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Sunday, September 12, 2004

I had an amazing day today.

At a charity auction back in July, I bought the opportunity to be "guest groundskeeper" at a Seattle Mariners baseball game (which I subsequently scheduled for today, a home game against the Boston Red Sox). It was pretty clear back then that the Mariners were hopelessly outclassed this season, but I was betting that by scheduling it at the end of the year it would just be fun without any serious pressure. Now, of course the Red Sox are in a tight competition with the Yankees in the American League East, so the game mattered a lot to them, if not to us.

I got extra tickets for my daughters and two of my friends. Some other friends were in the stands today too, and knew I'd be doing this -- they brought their camera so that the could get all sorts of incriminating photos to blackmail me with later on.

I was told to wear khaki shorts, light-colored tennis shoes, and a Mariners cap. They provided me with an official Ground Crew polo shirt, and off we went.

The ground crew don't work solidly throughout the game -- there is a lot of downtime, great for actually watching the game. But when they do work, these folks (today about 7 men and one woman) work diligently and purposefully. There is a Right Way to prepare and maintain a field, they know it, and they do it -- everything from raking the infield to chalking the baselines. I was super impressed: they really know their stuff.

The downtime gave me a great chance to talk to the crew. It turns out that only about 3 people have full-time, year-round jobs on the grounds crew; for everyone else, this is a fun extra job that feeds their love of the game (and it certainly doesn't pay very well). Three of the people I met today have "real jobs" as an environmental engineer, a physical therapist, and a sales manager for a greeting card company.

My first task was to prep the field for the game. I was one of the guys lugging the water hose around -- one guy sprays, three guys walk behind keeing the hose off the ground so it doesn't drag around and mar the dirt or grass. It sounds easy; it isn't. Especially when you're on the infield dirt: you have to lift your feet and place them down so as to minimize the marks you leave on the freshly-raked dirt. I don't shuffle my feet when I walk, and so when the told me this as we were walking out onto the field, it didn't really register. What I failed to consider was that when I'm carrying a heavy water hose and trying to keep the tension right so there's enough slack for the person in front of me to walk but not so much that it touches the ground, it's hard to think about your feet. One of the other crew members kindly pointed out that I was messing up, and I quickly caught on and "fixed" my walking. After a minute, I had the hang of it and was kind of enjoying it by the end.

After we carried the hoses out to a storage area underneath the center field seats, we watched the first two innings from a catwalk just behind the center field fence. Great seats. I got a closeup of Unfrozen Caveman Johnny Damon playing center.

During the third inning, we went back around (through a service corridor under the field-level seats) back to the groundkeepers office. Every 3 innings, the grounds crew does a major raking of the infield -- and the first time they do this, a subset of the crew stops in the middle and does a choreographed dance routine which is a huge hit with the fans at the game. I would have game to join them, but they practice quite a lot for those routines and it really wasn't an option. I did get to stand on the field (by the visitors dugout) while they did the whole between-inning thing -- it was great fun to watch from down there. The most interesting part was that the service corridor that the crew uses to enter and leave the field for that job is the came corridor that goes between the visitors's clubhouse and dugout -- so I was standing on the edge of (well really, IN) the Red Sox dugout for almost a full inning. The crew were all laughing when they came off the field; apparently one of them had his rake upside-down for one of the choreographed moves. Maybe I was too dazed, but I sure didn't notice.

For most of the rest of the game, I was sitting in a chair in a service corridor that empties out on the the field just behind the visitors' on-deck circle and right next to the Red Sox dugout, with 3 other grounds crew. I got to watch the Red Sox all go up to bat and back. Most of them were 100% focused on the game and ignored the crowd (which, by the way, had a very large contingent of Boston fans, especially around their dugout where we were). At one point when Unfrozen Caveman Johnny Damon was on deck, one of the Boston fans sitting nearby called out "Hey Johnny, how're you doin'?" and he stopped, turned around, smiled, and said "Awesome." (then went back to practicing his swing and ignorign the crowd)

I remember in my younger days that there were a lot of ball players that were, shall we say, "a tad overweight," following in the grand tradition of Babe Ruth. Now, folks like David Wells and Rod Beck are the exception -- ball players today are 100% muscle. Definitely not sculpted; many of them are pretty stocky. But having watched them in the dugout, warming up and batting, I can tell you that you don't at all get a sense from watching a game on TV, or even really from watching from in the stands the extent to which these guys are completely bulked up with muscle.

