By JOSH VITALE, SunCoast Sports
I spent three days working with the Charlotte Stone Crabs field staff and grounds crew in late June, but they didn’t have to pull tarp onto the field during any of those days. So before my last day with them ended, I made a promise that I would help them pull tarp before the end of the season. I made good on that promise on Monday. Here’s what happened:
PORT CHARLOTTE — Rain fell lightly over Charlotte Sports Park as I walked back to my car. The doubleheader between the Charlotte Stone Crabs and Daytona Cubs had been cancelled less than an hour ago, and I was headed home after finishing up a short story.
Halfway across the parking lot, I heard a voice call out to me. Stone Crabs ticket sales assistant Leigh Ann Shoulders had just stepped out of community relations manager Sammy DiTonno’s car, and she had a request for me.
“Hey Josh,” Leigh Ann said. “We’re about to pull tarp. You should come help.”
I politely declined. I had promised Stone Crabs general manager Jared Forma and his staff that I would help them pull a tarp once before the season ended, but Monday didn’t feel like a good day to do it. The tarp was covered in five hours’ worth of pouring rain, and I was wearing khaki pants and Sperry Top-Siders.
But as I was saying no to Leigh Ann, I heard another voice call my name.
“Hey Josh,” head groundskeeper Scott Bertini shouted at me from the equipment shop. “You going to come help us pull tarp?”
Now I couldn’t say no.
So I exchanged my backpack for a rain jacket and my Sperrys for golf shoes, then headed back inside the stadium.
Despite the small wardrobe change, I was not dressed properly for a tarp-pull. The members of the Stone Crabs field staff bring an extra pair of clothes with them to the ballpark on game days, so they were all wearing gym shorts, t-shirts and sandals. I was still wearing khaki dress pants.
As we walked onto the field, Sammy warned me that wet clay and grass might ruin my pants. I told her I didn’t mind. I didn’t particularly like their pair I was wearing.
Scott came over to me on the field and gave me a rundown of what to expect. The tarp was going to be pretty heavy because of all the water, he said, so he told me to be ready for that. He also told me to try not to hurt my fingers on the handles. I need those for typing, he joked.
I grabbed a handle next to food and beverage manager Marshall Clapper, and we started pulling.
The first half of the tarp-pull isn’t so bad. We’re walking from the first-base line toward the left field wall, but we’re not so much dragging the tarp as we are folding it over onto itself. There wasn’t much resistance at the start.
That changed once we reached the outfield. We had finished flipping the tarp, so now were dragging the whole thing behind us. Add in all the rainwater on the field and it made for tough sledding.
Once we reached the warning track, groups of a few people each headed to the four corners and stretched the tarp until it laid flat. Then we all lined up again to begin folding the tarp.
Earlier in the day, Scott, Shane Cabral and the rest of the grounds crew had spray painted white lines onto the bottom of the tarp to serve as a guideline for folding it. Those lines didn’t have time to dry.
A mixture of not-yet-dry white spray paint and wet clay covered our hands as we scrunched up the tarp and began folding it. The tarp is divided into four sections that need to be folded on top of one another, and we didn’t have the benefit of a handle for this part of the process.
It’s much harder than the original pull. There are more obstacles to work around, too. Halfway through folding the second section of the tarp, box office manager Cooper Fazio told me to watch out for the mountain. I had no idea what that meant, but I heeded his warning.
It was a good thing I did. Air pockets rose quickly in our paths as we reached the edges of the tarp, and I probably would have tripped over one if not for Cooper’s warning.
Once the tarp was folded, it was time to roll it up. A few people rolled the tube over the top of the tarp to push all the excess air out of it, then pushed it back to the edge of the tarp in center field. Scott and Shane attached ropes to the tube — they want to use them to help them pull the tarp onto the field — then we started pushing.
I grabbed a spot on the left side of the tube, one person in a line of about 15. Jared and account representative Jeff Cook watched either side of the tarp to make sure we stayed on line, while Scott, Shane and the rest of the grounds crew supervised.
It was a slow process. We stopped a few times to Jeff and Jared could adjust our line, and the tarp got heavier the farther we went. Wet grass clippings covered my hands and knees, and one of the ropes dragged against my right pant leg all the way across the field.
We paused when we reached the left-field warning track to let all the excess water drain out of the tarp. We didn’t get all of it. The next step saw my golf shoes get submerged into an inch of standing water.
Once we got the tarp onto the warning track, all that was left was to push it against the fence and cover it up. The staff gathered for a quick meeting on the field with Jared, then everybody headed back to the concourse to change into dry clothes.
Jared, Scott and some staff members thanked me for my help as we walked off the field, but they didn’t need it. They do this a few times a week during the Florida State League season, sometimes even a few times a day. They know what they’re doing out there.
But it was something I’m glad I got to experience. I’ve seen the Stone Crabs field staff pull a tarp countless times this season, but all of them have been from the cool, dry press box rather than in the rain on the field. It’s difficult work, to be sure, and helping them do it gave me a new appreciation for how tough it is.
Of course, that doesn’t mean I want to do it again anytime soon.
Follow Josh on Twitter @JoshVitale