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Spokane Indians

Avista Stadium groundskeeper called up by MLB to help prepare field for All-Star Game

Spokane Indians groundskeeper Tony Lee grooms the infield at Marlins Park in Miami for the 88th All-Star Game. (Courtesy of Tony Lee)

Tony Lee has never been afraid of hard work.

Or knowing that thousands of people critique his work many nights throughout the summer. You see, that’s what happens when you’re a baseball field groundskeeper.

As the head groundskeeper for the Spokane Indians, Lee is used to it all.

Avista Stadium’s overseeded field is one of minor league baseball’s jewels. It’s been voted as the best field in the league, by the league’s managers, 18 times in the last 22 seasons. The Sports Turf Managers Association has named Avista Stadium as its “field of the year” three times.

But thanks to the help of his former boss, who also was once the Indians’ lead groundskeeper, Lee is a part of something a whole lot bigger this week. At Marlins Park in Miami. For Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game.

It all started a few years ago when it was announced that Miami would host the 2017 Midsummer Classic. Marlins Park head groundskeeper Chad Mulholland called his old friend Lee to ask what he might think about visiting Miami to help a friend.

As you can guess, it didn’t take Lee long to answer. Last week, he flew to Miami and he hasn’t slept much since. Working an event like this when you’re a groundskeeper is like a child waking up on Christmas morning, including the inability to get sleep. It just doesn’t get any better than this.

“I’ve stayed all day every day because I haven’t been able to hang out with Chad for about 16 years and I want to learn and experience all that I can in this moment,” Lee said Monday night just before the Home Run Derby was to begin. “I haven’t taken a morning off since I arrived or left early once. I’m soaking it all up.”

There’s a lot to soak up.

A normal big-league grounds crew might have up to 15 people. The Spokane Indians might have four or five.

But for this week’s All-Star Game, there are typically more than 20 people on the crew working at any given time, with the total size of the crew closer to 30.

Guys are rotated to keep them fresh. Given some time off. But not Tony. He’s coming early and staying late.

Everything about this event is different from what he’s experienced in Spokane. First off, there’s Marlins Park. If you’ve not seen it before, wait until you see it on TV for the big game.

Think of a classic baseball stadium, like Fenway Park. Then imagine the exact opposite. Then add even more color. Even then you’re probably not thinking wild enough.

“It is incredible, bigger than life,” Lee said.

But it wasn’t just the size or scope of the stadium. It’s the event that’s really out there. And Lee is helping with it all.

There’s “corporate” batting practice – which has nothing to do with any of the actual players. There’s the Home Run Derby. There’s a junior home-run derby. There are team practices. There are stadium and event rehearsals.

And, well, to put it bluntly, “There is a whole lot of putting up and tearing down,” Lee said with a laugh. “You never know or understand just how much work goes into a big-league production like this until you see it from here.”

“Two of the nights that I’ve been here, I’ve only gotten three hours of sleep,” he said. “One night we stayed here until 1 in the morning painting all of the logos on the field, then had to be right back here early in the morning to get things going for that day’s events.”

“We’ll be staying up again tonight to touch up all of the logos again, freshen them up,” he said Monday.

If you watch the game Tuesday night, you’ll see the handiwork by Lee, Mulholland and the crew.

Those All-Star Game logos on the field? Those are the exact logos he was talking about. That big star on the field? Yep, Tony was a part of all of that.

Lee said this is like “a band of brothers.” They work hard. But there also are a lot of laughs and a lot of fun to go with all of the perspiration. Oh yeah, that Miami humidity probably should have been mentioned a little earlier.

When Mulholland left Spokane to begin his journey up through the minor leagues to achieve his major-league dream, it meant Lee would become the new general of the field by the fairgrounds. Back then, the Indians were a farm team for the Kansas City Royals.

When the Royals asked Lee if we wanted to come work their spring-training fields in 1998, Lee knew what that meant.

The Sodfather.

George Toma is the Babe Ruth of groundskeepers. The longtime groundskeeper for the Kansas City Royals and Kansas City Chiefs, Toma has been hired by the NFL to prepare the field for every Super Bowl. He also supervised the grounds crews for the 1984 and 1996 Olympics, as well as the 1994 World Cup.

He’s a Hall of Famer. Literally. Toma has been honored by both professional football and baseball’s hallS of fame.

This is a guy who knows more about how to cut grass than any dad in the world. And he’s super famous for it. Toma literally gets asked for his autograph.

So, Lee knew that he needed to take that moment in, as well. He worked as hard as he ever has. He learned as much as he could.

When he got back to Spokane, he did all he could to make the field at Avista Stadium something that both Toma and Mulholland would be proud of.

Lee arrived in Miami last Thursday at 6 p.m. He was at the stadium by 7 and then worked until midnight.

“I just threw myself in there and helped however they needed me to help. It’s such a big thrill. Getting to see Chad and the rest of these guys, making new connections. It’s all been so great.”

But it’s also going fast. A little too fast, to be honest.

“It just seems to be coming at me so fast and moving so quickly. I’m trying to take it all in because I know it’s going to be over soon. You don’t want it to end.”

He’ll fly back home to Spokane on Wednesday at noon. Lee’s flight is scheduled to land by 9:30 that night, and then he’ll be right back at Avista Stadium on Thursday morning to help get everything ready for this weekend’s series between the Indians and Salem-Keizer.

Though he’s been gone, he’s been keeping close tabs on his “baby.” He also said he hasn’t been worried. The staff back in Spokane, made up mostly of Gonzaga baseball players, has made Lee proud in his absence.

“Our grounds crew is amazing,” he said. “They’ve kept our field immaculate since I’ve been gone. My baby has been taken care of very well while I’ve been gone.”

So, for one more night, he’ll help take care of someone else’s baby. So, what will Lee do once the game begins Tuesday night?

“Once everything starts, we’ll just come behind the wall and take a breather, and let things go the way they go,” he said, sounding more philosophical than you might think. “And when the game is over, we’ll clean everything up and get it all ready again.

“That’s what we do.”

And Tuesday night he’ll be doing it for an international audience.