The infield-raking between 6th and 7th inning is the spotlight moment, if somewhat contrived, for the guest groundskeeper (if you hadn't guessed, the M's donate this particular opportunity to other charity auctions too). My job: run out to second base, pull out the base, stick a plug into the hole in the ground, stand on the infield while they rake, then put the base back and run off the field. Of course, it's not quite that simple: sometimes the base get stuck in the hole, so they tell you to kick it a couple of times before you try to lift it out to make sure it's loose. Oh, and they give me a little scoop so that if dirt goes into the hole I can scoop it out. Once I get the base back in place, I'm supposed to lean on it with my knee to make sure it's really squarely in place. And finally, when I'm running back off the field I need to look around because the ball payers will be throwing the ball around warming up for the next inning -- and I don't want to catch a ball in the side of the head.

So now I have several innings to run over this again and again in my mind, and all the ways that I could completely screw this up in front of 40,000 people all staring down at me. What if the base doesn't come unstuck? What if I forget to put the plug in? What if I accidentally leave the scoop-thingy on the field?

And of course the crew (who are all very professional and very patient with me) are all telling me that this is my big moment. I get to lead the crew out onto the field, and the head groundskeeper, Bob, tells me that I should run as fast as possible out to second base so that I have as much time as possible to remove the base.

No pressure. None at all.

In the bottom half of the 6th we go back to the service corridor -- the one that empties into the Red Sox dugout. They give me the scoop and the plug for the hole, and position me at the end of the corridor (once again, for all intents and purposes IN the dugout). Up until this point, the game has been a scoreless tie. At two outs, the whole crew is standing behind me on the steps, with the crew head next to me watching the scoreboard and relaying the count to the people behind him so they know how soon we might head out. At this point, the Mariners get a man on base, and Raul Ibanez hits a two-run homer, giving them a lead in the game (which means nothing to them, and a hell of a lot to the Red Sox).

It occurs to me that I am, in that very moment in time, standing in exactly the worst place in the entire world to be cheering for the Mariners. While most of the crowd is going wild, I'm keeping silent. About thirty seconds later, Bob reads my mind and verbally reaffirms my assessment of the situation.

The excitement dies down, the next Mariner makes the third out, and Bob gives me a hearty "Go!" and I head out. I run out to the base, dodging Red Sox as they run past me to their dugout. I reach the base, give it two hearty kicks, reach down and pull it up. I almost forgot to stick the plug in, but remember before I stand up and stick it in place, then take a few steps backwards onto the infield grass. I made good time; the crew hadn't made it to second with the rakes yet. Bob gives me a little nod, then tells me something I didn't expect: "turn around and look at the pitcher." Not in the sense of "look what that guy's doing" but more like "You're standing in the middle of Safeco Field during a major league baseball game. Take in the moment."

I turn around. Gil Meche is warming up on the mound, 30 feet away from me. Bret Boone is about 20 feet away, to my left, having just trotted out and is settling in. Wow. Fortunately, it didn't dawn on me to look up in the stands -- I would probably have freaked out. I drew it all in, then turned my attention back to the task quite literally at hand: second base, which I was still holding.

Bob gives me the OK that they are done raking and I can replace the base. I walk over, squat down, pull out the stopper. No dirt in the hole, so I position the base and jjiggle it around until itto fits in its square hole. Push it down, give it a good push with my knee, grab the scoop and stopper, and turn around to head back in. Before I start running, I remember to look around; good thing too, because the shortstop is playing catch with Boone. I wait for it to be clear, and trot on in.

Whew. I didn't mess up, and I got to have the experience of a lifetime.

I didn't really have anything to do for the rest of the game, so I took my seat in the service corridor behind the Red Sox on-deck circle again. It went fast, but it was great fun to watch. At one point, Ichiro came up to bat,  and the grounds crew guys I was sitting with all got out of their chairs and moved back; apparently, Ichiro has a penchant for hitting foul balls right where we were sitting, and when you're sitting that close you'd need pretty damn good reflexes to avoid getting seriously injured.

It was a great day. I had a fabulous time. They let me do some real work, and I didn't screw it up or get in their way (or if I did, they didn't let on). and I got to meet some very cool people. I'd do it again in an instant.

10:27:39 PM    ; comment []

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