BY MATT LaWELL
JACKSONVILLE, Florida | More than five hours before the first pitch of another season, Ed Attalla dropped to his knees in the infield dirt of the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, poked his nose inches from the field and started to pull stray blades of grass from the base paths.
Fans in Jacksonville might not have been surprised at the sight, and players and managers in the Southern League and around the rest of the country would have probably just nodded in acknowledgment and appreciation. After all, during his nine seasons in Jacksonville, Attalla, the director of field operations for the Suns, has been voted the best groundskeeper in the league seven times. “And for a staff of nine people and 40 grand,” he says, “you can have a field just like this.”
At least part of what makes Attalla one of the top groundskeepers — if not the best — in all of minor league baseball is that attention to detail that found him, hours before opening night, plucking individual wisps of grass imperceptible to any eye more than a couple feet. Another part of it is his desire to help the players on his teams succeed. If his infield is poorly maintained, rough patches can lead to bad hops, which can lead to frustration and errors, which can lead to poor reports to the big league club, which can end careers.
“I have a good relationship with all of the players, and they know if something’s wrong, come tell me,” Attalla says. “They’re trying to get to the big leagues, and I can help ’em get there. I could also help them not get there if the infield’s bad, if they get a bad hop and catch one on the teeth.”
“They’re trying to get to the big leagues, and I can help ’em get there. I could also help them not get there if the infield’s bad, if they get a bad hop and catch one on the teeth.” — Ed Attalla
After nearly a decade with the Suns, Attalla is a fixture around the stadium. He spends at least 14 hours there just about every day during the season, most of them with his assistant, Christian Galen, all of them with his new pug, Rosie, who walks around with her head up like she owns the whole place. Attalla just does everything he has to do. On Thursday, in a black bucket hat, mirrored sunglasses and a goatee that stretches three inches below his chin, that included regular maintenance and preparation for another game Friday, then the rest of the series.
Jacksonville is a far cry from Ricktown, New Jersey, where Attalla grew up, or Limewood College in Gaffney, South Carolina, where he studied and played baseball under Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry. He played catcher for the Saints, but just for a couple of seasons, a self-described scrub. He wanted to be a gym teacher, but learned quickly during his student-teaching that he hated it, and dropped out 12 credits shy of a degree. He started to build houses instead.
Then, 17 years ago, with little knowledge about the profession other than what he learned while playing in college, Attalla interviewed for a groundskeeping position with the Bowie Baysox. Even after an interview that featured him wriggling out of a suit and into jeans after five minutes, he was hired. A couple of good seasons there landed him with the Washington Redskins, then the Delmarva Shorebirds, then the Jacksonville Jaguars. He started with the Suns in 2003 and hasn’t missed a season since.
Attalla did walk away from Jacksonville and the Suns once, six years ago, to work at the University of Florida. He returned almost immediately. “Worst decision I ever made,” he says. “They didn’t trust anything I said, I had state workers, nobody wanted to work. Here, Pedro (team president Peter Bragan Jr.) trusts me than I’m not going to waste all his money and the field’s going to look like this every day.” He sweeps his right arm from the second row of seats out toward an aesthetically perfect field of green grass, not a divot in sight.
“I have a great thing here, and I am never leaving. My phone rings often with offers. Nope. I’m happy right here.”
Which of the following Major Leaguers never played for a minor league team in Jacksonville? Hank Aaron, Randy Johnson, Tony La Russa, Alex Rodriguez or Nolan Ryan? (Read on for the answer.)
In opening night game news, the Suns shut out the Huntsville Stars, 2-0, to open their 50th anniversary season in the city. Suns righty Joey O'Gara turned in a dominant performance, allowing just three hits over 6 2-3 quality innings. The Suns scored their first run in the first thanks to a sacrifice fly that drove home Jake Smolinksi, and another in the sixth after Kyle Jensen singled home Brock Kjeldgaard. About the only disappointment came in the seventh when righty reliever Peter Andrelczyk pulled himself after 19 pitches with what appeared to be a serious arm injury.
Believe it or not, Jacksonville is the largest city in the contiguous United States, at least in land area. People all around the city seem to want you to know it, too, because when they learn you live somewhere else, they bring up the fact immediately. At least part of the immensity of the city comes from the St. Johns River, which cuts through it like a swath, and part is thanks to the 1968 consolidation of the rest of Duval County into Jacksonville. The area of the city is about 885 square miles. Just for the sake of comparison, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles measure in at about 234, 468 and 503 square miles, respectively.
Jacksonville is home to plenty, including more than 821,000 people (Jacksonvillains?), more than any other city in the state and all but 10 cities around the rest of the country. Of more importance on Thursday afternoon was an organic frozen yogurt shop called Yogaberry. We saw it from the road on our way to the ocean and figured it was some sort of good omen for opening day, no matter whether the old catcher served as any inspiration. We walked in, ate some frozen yogurt and asked the three kids inside if they knew about Yogi Berra. Sadly, middle schoolers Holden, Landon and Wyatt all said no.
Parts of Jacksonville smell like burned toast, especially the parking lots between the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville and EverBank Field, where the Jaguars play 10 home games every season. The smell isn't bread, though, but coffee beans, many of them burned at the Maxwell House manufacturing facility off East Bay Street, just two blocks from the stadium. The facility is one of just two where the iconic coffee company still churns out its products (the other is in San Leandro, California). Some days, it does smell like coffee. Others, toast. Either way, beats the smells of the old paper mills.
In the middle of the seventh inning, 10-year-old Jade Barkett, the daughter of Suns manager Andy Barkett, walked on the field near the logo behind home plate. She raised a wireless microphone near her chin and sang “God Bless America” well enough to raise some goosebumps. Afterward, the manager walked the 60 feet from the dugout to his daughter, leaned down and hugged her.
Want the answer? Tony La Russa spent time in the minors in Florida (with the 1962 Daytona Beach Islanders) and in the Southern League (with the 1966 Mobile A’s and the 1967 Birmingham A’s) but never played in Jacksonville. All the rest played for the Suns or their Jacksonville predecessors.
And in random statistical news, the game started five minutes later than the scheduled time, the first pitch was a ball, the first batter grounded out and the “Star-Spangled Banner” lasted 1 minute, 28.9 seconds. Also, we ate no hot dogs.
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