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Dressing rooms have evolved in baseball, away from the spartan hooks and benches of yesteryear to a world of luxury, comfort and style. Robert MacLeod goes deep inside the Toronto Blue Jays' inner sanctum and finds nothing is overlooked in an effort to keep ballplayers happy and healthy
Josh Donaldson and Ryan Goins are slouched on a black leather couch inside the visitor’s clubhouse at Cleveland’s Progressive Field, staring intently at a large flat-screen monitor while busily manipulating the remote controls in their hands, locked in heated battle.
With the opening pitch of their game against the Indians more than three hours away, the two Toronto Blue Jays infielders are playing Nintendo’s Tecmo Bowl, the popular console football game from the late-1980s, the first to feature NFL players by name.
As Goins and Donaldson trade turns on offence and defence, a pixelated Bruce Smith, the ferocious Buffalo Bills defensive end, crashes through the virtual offensive line and tackles Goins’s virtual quarterback in the end zone for a virtual safety.
“I was, like, five when I played this,” bemoans Goins after the setback. “That was only 22 years ago.”
What a life. In the modern-day major-league baseball clubhouse, men are free to be boys. It’s where players and coaches spend as many as 10 hours a day for six months a year – longer if they make the playoffs.
So it’s a ballplayer’s home away from home – an office of sorts, but really it’s a rec room where players gather to eat, work out, watch TV, get treatment for injuries, socialize, get their hair cut and play video games. The fridge and the snack bowls are always full.
In other words, it’s the ultimate man cave. With a touch of Canyon Ranch.
As baseball has become a game played by multimillionaires who prefer life’s luxuries, clubhouses have evolved into ultra-modern facilities where no comfort is untended. There are hot tubs, cold tubs, video rooms, medical facilities, private kitchens and dining rooms, gymnasiums, video-game consoles, card tables and more flat-screen TVs than you’ll find in a sports bar.
The 30,000-square-foot home clubhouse at Yankee Stadium is considered by many ballplayers as the most opulent. It even has a room where each player has a storage unit to lock his bats away.
They’ve come a long way since MLB’s beginning’s in 1876.
“There were no clubhouses in the early years of Major League Baseball, and ballplayers came to the park in uniform directly from their hotels,” says John Thorn, the official historian for MLB. “If it were a Memorial Day, July 4th or Opening Day, they might come as part of a parade in some kind of conveyance, usually a wagon. In later years it would have been in an automobile.”
Thorn said it wasn’t until around 1909, when early steel-and-concrete stadiums such as Shibe Park (later known as Connie Mack Stadium) in Philadelphia and Forbes Field in Pittsburgh were being erected, that clubhouses were incorporated into the buildings’ designs. But even then, they were rustic, spare rooms, with wooden stools to sit on and hooks on the walls to hang players’ clothes.
“It could be argued that the current clubhouse at Wrigley Field has progressed beyond that by only a smidgen,” Thorn says, referring to the notorious visiting team’s accommodations at the 101-year-old home of the Chicago Cubs, which to date has eschewed modernization.
“The rats look bigger than a pig out there,” former Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen once famously said about conditions around the visitor’s batting cage at Wrigley.
But that won’t be the case for much longer. A $575-million (U.S.), five-year renovation of Wrigley is under way that will include a state-of-the-art Cubs’ clubhouse along with what are being described as “improved” facilities for visiting teams. But that’s a low bar.
When Wrigley is spruced up, Fenway Park in Boston, at 103 years old, will become baseball’s least desirable spot for visiting players to hang their caps.
In Fenway’s cramped and clammy confines, it is difficult to avoid stepping on players toes as reporters shoulder their way through to reach a dingy manager’s office after games. It’s easy to wander accidentally into the team’s shower area, located right outside the manager’s door.
“It’s funny,” Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin says. “Most players will tell you that the visitor’s clubhouses at Wrigley and Fenway are the worst they’re seen, but they’re still the stadiums that I love to play at the most, with all that history.”
What makes a good clubhouse
Wrigley and Fenway aside, players say that when it comes to judging what makes a good clubhouse, square-footage is the biggest priority.
“There are a few things that make a good clubhouse,” Martin says. “One, you need space. You’re around the guys a lot, especially throughout the day. When you feel like you’re almost on top of each other, it can be a little uncomfortable. It’s a combination of that along with having a good place to work out, and a good kitchen with good food. That makes the difference.”
