Keeping 'em clean, fed, and happy

Murlin Whitten will do just about anything ('as long as it's within the law') to help his players.

"What i am," muses Murlin Whitten, as he views the clutter and chaos in the clubhouse, "is mother and nursemaid to 27 ballplayers. It takes someone pretty deranged to do this."

Mr. Whitten's title is clubhouse manager for the AAA Colorado Springs Sky Sox, the top farm team for the Colorado Rockies. In reality, he's a combination lion tamer, chauffeur, butler, chef, raconteur, adviser, consultant, flunky, social director, disciplinarian, and maid.

Definitely maid.

When someone suggests the players are slobs, Whitten counters: "They're not slobs. Let's just say they are disheveled. They've never had to pick up. They've always been catered to."

Whitten doesn't mind. It's his job. So there he is, gathering towels and uniforms and socks and all manner of stuff to be washed; it takes about 120 pounds of detergent each season. He's piling up newspapers. He's straightening playing cards. He's running the vacuum.

"I'll do anything to help the players," he says, "as long as it's within the law." In 13 years in the business, including seven years here, he has made numerous trips to airports to pick up wives, girlfriends, and others; he has retrieved dry cleaning, gotten cars washed and serviced, bought stamps and baby food, and gone to the drugstore. "I may not be able to please everybody," he says, "but I try. I take care of them like my own kids."

The players expect food before the game and after. They expect clean uniforms hung in their lockers prior to every game. They expect their shoes to be polished and waiting every day. They expect Whitten to know everything and do everything. They expect whatever pops into their minds to expect.

It's an odd relationship. Whitten isn't paid by the team. Rather, his income derives from dues he charges each player. He doesn't want to say how much, but typically around the league it runs from $8 to $15 per game per player for 71 home games. Plus tips.

Days are long and grinding for Whitten and his three assistants. Typically, things get going for a night game around 10 a.m. when the shopping list is compiled for the day's food (about $200 daily) and sundries, all coming from Whitten's pocket. Players start wandering in shortly after noon and promptly "make a mess," Whitten says. Whitten and his guys pick up, straighten, vacuum. Repeatedly. When the players arrive, things are in order. When they leave, things are in disarray again.

Food is a huge priority with the players. Whitten, whose mother, Bobbie, ran a diner in Midland, Texas, prepares everything from hamburgers to lasagna: "I have to cater to different palates." The one constant, he says, is that "most players don't like healthy food."

This means the creamy chicken fettuccini (the chicken is barbecued by Whitten outside the clubhouse door) should be a hit tonight. Whitten is chagrined to confess that the fettuccini is pre-made, "but we add to it." Turns out "adding to it" means dumping lemon pepper and seasoning salt on it.

Sometimes, he makes meatloaf, using his mom's recipe. Steaks and baked potatoes are the No. 1 favorites. He loves the beans-and-sausage dish his mother taught him to make but grouses, "This year, these guys want nothing to do with it."

On this evening, as the Sox play Calgary, Whitten is preparing the big post-game meal to be ready sometime after 10 p.m. A torrential rain and lightening storm erupts. The game is ended after 5-1/2 innings and officially terminated at 9:35 p.m. Like magic, the chicken fettuccini, salad, and bread sticks appear instantly. "In 13 years," Whitten says, "I've only been late with the meal five times."

The subdued Sox, trounced 12-5, plunge in. Losing affects a player's mood but seldom his appetite. Whitten is checking to make sure the dinner is satisfactory. "I act like the owner of a restaurant," he explains.

MUCH of the routine is performed by Jason Keas, a college student who hopes to become an athletic trainer. He's heavily involved in most of the shopping, cooking, cleaning up the kitchen, and polishing the shoes.

Andy Cahill is the laundry specialist, fretting that he'll have enough of the 60 towels washed, dried, and ready when the players want them. Rick Grima does whatever is needed, which often is engaging in earthy conversation with the players.

It's a family. And like families, it's sometimes happy and sometimes not. Whitten doesn't mindlessly praise all the players. He recalls the 1993 team was "a rotten team with rotten individuals." And this year? "Good bunch of folks."

In return for days that run until after midnight, Whitten, who's also group-ticket sales director, says he wants only two things from the baseball players: "Remember what I did for you. Remember me for me."

Most players who go on to the big leagues do. Eric Young, now with the Los Angeles Dodgers, is always appreciative; ditto Jose Canseco of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays; same for Rockies' players Kirt Manwaring and Larry Walker.

En route here, Whitten grew up in 11 different towns, his dad being in the peripatetic oil business. Later, Whitten wanted to be a geologist, changed to engineer, but after getting around baseball initially as a vendor and rowdy fan, he was hooked.

Any regrets? "Not a one."

Just after midnight, Whitten is leaving. He says when he gets home, he'll look at one of the estimated 5,000 comic books he collects. The ones about superheroes are his favorites.

"It's my escape," he says, as he walks off into the dark.

*Fifth in a Tuesday series throughout the summer.

July 6: George Loukas, the Baron of Wrigleyville.

July 13: Frank Johnson, minor-league ticket taker.

July 20: Trevor Vance, Kansas City Royals groundskeeper.

July 27: Craig Wright, player-evaluation consultant.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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