Sunday August 6, 2006
Behind the scenes at an Avalanche game
Turning a trip to Salem Memorial Baseball Stadium into a special experience is an around-the-clock job for the club's many employees.
By Katrina Waugh, 981-3127
John Katz was in his office distracting a visiting newspaper reporter with a toy car when a voice called over the walkie-talkie.
“Uh, John,” said Salem Avalanche groundskeeper Tracy Schneweis. “Have you checked the radar?”
A pause and a few mouse clicks later, Katz, the minor league baseball team’s general manager, sends out the alarm: “Change your shoes.”
Everyone was busy. Over the next four days the Avalanche would host a three-day baseball clinic for 80 elementary schoolers, eight picnics ranging from 30 to 250 people, four youth baseball team banquets, two dozen corporate outings, a charity softball game, the Mayberry Deputy, a giant bird mascot, a live band, a news conference to announce the sale of the team and 16,465 paying customers.
Oh, and four Carolina League baseball games.
It was not a particularly busy homestand, July 12-15, but there were tickets to sell, a popcorn machine to fix, programs to print, phone calls to return. But when the call comes for a change of shoes, every man, woman and intern in the Salem Avalanche front office knows it’s about to rain and they need to pull the tarp over the infield.
They change their shoes. Most of them pull on a ratty T-shirt too. Katz dons a hideous day-glo orange ball cap.
Tarp duty is dirty work, and it requires everyone to pull together.
Luckily, pulling together is what the Avalanche’s nine full-time employees, eight interns and 150 or so game-day staff do best. It’s how they manage to entertain 250,000 Roanoke Valley fans over 70 games.
Rewards of a long day
It’s a 20-hour day when the team is in town, beginning at sunrise when Bobby Huffman and his crew come from Craig County to clean up the debris from the previous night’s game and ending in the wee hours of the morning with Tom Wagner washing the uniforms and cleaning the clubhouse.
The office opens at 9 a.m. with at least one person answering the phones. At 10 every morning, the office staff has a quick meeting to recap the night before and plan the night ahead, then they get back to work. For most, the day is done when the game is done, usually about 10 or 11 p.m.
The responsibilities are divided, but the labor is shared.
Allen Lawrence is in charge of stadium operations, Scott Burton heads up food and beverages, and Jess Norden handles the gift shop, special events and community relations. Jeanne Boester runs ticket sales and Jeremy Auker does the group sales. Brian Bowles takes care of the books and Adam Pohl takes care of the media. Jennifer Brady is the office manager and Josh Eagan is head of game-day operations.
"We all have titles, but it really just all merges together," Lawrence said. "We all work together."
And mostly it works.
Always something to fix
There are glitches for sure. Burton got the popcorn machine fixed in plenty of time for Jean Dillman and her staff down in the commissary to get popping and bagging for “Feed Your Face Night.” But later in the homestand the cotton candy machine, carried over to Salem Memorial Baseball Stadium from the old ballpark a decade ago, went up in smoke.
Eagan carefully scripted all of the between-innings games, shuffling the guest appearances by the deputy and Birdzerk in with the usual mix of sumo wrestling, the dizzy bat race and putt-putt. But the hot dog-shaped T-shirt launcher blew a gasket and he and the Diamond Girls had to heave the T-shirts into the stands because Eagan didn’t have time to go to a plumbing supply store to get the part he needed to make the repair.
He also didn’t have time to run out to the nearest grocery store when the message came over the walkie-talkie that there were no apples left for the apple bobbing, so he had to switch to a different game.
“My radio dies every day, the battery dies,” Eagan said.
Then there was the elevator.
We all have titles, but it really just all merges together. We all work together.
Thursday night, it got stuck with eight passengers on board, one of them an Avalanche intern. Jason Miller radioed for help, and Lawrence took the call.
“I asked if they had anything to drink and he said ‘Yeah, we’ve got lemonade,’ ” Lawrence explained at Friday’s meeting.
“So I said ‘Well, you’ll be all right then.’ ”
Now from the fresh-air freedom of an open concourse, that might seem like a reasonable, even thoughtful, thing to say.
Apparently to at least one passenger inside the cramped and stuffy elevator, it sounded an awful lot like, “Have a lemonade, we’ll get to you when we get a chance.”
“So anyway,” Lawrence said, “that guy has two free tickets to tonight’s game.”
More than baseball
Friday night’s visit from the Mayberry Deputy, complete with a giveaway of bobblehead dolls, “went really well,” according to Boester, who makes a daily accounting of how many tickets are sold, how many people actually come through the gates and what percentage of season-ticket holders use their tickets. “I looked up and there was a long line, then I looked back and the line was gone.” A long, yet fast-moving line is perfection in Boester’s book, because she is in charge of the ticket sellers and ticket takers.
“I love bobbleheads,” she said, sitting at a desk piled with work and absolutely no bobbleheads. “Whatever brings our numbers up, I love.”
