DES MOINES, Iowa — Craig McFarling stands next to the Principal Park manual scoreboard as the bottom of the third inning of the Iowa Cubs game begins. McFarling, who operates the scoreboard three days a week, watches Iowa first baseman Nick Martini lace a single to center field in this early June contest.
When the ball touches the green outfield grass, Scott Thompson, a friend of McFarling’s, reminds him it’s time to work.
“You’ve got a ‘one,’” Thompson yells to McFarling.
McFarling races to the scoreboard and grabs the No. 1. It represents the first hit of the game for Iowa, which had been held in check for the first three innings against Columbus Clippers starter Eli Morgan. After finding the number, McFarling slides the giant piece of fabricated wood into the hit column of the scoreboard for all the fans at the park to see. His job, for the moment, is complete.
“You constantly have to pay attention,” McFarling says.
That’s not difficult for McFarling to do. Baseball and the Iowa Cubs have been an important part of his life for years. McFarling, who has a seizure disorder, has been a batboy since 2001. Over the years, he’s found a home in the dugout with the Cubs, made friends with players on the team and discovered a calling as part of the gameday experience at Principal Park.
That’s why this season has been so challenging for the 40-year-old.
The Des Moines Register reports the COVID-19 pandemic has forced Minor League Baseball teams across the country, including the Cubs, to limit gameday interaction with players. That has meant eliminating batboys.
But it’s not stopping McFarling from being at the park this summer.
“I wish I was down there on the field rather than up here,” McFarling said. “But because of this COVID, this is what I have.”
McFarling’s seizures have created plenty of obstacles in his life. He suffers from mental delays, has troubles communicating and can have difficulty understanding things.
When he was growing up, his parents used sign language with him. Teachers wrote notes to communicate. McFarling spent hours each day going over notes with his parents nightly to prepare for the next day of school. His mother, Donna McFarling, said he still has trouble learning things and understanding his sense of direction.
But one thing always seemed to come natural for him.
“I really think baseball is the thing that he clicks on,” his mother said.
McFarling became a Chicago Cubs fan when his family briefly moved to Illinois. After they moved back to Iowa and his brother, Chad, became a batboy for the Iowa Cubs, Craig adopted the Triple-A affiliate as his favorite team. Chad’s time as a batboy inspired Craig, who watched his brother chase down bats and become buddies with the players. Craig wanted to do the same thing.
After he graduated from Johnston High School in 2000, McFarling called down to the park and didn’t get a response about getting a job.
So he called again.
Finally, Jim Nahas, who worked for the team back then, offered to give McFarling a chance shagging balls during batting practice. Later that summer, he got a job as the team’s ballboy. The next year, McFarling was hired as a batboy.
“I said, ‘Jim, what made you want to hire Craig?’” and he said, ‘His persistence,’” his mother said. “He said, ‘He’s called me all the time.’”
McFarling has worked for the Iowa Cubs ever since and has earned a reputation as a hard worker.
He usually begins around 2:30 p.m., when his parents drop him off at the park for a night game. In normal seasons, McFarling will help get things ready for the game — setting up the coolers in the dugout, getting the balls ready and any other task that may need completed. During the game, he’s in the dugout and races onto the field to retrieve bats and bring balls to umpires. When the game is over, he stays late to take items back to the clubhouse and clean cleats.
“He’s a great worker,” Iowa manager Marty Pevey said.
Over the years, he’s become popular among players, coaches and fans. Donna McFarling said fans recognize him outside the park as the speedy batboy. When a set of his cleats wore down, players threw in money and bought him a new set. He stays in contact with former outfielder Ben Grieve, a former American League Rookie of the Year who later played in the Cubs organization. Former Cubs pitcher Todd Wellemeyer once asked McFarling to come work a game during one of his starts for the Kansas City Royals.
McFarling has been a batboy at Chicago Cubs games in Chicago and in Arizona during spring training. One of McFarling’s most treasured items is a signed picture of Kris Bryant, the Chicago superstar who played as a minor leaguer with the Iowa Cubs. In the photo, Bryant has his arm draped around him.
“The players have been so wonderful to him,” said his father, Rick McFarling.
At the end of every season, McFarling fills out a batboy job application for the next season. It’s a formality. The job is his. McFarling has become a staple around the team and an established part of gamedays.
His father said Iowa owner Michael Gartner has told him his son can work for the team as long as he wants. The plan was for him to be back in the dugout for the 2020 season.
But that never happened. The COVID-19 pandemic forced an abbreviated Major League Baseball season and canceled the entire MiLB campaign. When MiLB resumed in 2021, tight restrictions were put in place to keep players virus-free.
One safeguard kept batboys from working. Instead, teams use players and coaches to fill in.
The news hit McFarling hard. There’s still no timetable on when batboys will return to Iowa Cubs games. But that didn’t stop the Cubs from finding a spot for McFarling.
Andrew Quillin, a stadium operations manager for the team, knew how hurt McFarling would be to be away from the team. So Quillin offered him the job running the manual scoreboard.
“We’re pretty appreciative and excited for him,” Quillin said.
McFarling jumped at the opportunity, but the new routine required a learning process. His mother and father hung out with him on the outfield deck, where the scoreboard is, early in the season to help him learn the system. Others, including Thompson, a former batboy, keep him company and have provided assistance.
“He’s anxious to get back in there, but I think he’s enjoyed doing the scoreboard and at least being able to watch the game and be involved in some way,” Quillin said.
The job is just as important to McFarling as being a batboy. It shows in his work ethic. Donna McFarling estimates her son has worked over 1,500 games as a batboy and had never missed a game before this season. He even suffered a fractured arm one season and worked games using one arm.
His mother said the only time he has missed work was a game earlier this season to attend a relative’s softball game.
“I’ve never seen (someone) pull harder for a team than he did,” Pevey said.
As McFarling peers onto the field waiting to update the scoreboard in this June game, he can’t help but dream about being back on the field.
“That’s where I belong,” McFarling says as he points to the dugout.