If you attend tonight's Salt Lake Bees-Tacoma Rainiers game at Franklin-Covey Field, there are a few things you likely won't notice.
For instance, you probably won't realize the uniforms are as clean and bright as a new car. Nor will you have any way of knowing the players are well-fed and happy.
It's doubtful you'll observe all the batting helmets, bats and balls are neatly arranged. You won't note the dugout coolers are filled and ready, or that the player lockers are neatly stocked and stacked.
It's mostly behind the scenes, and that's how Eli Rice likes it. The Bees' clubhouse and equipment manager is that sort of guy low key, modest, competent.
And to a Triple-A ballplayer, he's as valuable as a broken-in mitt.
Need toothpaste and mouthwash so your breath is minty fresh as you take the field? Rice can provide that. He also supplies swabs, floss, tissues, chewing gum and assorted other sundries.
Rice even delivers and picks up dry cleaning for players.
In Hollywood, they call those people "personal assistants." In baseball, they're just clubbies.
"It's not a job anyone wants or would do," Rice said modestly, "but I love it."
Even if he does sleep only 2 1/2-5 hours a night during the season.
When the Bees are in town, Rice does the laundry for both teams, which amounts to 25 loads a day. He stocks the showers and lockers with shampoo, soap, razors, shaving cream and other items, fills dispensers, clears counters, repairs equipment.
When people ask the worst part of his job, Rice doesn't hesitate. First is getting the equipment on planes at 5 a.m.
"And the second thing is towels," he said. "I hate 'em, I clean so many of 'em. When I retire, I'll never do another load of laundry again."
That's what he was doing Tuesday when I met him in the Bees' clubhouse standing by a towel cart, folding. Washing machines were churning in the background.
It was a lot like a corner laundromat on a Saturday.
We didn't go into an office or even sit. We stood while he worked. When he stopped folding a moment to answer questions, we stood longer.
No time to sit when the next game is a few hours away.
Clubhouse management isn't exactly a growth industry. There are no college courses in arranging lockers or cleaning bloodstains off uniforms. Rice got his start in Ft. Wayne, Ind., when the manager of the local minor league team asked if he'd like to help out one summer. Prior to that, he sold sports equipment.
"From then on," said Rice, "I was hooked."
Fifteen years later (12 in Salt Lake) it's now second nature. Sure, the hours stink, and so do the dirty socks, but he's not there to complain. For one thing, the rent's free. He sleeps on a cot in the clubhouse, "mainly because I never have time to go home."
As soon as the game begins, he starts the washing machines. He finishes his night work about 2:30 a.m. and rises at around 6.
A typical day begins with a 7 a.m. load of towels in the dryer. Then he goes shopping for groceries so he can stock cabinets and refrigerators with drinks, ham, turkey, bread, peanut butter, jelly, cereal, fruit, ice, chicken, etc. He also arranges for post-game meals for both teams, through the stadium's food services.
After morning shopping, he hangs uniforms in lockers, folds towels, tidies the showers. Later, he readies the coolers and stocks the refrigerators.
At around 1 p.m. the players start arriving. He stacks the equipment and sees that dugout coolers are filled and cups available.
He then typically runs errands, returning in time to oversee the pre-game meal and last-minute preparations.
You can multiply all that by three, because he also maintains visiting team and officials' quarters.
When new players are assigned to Salt Lake, Rice coordinates lodging and car rental. He also handles mail. When the team is out of town for eight days, he will accumulate two or three shopping carts full of mail.
"Nobody comprehends what the clubhouse guy does," he said.
You know that saying, "My work is my life"?
For seven months a year, that's reality for Rice.
"I don't watch any of the games. I don't have time," he said.
He has two adult children in Indiana whom he visits in the off-season. The rest of the time he's at the ballpark. In winter, he works security at EnergySolutions Arena and Franklin-Covey Field.
Being the clubhouse manager does have its perks. He has befriended hundreds of players who went on to the major leagues, some becoming stars. He says of the Bees' roster "you couldn't find one bad kid in this clubhouse."
Although he loves his work, he turns 60 in October and says he doesn't plan to go on forever. Too many all-nighters for that. But he does expect to stay on for a few more years, then spend more time with family.
After talking about socks and jocks with him for half an hour, I told him I could see he was busy and I probably should go. He didn't object. Didn't ask me to lunch, either.
He was already eyeing another batch of towels.As I left, I could hear the drying machines whirring.
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