Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hits, Runs and Laundry

Behind every ballplayer, there's the clubhouse crew

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Underneath the great white hype of stadium lights, nine innings of baseball fly so easy off the plate, the games punctuated by gasps or jeers and the surging cheers of walk-off wins. If everything goes right, the season is carried into memory by the final howls of champions.

And behind all that, there is always laundry.

Oh, that part doesn't sound so glamorous. But it's as inevitable as death and taxes, more regular than triumphant sluggery and just as necessary to any victory. We're talking loads of laundry, scads of it, great unwashed piles of jerseys and shirts and towels dabbed in sweat. We're talking white pants smeared with dirt until they've turned a sloppy sort of brown.

At Shaw Park alone, that adds up to over 45 kilograms of towels to wash each day and at least 135 more of the home and visiting team's clothing combined. This is an estimate; it's not like they keep count. They just keep loading up the giant industrial washing machines and keep letting them suck detergent from plastic vats, the liquid filling the Goldeyes clubhouse with the cloying commercial scent of "fresh."

"We're pretty lucky here," Goldeyes clubhouse manager Jamie Samson says. "The machines that we have here are sweet. You'll go on the road and they'll have just, like, a household washer and dryer. Oh my God, I feel sorry for them."

Still, even with the industrial-size help, the laundry is enough to keep Samson and his assistant, Jake Zelenewich, at the baseball park until midnight most nights. So no, Samson doesn't get much sleep. The team gets only about four days fully off during the season. For the last one, the 24-year-old made a beeline for his parents' camper site outside the city. He might not get another chance.

"You don't really have much of a summer outside the ballpark," Samson says, chilling in the Shaw Park dugout after wrapping the pre-game setup five hours into his workday, with eight more still to go. "I'm not complaining. It's awesome. It's not a chore to come to work every day."

On the surface, his job description looks suspiciously like chores, a checklist of things to mop and load and fill, starting early in the afternoon. It's "way more glorious than it sounds," Samson says. He usually hits Safeway before heading to Shaw Park for noon if a game is slated for that night. Then there's a clubhouse to clean, Gatorade to mix and the ever-present laundry to do.

There are the million little things to track, restock and renew. There's the gallons of Scrubbing Bubbles bathroom cleaner the players use to shine their shoes -- three cans a day. "Gotta look good out there" Samson says. And buckets of pink Double Bubble gum. That's the real chew most players use, that and the bags of sunflower seeds Samson carefully lays out on the dugout bench each day.

And don't forget all the balls. The Fish go through six dozen or more at every home game, and each one has to be unwrapped. Back when Samson started with the Goldeyes as a 12-year-old bat boy, they used to have competitions to get 'em ripped from their plastic wrap. After a few years of that, "I'd just dominate everybody," he grins.

Then the baseball manufacturers changed the packaging a couple years ago, and it wasn't quite as fun. Still, "I wish I had a counter on how many towels I've folded in my life and how many baseballs I've unwrapped," he says. "Those are probably exorbitant numbers."

Hey, whatever it takes to make a champion. When the Goldeyes won the 2012 American Association title, Samson got his ring along with the coaches and players. His work doesn't crack the stat sheet, but was no less crucial to the Fish's 2012 success -- after all, they can't play games without a steady supply of bats. Samson keeps six sluggers ready for each player, sometimes twice that for feisty hitter Josh Mazzola, who tends to splinter more than most.

"There's so much work that goes into just going out and playing nine innings," Samson says. "We ride those long buses. We're here just as long as the players are. Everybody's got their part that they contribute. It's a team, right?"

It's a team of which Samson has been a part for half his life. His dad used to bring him in from the family home in St. Andrews to watch Goldeyes games. When Samson was 12, he fired off an email to the Goldeyes asking to become a bat boy. His bemused parents agreed to drive him to and from the park, and so the Fish gave the boy a uniform and paid him $5 a game.

He fit in right away. Bemused coaches dubbed him "Subway," a tribute to where he ate every day. After four years, they offered him an assistant equipment manager job and then the big gig. Seven years later, he's long since settled in.

A lot of Fish employees came up a similar way, and that's by design.

"It's very valuable to me," said Goldeyes general manager Andrew Collier, who himself started by selling tickets for the team in their first season.

"It means I don't have to retrain someone each year. Jamie knows his job, he knows what the players want. I don't have to worry about the clubhouse. All of the little things, he takes care of that."

Sooner or later, Collier will have to think about succession. Samson will graduate with a business degree in December, and he's starting to think about what happens next.

Batting coach Tom Vaeth sometimes calls him "Zinger," a wink to a certain other equipment manager who ascended to become assistant GM of the Winnipeg Jets. Heck, some other indie-baseball equipment managers have got offers from the big leagues.

Which is maybe why Samson always has his eye on the next generation of bat boys with baseball dreams.

"There's a couple of them that do a really good job that could be groomed," he says. "They work hard, don't complain. There's going to be things that will suck -- the lack of sleep, for sure. There's a lot of work sometimes... but I like being part of this routine every day."

And with that, Samson returns to the routine, sidling back into the clubhouse, ready to make sure all the uniforms are in place and the bats ready to swing. He's pumped about how the team has been playing lately as they rolled over the visiting Trois-Rivi®res Aigles and started the next series with two landslide wins against the visiting Lincoln Saltdogs.

So hopefully another ring to commemorate all those hours propping up the team behind the scenes -- because every championship starts with a helping hand and a couple of industrial washing machines.

"You have to do a lot to attract a higher-quality player," Samson says with a bit of pride.

"There's some teams that don't do anything for their players, and then nobody wants to go play there... but guys like coming here. We do a lot for the team, so lots of these guys don't have to worry about very much away from the field."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 3, 2013 C3

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