Tampa Bay Rays
Tropicana Field Workers Bask In Rays' Glow
ST. PETERSBURG - Tom Berte has seen a lot of sad, angry, frustrated faces pass his way since 2003, when he became the security guard on duty outside the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse at Tropicana Field. His post by the door into the inner sanctum grants him unparalleled access to the players' collective state of mind. In seasons past, when an oppressive sense of despair permeated even the concrete of the dome's foundation, it was an up-close view into a dark place. "Oh, yeah. I felt bad for them," Berte said. "The way they were losing, it wasn't fun. You could feel it. You could feel the tension. The mood wasn't right."The mood has changed. For the first time, the Rays are contenders. And that has made Tropicana Field a much more pleasant place to work for people behind the scenes. "It's great now. What a difference; 180 degrees," Berte said. "More energy. You want to be here. It's fun. It's a good time." It's more than just a "contact high" for the players' supporting cast. People such as Berte, whose jobs exist to make life at work a little easier for the players, are every bit as emotionally invested in winning as the players. They are Rays fans, of course. But they are Rays co-workers, as well. When the Rays win, they win. "My whole crew, I think, we all feel very much a part of it," said Rays equipment manager Chris Westmoreland. "Obviously, they put runs on the board - we don't. But my guys will agree and Ziggy traveling secretary Jeff Ziegler will agree and the trainers will agree, we still do our job the best we can to prepare them for what they do out there." The essentials of Westmoreland's job have not changed. Win or lose, the Rays need their cleats and clothes cleaned, their bats and caps kept in order. But the crew of clubhouse attendants and batboys has a little more bounce in their step and bigger smiles on their faces these days. "One thing I do notice is our job is very repetitive," Westmoreland said. "It's the same thing day in and day out. We don't notice that as easy when we're winning. When you're winning more, the job comes a little easier, I would say. It's so much better. My God, it's so much better." They aren't merely cheerleaders. People such as Berte, Westmoreland, Ziegler, head groundskeeper Dan Moeller and vice president of communications Rick Vaughn take pride in doing their jobs well so the players can concentrate on the work of winning. Vaughn's public relations staff reports to work on game days about 9 a.m. and usually doesn't leave the park until midnight. It's busier these days, with the Rays competing against the Red Sox at the top of the American League East standings, than it was when the Rays were in their customary place at the bottom of the division. As interview requests have increased, so has the importance of Vaughn's role as player-media intermediary. "Do we contribute with whether they catch a ground ball or whether they get a clutch hit?" Vaughn said. "In a way, I think we do because we are involved in a part of their lives that can affect what they do on the field. We feel like if it helps them budget their time, if it helps them get through their day a little bit easier, then it helps them be a better player." Moeller, the groundskeeper, keeps up a steady dialogue with players in regard to their preferences for preparing the field. If a starting pitcher wants the mound dirt packed firmer, he gets it. If the middle infielders ask for a dirt compound more conducive to truer hops on ground balls, they get that, too. In fact, that's exactly what shortstop Jason Bartlett and second baseman Akinori Iwamura requested before the season. "They asked if we can kind of get away from the coarser material because they felt that they were possibly - I won't say they were getting bad hops, but they didn't want to present that opportunity to get bad hops," Moeller said. "And they felt that the coarser stuff, what would happen is the players between innings or in between plays would kick the ground and cause ripples in it. So they asked if we could go with the finer material. So we did." It's debatable how much the change to finer infield dirt has contributed to Tampa Bay's improved defense. What's not debatable is that the improved defense has contributed to Tampa Bay's emergence as a contender, and Moeller has noticed a corresponding improvement in player demeanor. "It's a lot more pleasant to be around the players now," Moeller said. "They don't complain about anything. When we do ask them if everything is going all right with the field, they say, 'Don't change a thing.'" Vaughn admitted that it wasn't always easy to get out of bed during the dark days, when the Rays were baseball's laughingstock. Now? Morale couldn't be better. All it took was a winning team. "Obviously, you have a lot more energy when you come to work," he said. "When you're doing damage control all the time, it saps your strength. This is the way it's supposed to be. This is an adrenaline rush. It's hard to work the kind of hours we work, and you need to have some kind of a boost, and that's what this is. This is a boost."
Reporter Carter Gaddis can be reached at (813) 259-8291 or i [email protected]