Martin listed the Yankees’ and Washington Nationals’ visiting-team clubhouses among his favourites.
“I like the places where you can get out of the clubhouse and go sit in a lounge and not be around the media,” Jays starting pitcher Mark Buehrle says when asked what clubhouse amenities he most appreciates.
Yes, it’s a delicate dance for reporters treading on the players’ turf. Working journalists’ access to the clubhouse begins 31/2 hours before each game, and ends when batting practice begins; it opens again post-game, no more than 10 minutes after the final out.
In the Blue Jays home clubhouse at Rogers Centre, Buehrle has plenty of places to hide out. It is considered among the nicest in the majors after a $6-million renovation before the 2008 season, which doubled its size to 24,000 square feet.
The Jays locker and change area, a long, rectangular design, accounts for 3,250 of those square feet. Knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey occupies one end; if you squint, you can just make out Michael Saunders at the other end.
“If those guys wanted to have a conversation, they’d probably have to call each other [on their cellphones],” Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos says.
There are 47 roomy, open lockers, more than enough for the 25-man roster and assorted clubhouse personnel. Players such as Jose Bautista, Dickey and Buehrle get two lockers – a luxury afforded veterans around the league.
It is difficult to identify what exactly caused teams to transform clubhouses from modest to majestic, but many baseball insiders point to Barry Bonds during his days with the San Francisco Giants as a contributing factor.
After the Giants’ move in 2000 from Candlestick Park to what’s now known as AT&T Park, Bonds’s contract stipulated that he get four lockers and his own TV. While his teammates made do with standard-issue folding chairs at their stalls, Bonds had a plush black leather massaging recliner that reportedly cost $3,000.
Bonds’s demands might have seemed diva-esque at the time, but they proved to be the thin end of the wedge: Now, just about every new clubhouse is outfitted in padded recliners.
But amenities are not everything. In the Yankees’ home clubhouse, it is all about location. When Derek Jeter, the club’s revered captain, retired after last season, there was speculation about who would move into his coveted locker space.
Jeter’s location was desirable because it was in the high-rent district at the far end of the Yankees clubhouse – immediately beside the doorway leading to the showers and, most critically, to the player’s private exit.
In the end, it was awarded to pitcher CC Sabathia by virtue of his veteran status – 15 seasons in the big leagues, the past seven of them in New York.
More comfort, less bonding
Buck Martinez, the current Blue Jays television broadcaster, played for the Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers and finally the Blue Jays in a major-league career that spanned 17 seasons ending in 1986. He’s not so sure the lavish clubhouses he sees today, with all their TVs and electronic distractions, promote team chemistry.
“I think guys today are in watching video, they’re doing all kinds of things,” Martinez says. “We didn’t have any of that. We’d sit with Charlie Lau and George Brett and Hal McRae and Lou Piniella for a couple of hours after a game, talk about hitting. Now – and I understand it, because the players come so early and I don’t know what they do – they leave right after the game.
“When I was with the Royals and later the Brewers, when we used to come to Cleveland, we’d get the clubhouse key from the clubbie [attendant] and hang around long after the game was over. We’d sit in there and drink beer, play cards, we’d chew tobacco. But we’d talk baseball. It was ridiculous. Bambi’s Bombers and Harvey’s Wallbangers and all those teams. They were as close as any team I’ve been on.”
Behind closed doors
Given time, even renovated clubhouses develop their own idiosyncrasies – traditions, memorabilia, dented drywall. And rules. The clubhouse is where veterans instruct young guys in the team’s various protocols, including dealing with the media.
Rookie Devon Travis, for example, has been very co-operative with reporters this season – too co-operative if you ask the often taciturn veterans. Weeks ago, after the second baseman finished an interview at his locker and the reporter thanked him for his time, Travis responded: “No problem, any time.”
“No, never say that,” barked Buehrle, mimicking a stern parent – only half-jokingly. “I’ll talk to you later.”
Clubhouse culture takes on the personality of its inhabitants, especially in areas that are off-limits to anyone other than the players themselves. In Rogers Centre, for example, we discover that Bautista seems to be the most fastidious of Jays. Dress shirts, T-shirts, pants and even a Barcelona soccer jersey with his name and number (19) on it are arranged neatly on hangers in his two lockers, along with a suit bag from a bespoke Toronto tailor.
