Hitting the turf running

Pinch hitting in The 500 Level today is Allen Ford, a former member of the grounds crew at old Exhibition Stadium (also affectionately referred to as ‘the mistake by the lake’). Today he shares the story of his first day on the job …

Working for a professional sports team is like a night with Meagan Fox: at the end of the day it’s not the job, but the stories you can tell afterwards.

So when The 500 Level asked me if I wanted to blog about my time as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays grounds crew, well, they had me at Allen.

From 1985 to 87, I was on the grounds crew for the Toronto Blue Jays.  That’s 162 games of major league baseball up close and personal. And though the trade of Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff would later serve as my divorce from baseball, for those two years down at the ‘Ex’ I might as well have been playing ball in a cornfield in Iowa.

And like Kevin Costner’s first swing to Shoeless Joe Jackson in ‘Field of Dreams’, my first day at Exhibition Stadium was as equally and unequivocally embarrassing.

For the home opener in ‘85, I wasn’t actually a member of the grounds crew yet. It would be a few weeks into the season before I got the official call up to the ‘crew’. My start then, as a 17-year-old, was as a lowly runner, a gopher, ferrying messages and packages within the stadium.

However, on this day I didn’t have to make one delivery. The Blue Jays clubhouse crew were short a ball boy for the home bullpen and, through some stroke of luck, I got the tap on the shoulder to report to the clubhouse, grab a glove and get out on the field.

Now, what you have to realize is that this was my FIRST day on the inside of Exhibition Stadium. Before this, my view was often from the blue plastic seats in the Grandstands. And yet there I was making my way through the corridors to field level.

One last turn and all of a sudden the energy and buzz of the home opener was right there. There were the players soft tossing in front of the dugout. There was Fergie Olver, a mainstay of the CTV baseball telecasts, who, in hindsight, must have been the influence for Stephen Harper’s freeze-dried hairdo.

Standing next to the dugout, I was given my instructions:  Head to the Blue Jays bullpen and toss a ball to Lloyd Moseby so he could warm up with Jesse Barfield. Then toss a ball to George Bell and play catch with him so he could loosen up.

So let me stop right here and make sure you REALLY understand what the hell was going on:

This was my FIRST day on the job. This was my FIRST time on the field. And, perhaps most importantly, this was the FIRST time I had picked up a glove and ball since the previous October. And they want me to play catch with George Bell.

Right.

I walked up past the Blue Jays dugout and along the third base line trying to be as nonchalant as I could be. But how the hell could I be? This was the home opener and I am not in the stands but on the field!

I get to the bullpen, take a seat on the bench and wait for my cue.

Murray Eldon’s voice booms across the stadium.

“Your right fielder….Jeeeeessseee Baaarfield.”

Out comes number 29.  Lloyd’s next. Oh shit.

“The centre-fielder….Lloooooyd Mooooseby!”

Lloyd comes running out. As he gets passed the infield and heads into shallow centre, I throw him a ball. Or I should say, I launch a ball. To this day, I have never thrown a ball further. It sails completely over Lloyd’s head.

Now don’t get me wrong, I do not have a strong arm. Yet at that moment the adrenalin and nerves seemed to transform me. With the ball rolling to the centre field wall, bullpen coach John Sullivan tossed me a second ball. Another shot at redemption, but instead I let loose another moon shot that again goes completely over Lloyd’s head.

But forget about Lloyd, Murray Eldon’s voice is in the air again.

“And the left fielder…Geeeoooorge Bell!”

Now, I am well and truly about to shit my pants. Not only do I have to throw to George, I am going to have to catch what he throws back to me. I mean, I haven’t even thrown a ball in five months and I am standing on a major league field and about to play catch with a future American League MVP.

As it turns out though, I had nothing to worry about.

Another moon shot is launched and the ball sails over Bell into centre-field.

John Sullivan, instead of tossing me another ball, looks at me, motions towards the bench and says, “Sit down.”

Allen Ford now lives and works in Ottawa as a graphic designer and still thinks about Fred McGriff’s sweet and languid stroke.

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5 Responses to “Hitting the turf running”

  1. Ian Says:

    Good story, Allen! You did your best in a very tense situation … better to throw it over the player’s heads that throw it too short!

  2. TD Says:

    Agreed, Ian. At least he got to show off the arm. Who knows how many scouts could have been watching!

  3. zeke Says:

    I’m sure it was that gusty Lake Ontario wind that caused your ball to sail on you, Al!

  4. George, Lloyd, Tom, Tony, Fred … « Says:

    […] course, I spent one of those in my first post, so I’ll have to save my Ozzie Guillen for another […]

  5. Mr. October « Says:

    […] referred to as ‘the mistake by the lake’). He’s posted previously at The 500 Level here and here. Today, he tells us what stands out most in his memory from those days […]

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