Every day around the noon hour, the clubhouse door at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium swings open and a large cart overflowing with baseball cleats is wheeled outside.
It is the signal for John O’Connor and Bobby Walker to begin what is the most unglamorous job at the Toronto Blue Jays’ spring-training camp.
For the next several hours the pair contentedly and meticulously cleans all the footwear worn that morning by the players and coaches, during workouts designed to round the team into shape.
It is an arduous task when you consider that O’Connor and Walker will put a spit and polish on upward of 150 pairs of shoes just so the players can look their best the next day, when the shoe-shining process will begin anew.
“It’s not so bad,” said Walker, 22.
“It’s a lot better than anything else we would be doing – like serving at a restaurant or anything like that,” interjected O’Connor, 24. “This part might be the more unglamorous aspect of the whole job, but it’s probably the most relaxing part of our day.”
It is but one of many behind-the-scenes activities that transpire every day at what is essentially a five-star day camp for often-finicky professional athletes.
Every need of the players is catered do.
That includes the food they eat, freshly laundered clothing, personal grooming and the distribution of mail – even the care of their vehicles parked out in the back lot of the training facility. Anything to ensure that a player’s total focus is on the game.
“Many just think we come in here and hang up jock straps all day,” remarked Kevin Malloy, the Blue Jays clubhouse manager who has been working with the American League club since 1982. “There’s more to this job than most people think.”
Malloy helps oversee the operational aspect of the Blue Jays spring-training junket along with Len Frejlich. Another half-dozen folks round out the staff.
Frejlich is a Day 1 Blue Jays employee who is the visiting team’s clubhouse manager at Rogers Centre during the regular season in Toronto.
Usually, equipment manager Jeff Ross, another long-time Blue Jays employee, is around but he has yet to arrive in Florida after recently undergoing back surgery.
Every morning, when the players start arriving at the stadium – some by 6 o’clock or earlier – they enter the sprawling clubhouse to find their personal locker space has been magically transformed.
Instead of the mess many players leave behind at the end of each day, their space has been neatly organized, with several pairs of shiny cleats and running shoes resting side-by-side on the floor, ready to wear.
Anywhere from three to four pairs of freshly laundered baseball pants will be hanging inside the closet space alongside roughly a half-dozen Blue Jays jerseys and T-shirts of different colours. Belts and jock straps dangle on hooks.
All the clothing, once worn, is thrown into one of three industrial-sized washing machines that seemingly run around the clock. Most of the clothing is marked with the player’s spring-training number so it can be returned to the proper owner after it has been dried and neatly folded.
Items with no identification are hung at the lost-and-found rack near the middle of the clubhouse – and it fills up quickly.
Several baseball gloves usually rest on top of the locker, placed just so.
In front of it, usually piled up on the cushioned office-style chairs, sits the players’ mail, which arrives at the facility every day. For popular players such as Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson, the daily drop-off is considerable and also includes boxes of varying shapes and sizes, containing everything from baseball gloves to sunglasses to batting gloves and baseball bats.
These menial tasks are carried out by the likes of Mustafa Hassan, a Jays clubhouse attendant in Toronto known to everybody simply as Moose, along with O’Connor and Walker.
O’Connor and Walker both hail from the Dunedin area and are usually employed during the regular season by the Tampa Bay Rays as bat boys for the team’s home games at Tropicana Field.
Just don’t call them bat boys.
“I would prefer players’ assistant,” O’Connor said, “because really we just do what the players need.”
That would include the mundane task of cleaning cleats.
The process usually starts with clanging the soles of the shoes against one another to remove any built-up dirt. For more stubborn grime a brush with stiff bristles, or a straight-edged scraper, will be brought into play.
After that, a white foamy substance that normally does another job in a different room – Scrubbing Bubbles Bathroom Cleaner – is sprayed over the tops of the shoes. Buffing with a soft cloth makes the leather look almost new.
A 12-hour day is not out of the ordinary for any of these guys and the pay is not great – about $10 an hour (U.S.) – the same wage they earn when they work with the Rays.
“Pretty much the majority of our money comes from tips at the end of the year,” O’Connor said. “All the players tip. And since we only work like seven months out of the year, it would pay what a normal job would working a full year – with no degree.
“And you get to watch baseball.”
The pair acknowledged that Blue Jays pitcher Gavin Floyd wears the largest shoe, a size 15. The smallest, they weren’t so sure of.
It was suggested that distinction might fall to Marcus Stroman, Toronto’s 5-foot-8 pitching dynamo, but they both said not so. Stroman, they knew off the top of their head, wears a size 11.
At the back end of the building that is home to the clubhouse, in an area where reporters are not usually allowed to tread, you discover the cluttered office belonging to Malloy, an intense and likeable sort who always seems one cup of coffee over his limit.
When it comes to trying to help run the lives of more than 60 Blue Jays players during seven weeks of spring training, from Feb. 15 to April 1, his organization skills are truly magnificent.
“Myself, I’ve been doing bat orders,” he said of his latest task, although bats are just one area he deals with. “I had New Balance, Under Armour, EvoShield here today, and MaxBats. Tomorrow is Majestic. That’s also the big day for measuring all the uniforms for the players, and ordering. And Wilson was here today. So I’ve been running around with that. I’ve been here since 5 to 6 this morning.”
Without taking a breath, Malloy glanced over at a wall, where a large grease board had almost every day inked in with some sort of spring-training appointment or engagement.
“Louisville Slugger’s coming next Monday,” Malloy said. “And you just missed Jim. Who’s Jim? Jim’s the car-wash guy, my local car-wash guy. He comes in and sets up shop here and takes care of the players’ cars.”
Then there’s making time for a guy Malloy simply refers to as Wilbur – the barber who comes in to trim the players’ hair.
“At one time I think we had three barbers here in one day,” Malloy said. “That might have been a record. I don’t know if Guinness keeps track of that, but that might have been a record.”
Malloy is also on top of the half-dozen or so bespoke tailors who will venture through the clubhouse during spring training, outfits such as L.A.-based Élevée Lifestyle, to measure up some of the players for their expensive away-from-the-field duds.
One of Malloy’s most difficult jobs is keeping track of all the uniform requests from the players, no mean feat for a team that, once the season starts, has four separate outfits to choose from.
At spring training he said players are always experimenting with the cut of the uniform, especially the pants, which are usually custom-ordered to meet a player’s specific demands.
Some players order their pants extra long with the bottom flared out more than normal so they cover the entire length of the shoe.
Malloy tries his best to anticipate all the players’ needs, but even he was thrown for a bit of a loop at Rogers Centre last season when Donaldson, the all-star third baseman, decided for some reason early in a game that he wanted a different-sized jersey.
“He went from a 46 to a 44 in the third inning,” Malloy said.
A quick check of the storage area found that there wasn’t a jersey the size Donaldson wanted with his name and number stitched on the back.
“We had to take a blank jersey, the size he wanted, and heat-press his name and number on the back,” Malloy said. “That was just to get us through six innings.”