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Twenty-four hours at The Jake

Twenty-four hours at The Jake

CLEVELAND -- The fireworks' red glare splashes across the misty sky.

Cleveland first baseman Ryan Garko has just caught the delicate toss from pitcher Jason Davis for the final out of a 12-4 Indians victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, and it is time to celebrate the team's eighth victory in its last nine games.

Indians players pour out from the third-base dugout and center-field bullpen to join their teammates in the middle of the infield for the ritual line of handshakes and fist pumps. Tribe coaches, led by manager Eric Wedge, wait on the foul side of the third-base line to congratulate their winning flock.

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A few hundred cheers echo through the stands, testimony of the faithful who stayed for nearly four hours on a spring night when temperatures dipped into the 40s.

The lights that burned so brightly on this green pasture on the corner of East 9th Street and Ontario Avenue in downtown Cleveland begin to dim, while outside a string of headlights begins to wrap around the park from cars heading out to the freeways.

Fans pouring out into the night pass by large groups of men and women standing around waiting to begin their workday cleaning the stadium. Inside, batboys, clubhouse workers, the grounds crew and others are still hard at work.

It is 10:48 p.m. ET on May 1, and the 23rd game in a 162-game season is over. It's time to get ready for game No. 24 tomorrow night.

10:56 p.m. -- In the subdued light, the grounds crew huddles around the mound area, hand-packing a moist mixture of clay and dirt into the craters left by the seven different pitchers who took the hill.

Control pitchers like Jeremy Sowers and Jake Westbrook inflict little damage on the mound. But few pitchers in baseball dig greater holes than tonight's starter, C.C. Sabathia, his burly frame exploding off the rubber and then planting violently a moment later.

On this night, 216 combined pitches from Sabathia and his hard-throwing Toronto counterpart, A.J. Burnett, have left the mound in disrepair.

Much of the restoration will come the next day, when workers take a jackhammer-like claw to the plant-foot area to restructure and mold the mound into its original form. Tonight, a weary grounds crew that's been here for the past 15 hours simply wants to head home. So after a few minutes of slight repairs to the area fronting the rubber, a tarp is thrown over the hill and the crew vanishes.

11 p.m. -- Police sweep the stands for any stragglers. Suite patrons can stay in the park for 45 minutes past the final out. Everyone else must be out.

Underground in the Tribe's clubhouse, heavy metal, the kind of loud, pounding music marking a winner's locker room, blares from the weight room.

Seven or eight position players -- hitters rarely lift before games -- usually fill the weight room afterward in an effort to maintain strength through the season's grind.

But the iron-pumping crowd is sparser than normal tonight, with many players skipping their workout after the game's late finish.

David Dellucci, in a T-shirt and shorts, speeds through an abbreviated routine. Dellucci completes just three sets of abdominal exercises and another three sets of upper body lifts before calling it a night.

11:04 p.m. -- What will not be rushed through is the postgame spread. The meal, catered nightly by an upscale area restaurant, comes tonight from the nearby Italian eatery, Stino da Napoli.

Players and coaches gather in a four-table clubhouse dining area, loading up on the chicken marsala, spaghetti and meatballs and other pastas that line the kitchen counter.

There is no grumbling from players over the choice of the restaurant, or on the once-a-week nights when filet mignons from Morton's steakhouse are delivered.

When there are clubhouse food squabbles, however, star power and seniority win out.

For instance, reliever Rafael Betancourt often pleads with clubhouse kitchen attendant Mike Quidatano for Chinese food. Travis Hafner, however, doesn't care for that cuisine.

"So I listen to Pronk," Quidatano says with a laugh.

11:42 p.m. -- The three dirtiest Tribe jerseys have been sentenced to a household washer in the back of the clubhouse's spartan laundry room.

"Sizemore, of course, is in there," Marty Bokovitz, the assistant clubhouse manager in charge of laundry, says in a reference to the uniform of the hustling Indians leadoff man, Grady Sizemore. "His stuff's in there pretty much every night."

Tonight, the muddied gear of Ryan Garko and Casey Blake join the club. They will soak overnight and be washed again the next morning.

Thankfully for Bokovitz, only a handful of uniforms typically become this grass-stained and filthy.

The rest of the club's jerseys, which are wheeled in tubs back to the laundry room by two other clubhouse staff members, are thrown into one of three industrial washers. The uniforms and clothing will be dried and hung at the players' lockers by the time the last clubhouse worker leaves at 12:45 a.m.

