Tony Lee’s mouth cut a grimace beneath his sweaty brow Thursday as the sun beat down on the immaculately maintained Avista Stadium baseball diamond. Media interviews always made the stadium’s chief groundskeeper uncomfortable, he said.
Amid the pops and clatter of the Spokane Indians batting practice, two men with cameras and microphones stood with Lee just off the first base line and asked him a series of questions.
Lee answered succinctly: I’ve worked here for over half my life. I don’t really notice the long days. It’s nice to work outside.
In fact, the men were plants, the interview a ruse. They were there to help celebrate him.
The planning began about three weeks ago when Delta Dental of Washington reached out to Josh Roys, the vice president of development for the Spokane Indians baseball team. The dental insurance company, now in the second official year of its community outreach Smile Power Tour, had heard about Lee and thought he was just the kind of community member that their program wanted to recognize, said Kila Stangeland, a Delta Dental representative who was at Avista Stadium Thursday.
In addition to promoting good oral health, the Smile Power Tour seeks to highlight community members giving back to their communities, Stangeland said. Spokane is one of the last stops on the tour, which began at the end of April, and Lee was “sort of the grand finale” to a series of events and visits the Delta Dental team made throughout the city to promote oral health, she said.
While Lee patiently provided sound bites to the faux journalists, Smile Power reps clad in lime-green shirts and hats – and a “tooth fairy” adorned with glistening green wings and carrying a toothy wand – sneaked up behind him.
“Hey Tony, sorry to interrupt,” the tooth fairy said. “It’s been a while.”
As she bestowed upon Lee (who said he likes to putter around in his garage with different tools) a number of gifts, including a new tool belt and $100 gift card to the Home Depot, players from the Spokane Indians flooded in behind Lee, hooting and cheering for him to give a speech.
“Thank you guys for everything,” Lee said briefly. “I like being part of this team.”
This is just Lee being bashful, said Otto Klein, senior vice president for the Spokane Indians.
Lee pulls long shifts to keep the field at Avista Stadium looking pristine, often making him one of the first to arrive at the stadium and the last to leave, Klein said. The groundskeeper has also donated his time to clean up youth baseball diamonds in the city, Klein added.
In July, Lee traveled to Miami at the request of friend and former Spokane Indians groundskeeper Chad Mulholland to help prepare Marlins Park for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.
Though not much of a baseball fan – joking that his favorite team was “the one that pays me” – Lee is undeniably a part of the Spokane Indians team and at home in the stadium where he started as a cook in 1993.
And at Thursday night’s game against the Eugene Emeralds, Delta Dental plans to recognize Lee on the field in front of a stadium full of fans, as well as present him with more gifts after the tooth fairy throws out the first pitch.
Surrounded by his wife and sons, who had received new electric toothbrushes along with the rest of the team, Lee appeared bemused Thursday.
“It was a nice break in my day,” he laughed.
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