Diamond Minding

The team on the field is only half the story at any Bluefish game.

 

Ray Bendici

it’s over three hours until the first pitch but the action is already in full swing at The Ballpark at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport. The 11 full-time support staff and a number of interns of the Bridgeport Bluefish baseball team are in their daily pregame meeting, preparing for upcoming events and promotions as well as reviewing issues from the previous day. As it’s a Sunday afternoon game, a glance at the big whiteboard covering one wall of the ticket office shows there are multiple kids’ birthday parties to deal with, as well as various groups expected at the park, including one with over 40 special-needs fans. There is also a pregame parade of local schoolchildren on the field, a public autograph session with players, another group of children performing the national anthem (on violin), a Little League team who will stand with the players during the anthem, and a chorus who will sing “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch. And, oh yeah, since it’s Sunday, that also means every kid in the park gets to run the bases after the game. Plus, there’s the opposing team, umpires and the few thousand other fans to accommodate.

But first things first—the tarp covering the field needs to be removed, so everyone adjourns to the field to do that before moving on to all the other game-day duties. With a strong breeze blowing, it takes an organized effort, much like a choreographed military drill, to handle the tarp.

“On this job, you get to wear many, many hats,” says Joe Izzo, the team’s assistant general manager, as we walk from the freshly rolled-up tarp to behind the outfield fence, where he switches on the power for the scoreboard, and then over to Kids’ Cove to arrange tables for the day’s birthday parties. “This is our busiest time, from three hours before the game until the first pitch. Usually, it’s not until well into the game before I take a deep breath and relax a bit.”

Of course, not all the work is for the fans’ benefit. Chris Suarino is the clubhouse attendant, or “clubbie,” responsible for taking care of all the players’ needs, from food to equipment to laundry, which he refers to as “the most important part of my job.” (“Clubbie is the toughest and most thankless job in all of baseball,” says Izzo.) Two huge washers and dryers tumble uniforms, socks, jocks and towels that Suarino will have to distribute. Next door in the locker room, players in various stage of dress lounge about, chatting, joking and picking at the food laid out by Suarino on a long table. Other players receive treatment in the trainer’s room or take swings in the batting cage under the stands. More than one check the lineup card, posted just outside the locker room by Bluefish manager and former major-league pitcher Tommy John. For many of the players—most of whom earn no more than $3,000 per month and once played in the major leagues—Bridgeport represents an opportunity to keep playing professional baseball.

It’s also an opportunity for Izzo and the rest of the staff to shine. If they perform well, however, the majority of the more than 50,000 fans who come through the turnstiles during the course of the team’s 70 home games this season will probably never notice them, only remember enjoying a great day (or night) at the ballpark. Unlike many other minor-league teams who are affiliated with major-league teams—and thus have costs like player salaries covered—the Bluefish are an independent team solely dependent on ticket sales to support the entire operation. As such, the staff focuses on creating a dynamic family-friendly experience with fireworks, giveaways and special promotions. “Reel family fun!” goes the slogan.

Much of ensuring that fun falls on Karen Luciano, who coordinates the pregame and between-innings activities. Before the game, she is buzzing around the field, prepping the field announcer and shepherding different groups, answering questions and giving directions via walkie-talkie. Once the game starts, she and a few assistants are constantly moving around the ballpark for the between-innings activities, whether it’s lining up kids to race B.B. the Bluefish mascot, organizing the dizzy bat race or launching rubber chickens for a selected fan to try and catch. “I was actually booed launching the chickens last night because I couldn’t get them close enough to the girl trying to catch them,” Luciano tells me as we hurry along. “Still, though, I have a job where you get to launch rubber chickens at people. I love it.”

That refrain—“I love it”—is often repeated by the other employees, who are also in perpetual motion, be it selling hats in the team shop, hawking programs or dressing up as a giant wiener for the hot-dog race. “It’s never boring or the same—every day is different,” says Izzo as the game ends and the entire staff tries to marshal the organized chaos of a few hundred kids simultaneously descending upon the field to run the bases. “By the way, did we win today?”

For tickets, visit bridgeportbluefish.com.
 

Diamond Minding

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