Same for the cleats, which are being attended to by a trio of bat boys in the room's corner. A cart of 35 soiled pairs of cleats comes first to Ramon Diaz, a Columbia University-bound senior at St. Ignatius High School. Diaz fiercely thumps the spikes together, another bat boy scrubs them and finally, a third polishes them.

1:46 a.m. -- Tom Simmons, a Jacobs Field security guard, finds a second straight door unexpectedly unlocked on the service level. The gaping storage room, stacked high with boxes and littered with old exercise equipment, is nudged open and still lit.

"That's weird," Simmons says, locking the door. "The early shift should have had that. Must have been a rain delay or something."

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There was indeed a rain delay. But Simmons would never know it. A punk-rocker type with a bushy goatee and a baggy hooded sweatshirt covering his shaved head, Simmons cares little for baseball.

Simmons, a security guard since 1997, walks the park, locking doors, shutting off beer taps, noting anything out of place during his midnight to 8 a.m. shift. Another guard in the left-field security control center watches a bank of monitors scanning through the ballpark's 180 cameras.

Occasionally, a gate-jumper will lope onto the field. And one time, an escapee from a local juvenile detention center snuck into the park and snatched a knife from the kitchen, which he would use to cut his hair.

"But really," Simmons says, "nothing too exciting ever happens overnight."

3:30 a.m. -- Silence settles over the park.

For the past four and a half hours, some 75 temporary workers have been picking up trash throughout the stands, while another dozen workers armed with leaf blowers took care of the peanut shells and other debris.

A power washing team will come in at 7 a.m. to spray clean all the seats that will be used for the next night's game.

6 a.m. -- Eighteen minutes before sunrise, a truck from Cleveland's Pincus Bakery pulls up to the loading docks in left field with the day's first delivery.

Wayne Jacobs, a purchasing agent for Sportservice, checks the order of danishes, donuts, bagels, muffins and dinner rolls. Simmons, with his background as a chef, doesn't let anything pass without inspection.

The day before, three truckloads of products totaling nearly $50,000 came in from the super distributor Sysco. Pallets stacked with food went 30 yards back through the barren concrete hallway of the food commerce area.

A man with a purpose, Jacobs sliced through heads of lettuce, knifed through strawberries, poked a thermometer between cases of Pierre's ice cream, the works. If something didn't look right or a food's temperature fell outside the safety zone, Jacobs let it be known.

"They know they'd better give us a good products, because I'm not afraid to send them back," Jacobs says.

8:58 a.m. -- The first blade of grass falls in left-field as another day begins for head groundskeeper Brandon Koehnke and his six-man, full-time crew.

The Kentucky Bluegrass field is mowed at a one-inch height daily when the Tribe is in town, and every other day when the team is on the road.

The same goes for the bullpen grass, which serves as a sod farm to be called upon when sections of the playing field need to be replaced.

10:30 a.m. -- A pallet stacked with seven cases of nacho chips, two cases of cheese, two cases of diced onions and a case of jalapeno peppers and salsa is hauled onto a freight elevator and taken up to concession stand No. 13 on the lower level.

The club's strategy calls for each stand to be fortified with enough food to last a game and a half. So now, scores of pallets stocked according to an attached order form are taken by a crew of 10 porters to every concession stand slated to be open on this night.

11:25 a.m. -- Bokovitz, a clubhouse worker since his senior year of high school in 1989, carts a pile of local newspapers and player mail into the clubhouse.

The letters are then sorted into cubbyholes at the center of the locker room. Or at least that's the goal. Sizemore's fan mail won't fit there, so the excess letters are piled on top of the boxes.

It's a problem he most shares with Hafner, Sabathia and surprisingly, boyish pitcher Jeremy Sowers.

But while there are undeniable superstars calling this clubhouse home, today's team is nothing like the high maintenance bunch during the Indians' title runs in the '90s, according to Frank Mancini, a clubhouse attendant dating back to the '80s.

"Some of the egos and politics you had to deal with were a little tough," says Mancini. "You didn't know who you could say no to."

So they didn't. When players asked the staff to go shopping for their families, regularly get their cars washed or even clean vomit from a car vent, they did it.

"I can remember guys leaving their lunch in the car purposely so they wouldn't have to be seen carrying something," Mancini says. "Then they'd come down and tell us to get it. That's insane. Why didn't you bring it in yourself? Well, it's not like it that anymore. This is a good group."

An entire culture changed under manager Eric Wedge and general manager Mark Shapiro.

Workers still help players by picking up prescriptions, taking bags to their cars, cashing checks or picking up family members at the airport. But the difference today?