By the numbers
The Salem Avalanche go through more than innings during a game at home. The team and the fans consume the following during a typical Saturday night:
- 250 pounds of hot dogs
- 425 pounds of French fries
- 50 gallons of ice cream
- $280 per hour for the stadium lights ($35 per pole)
- 60 Rawlings baseballs per game(4,800 for the season)
SOURCE: Salem Avalanche
Beer vendor Don Whitesell of Salem loves a line almost as much as Boester does.
“I love Thursday nights,” he said, referring to the team’s Friends and Family, aka Thirsty Thursday, promotion. “There’s a line from here to the door.”
Whitesell sets up his own bar stools for fans at the end of the third-base concourse. He also provides tomato juice, Tabasco, salt and pepper for patrons who prefer a red-eye rather than straight beer.
“I try to take care of my customers,” Whitesell said.
Whitesell keeps up with the action on the field by listening to Adam Pohl’s radio broadcast. Sybil Puruczky of Roanoke and Stacie Booth of Salem rely on Sherman Gray of Roanoke to keep them posted.
The three work a concession stand together along the first-base concourse.
“We can be 20 people deep and Sherman keeps up with the game,” said Puruczky, whose daughter Morgan works at the next stand over. “He knows everything. And he knows everybody in Salem, Roanoke and the county.”
Puruczky, Booth and Gray are all fans.
“I love the music, the YMCA, the people,” said Booth, a Salem school bus driver. “It’s just fun.”
Like Whitesell, they have regular customers.
“We have a following,” Puruczky said. “It has nothing to do with us taking our shirts off from time to time.”
The regular customers are Dolores Watkins’ favorite part about working as an usher. She doesn’t even really like baseball.
“I like the season ticket holders best. They’re fun,” she said. “They’re so dedicated to this team. They become like family. It’s kind of sad when the season ends.”
Watkins, of Roanoke, and her fellow ushers Jim Loope of Roanoke and Tom Poland of Salem, like to take care of the fans in their sections, carefully wiping off the seats and watching out for foul balls and loose children.
"People don't realize how fast those balls are coming," Loope said.
Tim King does. He said he winces every time he sees a foul ball on the few occasions he gets to sit in the stands for a game. The rest of the time he is one of three Salem EMTs who work the games in shifts of two.
Standing in the cool, quiet oasis of the first-aid office, King said he treats about one foul-ball injury a game, sometimes having to look over his shoulder to avoid getting hit himself while he's working.
King also treats scraped knees and elbows from children falling down and "lately we've had a lot of heat-related injuries," he said.
Sarah Bridgman, a Salem High School student, and Charlie Cooper of Roanoke have the perfect solution for the heat. They run the Avalanche gift shop, which also serves as a haven for fans dodging heat or restlessness or ... rain.
Rain seeps into every person's job at the ballpark, one way or another.
"I don’t like rainouts," Boester said, the thought of thousands of rain checks clouding her brow.
Carrie Faw and April Meadows, both members of Huffman’s Craig County cleaning crew, already struggle to sweep up broom-resistant peanut and sunflower seed shells in the stands each morning, and an overnight shower makes the job nearly impossible.
Loope, Poland and Watkins like a good afternoon shower that washes away their seat-wiping chore, but if it rains a little later then the seats are wet and they have extra wiping to do to make sure everyone has a comfortable seat.
I like the season ticket holders best. They're fun. They’re so dedicated to this team. They become like family. It's kind of sad when the season ends.
Afternoon rain is a pain for Cindy Hiles, who cooks for picnics. Hiles, of Boones Mill, and Kiana Elam of Salem had just set up for a picnic Wednesday when they had to carry all the food back inside to dodge the rain. Luckily on Thursday, when Hiles started cooking at 2:30 p.m. for a picnic of 207 people, there was no rain.
Afternoon rain also dampens fans' enthusiasm for coming out to the ballpark, even if the rain is gone before the first pitch. If the fans don’t come, game-day workers from ticket takers to concessions sellers get sent home early.
But not the office staff. They get tarp duty.
For this homestand, though, they only had to pull the tarp on, then off again, four times.
Katz was hailed as a hero in some parts -- those populated by interns -- when he convinced Schneweis, the groundskeeper, not to put the tarp down after Thursday’s game.
If they had, everyone would have had to come to the ballpark at sunrise Friday morning to get the tarp off the field before the sun could burn Schneweis' beautiful grass.
By Saturday afternoon, even the thought of rain was banished except for a pile of shoes drying in the sun.
Eagan was up in the press box running the scoreboard for the softball game between local police and fire departments an hour and a half before the Avalanche baseball game.
"There's nothing like minor league baseball," he said. "It's 5:30 and there's 300 people in the stands watching a softball game, we’ve got a live band going and we’ve got bread to give away."
Oh yeah, the bread. On top of everything else, the Avalanche gave away 6,000 loaves of Sara Lee bread -- just a slice of the 40,000 loaves they'll hand out this season.