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An ode to baseball's unsung heroes

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- I arrived in Florida for spring training last week and the first order of business was visiting with Joe Corchran and Tommy McLaughlin, longtime clubhouse workers for the Boston Red Sox. The guys behind the scenes carry the institutional memory for every big league club, and time with Joe and Tommy is always time well spent.

"Did you hear that Ernie Tyler died?'' Joe asked.

First I'd heard of it, I told him.

"A big deal in Baltimore,'' said Tommy. "A very big deal.''

Indeed. Tyler first worked for the Orioles during their inaugural season in 1954. He was an usher at the old Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street for six seasons before he took over as umpire attendant in 1960. Ernie took care of the umps' laundry, their cleats and their meals. He filled ticket requests and arranged for cabs. If they needed directions to Pimlico, Ernie could handle that, too.

During games, Ernie set up shop on a stool in front of the backstop. Between innings, he'd run fresh baseballs to the home plate umpire. He did this every game between Opening Day 1960 and July 27, 2007.

There was some irony and symmetry when Ernie's streak ended. He was 82 years old and had worked 3,819 consecutive games when he interrupted his routine for the man who played 2,632 games. That's right: Ernie's streak came to a halt because he wanted to go to Cooperstown to honor Cal Ripken Jr. when baseball's other iron man was enshrined four summers ago.

Tyler died on Feb. 11 at the age of 86. Former Orioles lefty Scott McGregor delivered a eulogy last Tuesday and suggested Camden Yards be renamed in honor of Ernie Tyler.

Ernie was the patriarch of the Tyler clubhouse dynasty in Baltimore. His son, Jim, is the home team clubbie at Camden Yards and another son, Fred, is the visiting team clubhouse czar. This means that just about every major league ballplayer and umpire of the last half century has had dealings with the Tylers. Just like every ballplayer who's been through Fenway has dealt with Cochran and McLaughlin.

There are hundreds of folks like this throughout baseball: loyal long-timers who work millions of hours for low pay with no recognition. But in many ways they are the soul of the sport. Ballplayers come and go, but these people hold the history.

The Tylers were already on the job when I moved from Boston to Baltimore to serve as Orioles beat reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun in 1977. I was 23 years old and I knew all about Earl Weaver, Jim Palmer and Brooks Robinson, but it wasn't until I toured the American League that I learned about the folks behind the scenes who make things work at every ballpark.

The visiting clubhouse guy in Cleveland was famous for terrorizing rookies -- usually at the request of Weaver. George Toma, the groundskeeper in Kansas City, spent lots of time in the Orioles dugout, talking to Earl about grass seed (I always wondered about this, since Royals Stadium had artificial turf at the time). Elevator operators -- Cale at the Kingdome and Sarah at Tiger Stadium -- kept messages and made introductions. Everybody knew Pete Sheehy, the clubhouse boss in Yankee Stadium because Sheehy went back to the days of Babe Ruth.

Orioles' groundskeeper Pat Santerone engaged in an annual tomato-growing contest (in the home team bullpen, no less) with Weaver.

Santerone was also a master of mound-sculpting and made alterations for each game depending on the preference of the Oriole starting pitcher.

Boston's Joe Mooney was one of the more notorious lawn mower men in the AL. Mooney first worked for the Senators and Redskins at old RFK (where he remembers standing around the batting cage between Vince Lombardi and Ted Williams) and came to the Red Sox back in the days when he was still nimble enough to throw batting practice to young Carl Yastrzemski.

Mooney guarded Fenway's turf like it was the Mona Lisa. He'd kick anybody off the field. It didn't matter if you were a yahoo fan on a tour, or Reggie Jackson. But the old salts loved him. Don Zimmer came to Fenway as a member of the Rangers, Yankees and Rays and he always asked for Mooney as soon as he got to the park.

Mooney threatened to retire about a dozen times and officially handed over his head groundskeeper duties several years ago, but he still reports to Fenway every day. He's the man who hired Joe Cochran and Tommy McLaughlin when they were teenagers. He taught then how to manicure the Fenway diamond, how to roll the tarp of the field, and how to keep secrets inside Fenway's old walls. Just like Ernie Tyler and his sons in Baltimore.

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