"Their requests make sense," says Tony Amato, the Indians' clubhouse manager.

12:23 p.m. -- A new dietary approach in the kitchen also is evident as Quidatano prepares for the day's first wave of players.

In the '90s, health went out the window. Chicken wings, creamy soups, French fries and hamburgers were all among the pregame staples. Today, a newfound emphasis on eating well is perhaps best symbolized by the recent removal of the kitchen's deep fryer.

Now, fish, chicken, salads, pastas and other energy-providing fare are served before the game. Tonight's post-batting practice meal, for instance, includes salad, collard greens and shrimp.

12:55 p.m. -- How much has the team's superstar culture changed?

Recent Sports Illustrated cover boy Sizemore, as most always, is the first player to arrive at the park when he strolls in at 12:55 p.m., more than six hours before game time.

5:40 p.m. -- Umpire Randy Marsh, a 25-year big league veteran, and his crew arrive at the umpires room behind home plate.

Marsh has been asleep for the past couple of hours, aiming to arrive at the park with an uncluttered mind. And whether it's a game in May before some 13,000 fans or one of the five World Series or four All-Star Games he's worked, the routine remains constant.

"Late in the afternoon, I have to chill," Marsh says. "Whether it's taking a nap or watching a little TV, I need to know that when I walk onto that field, I'm physically and mentally prepared."

Now "in the zone," Marsh first checks the radar. A rain-free forecast means the crew chief can now eat a worry-free dinner and begin inspecting the some five dozen balls that will be used tonight. Marsh must go through every ball, ensuring the sheen has been properly removed by baseball's official mud, a gooey concoction derived from a secret location along the banks of the Delaware River in Burlington County, N.J.

7:44 p.m. -- A hard grounder off the bat of Indians third baseman Casey Blake skips past Toronto shortstop Royce Clayton into left field.

Up in the press box, Chuck Murr must now decide how to score the play. A 32-year newspaper veteran in his fifth year as an official scorer, Murr gazes at a television replay and then bows his head as if in deep thought.

This never gets any easier. The grounder, a step to Clayton's right, was sharply hit. But it's a play any shortstop worth his salt will generally make. What to do?

"Error shortstop," Murr finally calls out.

If the ruling left any doubt, Indians public relations would have likely asked Murr to give the play another look. A team's dugout cannot contact the official scorer, but this doesn't mean team staff can't try to sway them if a player may have been robbed of a hit.

No argument follows this verdict, though. On the score sheet Murr faxes postgame to the Elias Sports Bureau, baseball's official statistician, Clayton will be charged with his fourth error of the season.

8:45 p.m. -- Jhonny Peralta's fifth-inning shot into the left-field home run porch sends Annie Merovich into action.

"Ready ... fly to eight ... replay ... dissolve ... beautiful," Merovich calls into her headset.

Staring up at a bank of 18 TV feeds in the scoreboard room on the first level of suites, the team's manager of in-game entertainment calls for the angle showing Peralta circling the bases and then the home run's replay.

Merovich is responsible for a game day staff of about 15 and every scoreboard, ribbon board and video monitor in the park, but her attention centers on this main screen on the left-field scoreboard.

The home run trot is an exception to league rules that prohibit live action from being shown, so Merovich takes full advantage. Even the replay is a luxury. The juicy stuff can't often be shown these days.

As listed in a three-page memo the league sent to every scoreboard operator before the season, Merovich may not show replays of called strikes, double plays originating at second base, brushback pitches, "any instance where an umpire has clearly made an incorrect call," arguments or anything else that could incite the crowd.

"Sometimes you get asked, 'Why didn't you show that awesome double play?'" Merovich says. "Well, we can't."

11:22 p.m. -- Hafner rewards the fans who stayed for an extra-innings game that lasted over four hours on another cool spring night when he slaps a full-count, in-the-dirt changeup down the third-base line past a Blue Jays defense dramatically shifted to the right side.

As the Blue Jays scramble to retrieve the ball rolling down the left-field line, Dellucci sprints all the way from first and scores on a headfirst slide to give the Indians a 7-6 victory.

The good times continue to roll for the Tribe, who have won nine of their last 10 games. The fireworks explode, hearty fans cheer, the players celebrate in the infield.

But already, a small army of workers is looking ahead. There is another game tomorrow night, thousands of guests coming ready to eat and cheer and relax, looking over a field sparkling from the freshly cut outfield grass to the shine on Dellucci's and Sizemore's uniforms.

Welcome to the ballpark that never sleeps.

David Briggs is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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