Pat Santarone was not in the best of moods. It was only a couple of days before the opening game of the baseball season at Memorial Stadium and the field was a living mess. The base paths and infield dirt were muddy and the outfield grass was practically drowning in standing puddles of water.
"Seven point four inches of rain in March," the Baltimore Orioles' official groundskeeper fumed, pounding his hand on a desk. "Field's in awful shape. Never seen so much rain in one month in my life."
To a man like Santarone, who carries on such an adversary relationship with Mother Nature, complaining is an integral part of the job. After all, who wouldn't gripe if one's career satisfaction were eternally tied to the ephemeral ways of weather?
But like Orioles' pitcher Jim Palmer, another noted moaner and groaner, Santarone always seems to manage to get the job done. Thus, with his crew of 24, he worked throughout last weekend, raking up the dirt and draining the grass, and by the time the first pitch was tossed Monday the field was in wonderful shape.
It was another work of genius by the Sodfather of Memorial Stadium.
"People think groundskeepers are just ditchdiggers," he said. "I like to think of this job as an art form--a gardening art form."
In fact, Pasquale Anthony Santarone, 54, considers himself something of a renaissance man. He takes photographs and develops his own color prints in a workshop at his Phoenix, Md., home, where he grows fruit trees, roses and, of course, an immaculate lawn.
He scuba dives, travels to Europe each year and is a gourmet cook. Several years ago, he said, he beat 24 women in a chicken-cooking contest in Salisbury, Md., with his garlicky recipe for Chicken Campania.
He also says he is an amateur mycologist--that's the study of mushrooms. Each winter, he gives speeches to Maryland gardening clubs and works as a consultant to recreational landscape developers.
But for the last 14 years he has dedicated himself primarily to the dugouts, outfield and diamond at Memorial Stadium. It's here that he's truly in his element. Eight hours a day, from the end of the Colts' football season in January to the end of the Orioles' campaign in October, Santarone is the chief proprietor of the house on 33rd Street, responsible for making sure the field is always kept in perfect playing condition.
That means the turf has to be level, the grass must be fertilized properly and must be kept evenly mowed and healthy and the infield dirt must be kept as free as possible of the shortstop's nightmare: pebbles that cause bad hops and lead to errors and base hits.
"Baseball fields don't just happen," he said. "You need somebody who cares and knows what he's doing."
Several weeks before the start of each baseball season, Santarone and his crew replace the sod at Memorial Stadium with 37,000 square yards of a specific type of bluegrass known as A-34.
The infield dirt is a special recipe concocted by Santarone of sandy loam, mixed clay and soil. One week before the opener, the crew spends time manicuring the outfield lawn, raking and shaping the soil around home plate and the pitcher's mound and making sure the field's dimensions are exact.
So serious is Santarone about his work that he has been known to threaten players and reporters alike with physical mayhem for littering the field with cigarette stubs and empty packages of tobacco chaw. He's also famous for lecturing ballplayers on the proper graces of replacing outfield divots they make with their cleats. "I respect their profession," he said, "and they better respect mine."
But if there's one thing Santarone really hates, it's tobacco juice. Not only is the stuff a pain to clean up in the dugouts at the end of each game, but it's also murder on the grass.
"There used to be a third base coach here who always used to spit in one spot for good luck," said Santarone, a stocky father of seven with specks of gray in his thick black hair. "Damn, if two weeks later there wasn't a blade of grass left there. The spit just burned the grass to the ground."
Santarone, who is working on a book entitled "How to Build and Maintain Athletic Fields," said he's been a groundskeeper all his life. His father was a groundskeeper at a minor league stadium in Elmira, N.Y., and Santarone grew up around baseball. In the early 1960s, he took over for his father in Elmira, then an Orioles' farm club. It was there that Santarone struck up a lasting friendship with Earl Weaver, then-manager of the Elmira club and for 15 years--until this season--the skipper of the Orioles.
In 1969, on Weaver's recommendation, the Orioles hired Santarone to become the head man at Memorial Stadium. Since then, he has been credited with a number of groundskeeping innovations, including handmade wooden rakes used to smooth the infield dirt and portable screens that protect players in the field during batting practice.
"I wish I'd gotten a patent on those," he said of the latter. "Now, everybody in the league has 'em."
Tony Smith, 21, a northwest Baltimore man, is one fellow who became inspired by Santarone's work. Several years ago he dreamed of becoming a ballplayer and often came to the stadium to watch the Birds. When he decided he couldn't hack it as a player, he joined Santarone's crew and today is a full-time groundskeeper's assistant.
"It's my profession now," he said. "It's hard work, but there's a lot of satisfaction, too. Whenever I talk to the players from other teams, they always say this is the best field of all of 'em."
If anything exceeds Santarone's ability on the diamond, it's his green thumb with tomatoes. For many seasons, he and Weaver carried on a tomato-growing competition in planter boxes located off the left field line. Santarone said Weaver was always "a tenacious little bleep," but that he, Santarone, invariably won the competition by growing the biggest and juiciest.
Now the two rivals have decided to team up in a business venture. A Baltimore plant food company, trying to capitalize on the rivalry, is preparing to market a plant food of Weaver and Santarone's creation.
"Our faces are gonna be on the package," the Sodfather said proudly. "I figured 'Pat and Earl's Plant Food' had a nice ring to it, but the company said it's gonna be 'Earl and Pat's.' They said his name had a little bigger pull than mine."