BY MATT LaWELL
NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas | Most Arkansas Travelers game day mornings, Eric Schrader rolls out of bed about a dozen hours before the first pitch, sleep still in his eyes. He walks out to the field at Dickey-Stephens Park a half hour later and grabs a corner of tarp in his thick Texas hands for his first sweat of the day. He spends the next 16 or so hours somewhere in the park, a blower on his back to blast peanut shells into piles, or a rag in one hand to wipe down tables and counters and trash cans, or cages and nets in tow to roll onto the infield for batting practice.
Schrader is a Travelers stadium operations intern. He works just about every job most baseball fans forget about, if they ever think about them at all. Locked in for the season, opening day to Labor Day and then some, his days are packed thanks to his boss, a park superintendent named Greg Johnston who prefers you call him Pooh Bear. Schrader receives next to no money, a couple dollars per hour on a good day, though his paychecks are healthier than most received by the thousands of minor league baseball interns around the country — well into mid-four figures for the season.
He also lives for free at the park.
And he never has to pay for beer.
♦ ♦ ♦
The origin of the Travelers intern program goes back decades, when Bill Valentine was still young and in charge of the team. An old American League umpire forced out for his attempts to form a union for the men in blue, he shifted from the background to the forefront in 1976 during his first season as the Travelers general manager. Valentine imagined plenty of promotions during his three decades in charge, not all of them successes, though more than enough a verified hit to help him become the face of baseball in Little Rock and around much of the state.
No one at Dickey-Stephens Park today remembers when, exactly, interns first formed a chunk of the team staff. Call it somewhere between 36 years on the high end, 20 on the low end. That was when Valentine offered spots to a group of six young interns, including John Evans, who worked for the team for a decade and still comes back to manage one of the concessions stands during home games, and Pete Laven, who returned to the team a decade ago after stints with other teams and later succeeded Valentine as general manager.
STADIUM OPERATIONS INTERNS
Tate Baumgardner, 23, Wellington, Texas
Drew Boike, 25, Clarkston, Michigan
Jeff Dailey, 29, Orange, California
Ben Harrington, 23, Jonesboro, Arkansas
Bryce Hayter, 23, Roanoke, Virginia
Steven Kettler, 24, Wheeling, West Virginia
Eric Schrader, 22, Schulenburg, Texas
“Our job as interns was basically the upkeep of the stadium,” Laven says. “We played in an old stadium and we weren’t in charge of on-field entertainment, though we have interns now who are. Our job was just field maintenance and stadium maintenance.”
So little has changed during the 20 years since Laven, Evans and other fresh college graduates first dragged the infield. The days start the same way, with a walk to the infield to pull the tarp for the day. “We have to pull the big tarp off because it’ll burn the grass,” says Schrader, one of seven Travelers interns this season, “and Pooh Bear doesn’t want to burn the grass.”
After that are the two hours that bind together every Travelers intern, Laven to Schrader and every one in between.
“We have about seven or eight blowers that we strap on our backs, go through the concourse, all the seats, and blow down the peanut shells,” says Schrader.
“Bill Valentine, his thing was you couldn’t have a peanut shell laying anywhere when the gates opened,” Laven says. “It was spotless. You could literally eat off the floor.”
“We would all take a row,” Evans says. “You would start at the top row, and it would almost be a choreographed thing. The first guy would be in front of the second guy, you would work from one side to the other, get to a corner, go down to the lower sections. There was definitely an art to it. The first time we did, we looked at the stadium and said, ‘This is spotless,’ and the groundskeeper looked at it and said, ‘Blow it down again.’”
“I eat peanuts and I put them on the ground when I go to baseball games. You don’t hate them until you have to clean them all up.” — Arkansas Travelers intern Eric Schrader
When Laven and Evans cleaned peanut shells — and everything else — at old Ray Winder Field, home of the Travelers from 1932 until 2006, they lived with the other interns in an apartment not far from the park. Valentine made sure they never paid for rent or beer. Not long after the front office staffers first discussed the possibility of a move out of the park into some new home somewhere else in the city, Valentine spurred talks about what needed to be included. He called for dozens of details, right down to the window frames. The one he pushed for more than almost any other was an apartment for the interns attached to the stadium.
“I eat peanuts and I put them on the ground when I go to baseball games,” Schrader says. “You don’t hate them until you have to clean them all up.”
When the team moved to Dickey-Stephens Park, the intern accommodations moved, too, from that nearby apartment to one actually at the park — three bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room, a kitchen, no address, all just beyond the corner in right. This season, Schrader shares a room with Bryce Hayter and the rest of the apartment with Tate Baumgardner, Drew Boike, Jeff Dailey and Steven Kettler. A seventh stadium operations intern, Ben Harrington, lives down the street. His excuse? He’s married.
The apartment looks something like a fifth or sixth or seventh year of college. Dishes pile in the sink. Clothes remain unwashed for weeks. “Six guys live there,” Schrader says. “It is kind of gross.”
A Kegerator sits in the kitchen, courtesy of the team, a reward for hours of hard work recognized by a general manager who did the same hard work 20 years earlier. The beer flows every night, especially on weekends after games and at the end of the day whenever the Travelers are on the road. Valentine never wanted his interns to have to pay for beer. Laven has helped keep the tradition alive. With help from friends or parents in town for a weekend, the interns finish a keg every 10 or 12 days.
This internship, little more than a way to get into baseball, is “like college,” Boike says. “Just with a lot less sleep and a lot more work.”
“Not as many naps, either,” Dailey says.
“I definitely didn’t work this much in college,” Boike says.
♦ ♦ ♦
Everybody remembers their first real job, their first regular paycheck, however meager. Those are the years when everybody thinks they can change the world. Change can still come years later, but most of those dreams have died.
Not every intern makes it. Most work hard, most play hard, more than not burn out, soured on long hours for little pay and no social life outside of a small circle of friends from the team. Of the four interns Laven and Evans worked with two decades ago, none works in baseball today. How many of these interns will be in baseball in 20 years? In 10 years? How many will still be around somewhere next season?
“It just kind of gets in your blood,” Evans says. “I’m getting older and it’s getting harder to work my real job then come out here. I can’t bounce back like I used to.
“But as long as it’s still fun, I’m going to come out and do it.”
Want to read stories about the other teams on our schedule? Click here and scroll to the calendar.