience.
A night at LaGrave wouldn't be complete without the playful antics of Dodger, the team mascot, organist Evonne Fletcher playing Roll Out the Barrel and Vanderwerken gyrating from his stage, spelling out Y-M-C-A with his arms.
On Friday nights, fireworks shoot skyward during the singing of the national anthem.
Vanderwerken, blue cap pressed to his chest, stands only a few feet from the loud launch site.
"No disrespect to the United States," Eric said, "but sometimes they (pyrotechnics) scare me."
A graduate of Eastern Hills High School, Vanderwerken lives alone in a one-bedroom Fort Worth apartment.
On game days the man born with Asperger's syndrome fills his water canteen and rides a city bus downtown. He transfers to another bus that drops him off near the ballpark, off North Main Street, about 3 p.m.
Eric, who doesn't drive, gets a ride home from a staff member at night.
He loves most sports, especially baseball particularly the Cats. When the club gave Eric the night off on his birthday a year ago, he went to the park anyway and watched his favorite team from the grandstands.
He is aware of, and not reluctant to acknowledge, his developmental disability.
"You remember Rain Man?" Eric asked. In the motion picture, Dustin Hoffman portrays Raymond, an autistic savant. "Mine" — his disorder — "is a little different."
Vanderwerken can tick off the names of players whose uniform numbers the Cats retired. Bobby Bragan. Sparky Anderson. Maury Wills. Jackie Robinson. Dick Williams. Duke Snider.
A major league game he attended with his father, an English professor at Texas Christian University, remains an indelible childhood memory. "I was 8 years old. The Texas Rangers played the Baltimore Orioles. Fergie Jenkins against Jim Palmer. The Rangers won, I think 7-4."
He can imitate Mel Allen, the longtime voice of the New York Yankees on radio and television, and recite Nuke LaLoosh's profound line from the baseball comedy Bull Durham: "This is a simple game. You throw the ball. You catch the ball. You hit the ball. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. And sometimes it rains."
In spring 2008 the Cats advertised a job fair. Vanderwerken arrived at the ballpark before dawn and took his place at the head of the interview line.
"I wantedto show they could depend on me to show up for work," he said.
Cats General Manager John Bilbow looked over Vanderwerken's application. During their visit, Eric expressed his interest in becoming the team's public address announcer but said he would work as an usher or take any other available position.
"Eric is a lovely man," said Bilbow, the father of a special-needs child. "I knew that day we would find a place for him."
Bilbow spoke with Walt Durham, a former employment development specialist with WorkReady. The company works with the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services. Durham had helped place Vanderwerken in a couple of other jobs.
"Eric has an amazing natural knack for statistics, dates, places and times," Durham said.
The Cats hired Vanderwerken to man the scoreboard after a successful tryout.
"I want to do my job right — not wrong," Eric said emphatically. He is confident, and, he insists, qualified. "They don't have anybody who can count numbers as good as I can."
The Cats may also have no employee who is better-liked or more open-hearted.
If Vanderwerken collects a home-run ball — the other night John Allen smashed one off the scoreboard — Eric gives the souvenir to a child. He drops his pocket change into a ballpark "home run" bucket. Donations go to the players. On Wednesdays he volunteers at the First Street Mission, operated by First United Methodist Church.
On July 29 the Cats played at home against the Grand Prairie AirHogs.
When Vanderwerken arrived at the park, the team's front office surprised him with a cake.
The club saved its gift for later.
In the middle of the seventh inning Frankie Gasca, a roving announcer, climbed the steps to the outfield scoreboard and invited Vanderwerken to introduce the names ofthe Cats players as they came to bat.
He handed him a microphone.
On his 39th birthday, thrilled beyond words, Vanderwerken proudly brought them out, one by one.
"I-sa Gar-ci-a!" he cried. "Brian Fry-er! Mich-ael Bellllll. . . ." The sound of his voice boomed and echoed across the ballpark, his second home, Eric's field of dreams come true.