Evenly spaced on the shelf above his clothes are seven pristine Marucci baseball gloves. Four of them are blue, one black and two brown. Bautista has a vested interest in the presentation – he sits on the board of directors of the Louisiana-based baseball equipment company.
“I try to make sure I know where my stuff is,” Bautista explains. “I’m normally late because I have way too many things that I have to worry about. I’ve got to know where everything is so I can get it quick.”
Bauista says he’s happy with his clubhouse location, about halfway down and tucked between two support beams near a large table that bears the music centre.
“I think it’s in a good location,” he says. “I’m not in any of the entrances; I’m kind of hidden somewhat behind two columns. I like the fact that in order for you to get in front of my locker, you have to actually walk in front of my locker.”
At the far end of the change area, there is door that leads to the private space where players head following games. The first room is rather small and inconsequential. There is a counter where players can grab a coffee or some water. There are tubs full of chewing gum and sunflower seeds. A couple of grease boards on the wall keep the players up to date on the time of meetings or when the bus leaves for the airport.
Beyond that is a spacious training area equipped with hot and cold tubs, a couple of training tables and so on.
From there through another door is a spacious kitchen where the players are fed before and after games.
Adjacent to all this is what’s known as the Memorabilia Hallway. It is essentially an archive celebrating the history of the club that includes four glass display cases crammed with artifacts.
One of the display cases is devoted entirely to the Blue Jays World Series championships in 1992 and 1993, with replicas of those World Series trophies.
It also contains the gloves worn by Devon White, Kelly Gruber and Joe Carter, and there’s Carter’s famous bat. Not the bat – the one that Carter actually used to hit the walk-off, three-run home run that captured the World Series for the Blue Jays in 1993. That precious piece of maple was shipped to Cooperstown, where it now resides in the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s “Autumn Glory” exhibit. The one in the Blue Jays clubhouse is a replica.
The other cases display items significant to the Blue Jays history: a game-worn Roy Halladay glove, for instance, and the home plate that Bautista stepped on after he swatted his 50th home run of the 2010 season. Bautista finished with 54 that year, becoming the first – and still only – Blue Jay to have more than 50 in one season.
On the wall across from the display cases are framed opening day rosters from each and every Blue Jays season over the 39 years of their existence. The symbolism is obvious: On this quiet corridor, players young and old can reflect on, and inspired by, the great stars who preceded them, and the things they accomplished.
Heading the other way from the main entrance to the player’s change area is a long, slightly curving hallway off of which there are a number of offices. One of the biggest belongs to John Gibbons, the Jays’ manager, and its most interesting feature is that he usually has a big bottle of Tums sitting on his desktop.
As you continue along the hallway, there are a number of smaller change areas for clubhouse personnel and one for members of the Blue Jays executive. The Jays employ four to five clubhouse attendants, who collect and wash dirty uniforms, tend to equipment, clean shoes and run other errands for players. The Jays would not allow attendants to be interviewed for this story.
There is also a medium-size boardroom, and Roberto Alomar was sitting there back in January of 2011 when he took the telephone call confirming he had gained entrance into the Hall of Fame. In honour of that moment, an Alomar jersey is framed in a glass case on the wall.
At the end of the hallway is the team’s weight and exercise room.
Peace and harmony
Clubhouse activities have changed considerably over the years, but the goal remains the same: Provide a place for players to relax, feel at home and get ready to play.
Which brings us to music, a pre- and postgame staple that can be, at once, both bonding and divisive. One thing is always true: It’s always much louder after a win.
For the Blue Jays, it has traditionally been a free-for-all that decides which players get to play what music.
This season, at the behest of Russell Martin in an attempt to bring order to chaos, the team agreed to have musical theme days. There is a list on the post beside the clubhouse stereo that lays out the rules: Mondays are “old-school,” Tuesdays (for Buehrle) are classic rock and country, Wednesdays play house, Thursdays are hip-hop, Fridays are 1980s and Saturday is Latin. Sundays are designated a “shuffle” day.
“Music is always kind of a touchy subject in the clubhouse,” Martin says. “Everybody has different tastes and stuff. The list idea was something that worked for us last year in Pittsburgh – every day was like a different theme. It keeps everybody happy.”
And that sentiment is a the one fixture that’s in every clubhouse in every major-league city. “The key,” Martin says, “is to keep everybody in harmony.”