Early risers: Clubhouse managers always on task
They maneuver through a season with complete anonymity, hidden from the public eye, recognizable to very few.
But within the inner workings of a Major League Baseball team, they're at the epicenter of the action. They're the eyes and ears of an operation. The most trusted members of an exclusive fraternity, with very limited membership.
They also log more hours than anyone at any point of a baseball season. This is never truer, however, than during Spring Training, when they work so long and so hard that it's not unusual for them to go through an entire day and never see the sun.
We're talking, of course, about clubhouse managers. Many of them have "equipment" tacked on to their titles as well, and it all comes down to the same thing: without them, a Major League Baseball team would struggle to get through one day, let alone 162 games (plus Spring Training and, for those who are so fortunate, the playoffs).
They're the first ones in at the crack of dawn and the last to leave long after the sun goes down, and in between, they'll tend to a list of duties that will, by nature, grow longer over the course of a day. When you're responsible for the needs of players, coaches, managers and athletic trainers -- a group that is nearly 100 strong in the early stages of the spring season -- you need to be prepared for anything. Veteran clubhouse managers have the process down to a science.
While some departments may work in shifts, clubhouse managers, for the most part, don't have the luxury. They're at work all of the time. It's just the nature of the job.
"It's not ordinary," said Carl Schneider, the home clubhouse and equipment manager of the Houston Astros. "We say that a lot -- the world we live in is not like the rest of the world. It's just what we do."
Gobs of stamina are required to get through a season. At first glance, it would be easy to presume that the later months, in the heat of the summer when fatigue sets in, may present the biggest challenge. But in reality, Spring Training is probably the most taxing time of the year. From early February until Opening Day, employees running the clubhouses will work 12- to 14-hour shifts, every day, with one day off --- if they're lucky.
"Two months," said Reds home clubhouse manager Rick Stowe. "Feels like two years here."
That's not a complaint, though, as much as an observation based on fact. Baseball isn't as much a job as it is a way of life. Sure, getting a little more sleep from time to time, or having a day every once in a while to relax would be nice. But people in this industry are wired a little differently, and that could not be truer of clubhouse managers, who do this job because they (more or less) love it.
"We're as close as you can get to the action," said Stowe, who started working for the Reds when he was a teenager. "It's pretty neat."
"If you like sports, it's a good place to be," Tigers clubhouse and equipment manager Jim Schmakel said. "You're in spots where millions of people would love to be. When you get frustrated with the long hours or hassles, you have to step back and grin and say, 'This isn't so bad.'"
When breaking down a day in the life of a clubhouse manager, it's important to first understand exactly what they do.
Schmakel, currently in his 35th Spring Training, broke it down concisely into four categories: equipment, food, maintenance and errands.
"There's multiple tasks," he said. "We wear multiple hats."
Funny he should bring that up. Hats large in volume and variety happen to be a big part of a clubhouse manager's responsibilities. In fact, the seemingly simple process of distributing caps to a team once the deluge of players reports in mid-February is actually a long, complicated deal that can take several hours to complete.
Each article of a uniform has to be documented, entered electronically and accounted for before it becomes the property of a ballplayer. In that respect, a Major League clubhouse isn't much different from a department store. File everything under "inventory."
"The support staff has to buy into the fact that they can't just come in here and start passing hats out," Schmakel said. "Everything has to be entered into a computer. It takes a lot of time, a lot of patience."
The distribution process really begins before the team even reports to Spring Training. The staff must first pack up the entire clubhouse in the home city, load everything onto an 18-wheeler and send it on its way to the spring facility. The equipment manager is there when the truck arrives, and they begin the process of unpacking and setting up.
Within two days, the clubhouse is transformed from a series of empty rooms into a place where a Major League team can properly operate for the better part of seven weeks.
In the case of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the clubhouse staff goes through this process twice. They have two facilities: one used during the first 10 to 14 days for morning workouts, and their ballpark a couple of miles away in Bradenton, where the Grapefruit League games are played.
"We bring it all here," Pirates home clubhouse manager Scott Bonnett, gesturing to the spacious storage room in the back of the practice facility. "It's our makeshift locker room for two weeks, then after practice, we take this entire place and transfer it all to McKechnie Field -- in a trailer."
The end result is a replica setup from what the players grew accustomed to during the first two weeks of Spring Training.
"Their lockers are set up exactly like they have it here," Bonnett said.
Once the uniforms and clothing items are distributed and accounted for, the next process is more challenging: keeping everything clean. Laundry -- load after load, after endless load -- is a round-the-clock venture and one of the most time-consuming duties of a clubhouse staff. Typically, at least one machine to be going every hour of a workday, which is to be expected, given the sweaty nature of the job. Multiply one load of laundry for a family of four by 75 -- that's what a clubhouse staff deals with daily.
While personalities and attitudes vary among clubhouse managers, there is one thing they all have in common, without exception: They delight in the sight of the equipment truck pulling up, the first real indication that they're inching closer to being homeward-bound.
Clubhouse managers often say Spring Training is like the Bill Murray movie "Groundhog Day," and can you blame them? A couple of weeks into the adventure, days run together and the routine is boring enough to become exhausting. In at 6 a.m., out at 7 p.m., in bed by 9. Glamorous life? Hardly. A way of life? For sure.
"People say, 'Oh, you guys will love Bradenton and the beach,'" Bonnett said. "But the truth is, I rarely even see the sun."