By Josh Vitale, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — Ask anyone who has ever pulled a tarp onto a baseball field and they’ll likely tell you how much fun it isn’t.
It’s Florida in the middle of June, so it’s plenty hot and humid. If it’s not raining, it will be soon.
The tarp, weighing in at close to 500 pounds, strains every muscle. The dirt cakes your shoes. The grass clings to your legs.
Annie Life got her first taste of this rite of passage 20 minutes into her first day as a member of the Charlotte Sports Park grounds crew. It could have been enough to make her rethink her decision to join it in the first place.
“I loved it,” she said.
Life, a member the Caribbean Baseball Initiative, joined the grounds crew in part to raise the first-year Charlotte Stone Crabs ownership group’s profile at the stadium and in the community.
As part of the three days she spent on the grounds crew during the final three games a homestand June 13-15, CBI donated $10,000 to the Charlotte County Kid’s Camp Connection Fund.
But it wasn’t just a publicity stunt for Life. She grew up around baseball and has been a part of the industry since 1979, when she worked for the Pawtucket Red Sox.
So Life knew the broad strokes of what a grounds crew did. Pulling the tarp. Lining the field before games and treating it afterwards.
She just wanted to know more.
“I’ve just always wanted to be a part of it,” Life said. “I wanted to see how everything worked.”
Going in, Life had some basic ideas of what to expect. She knew the days would be long, the weather would be hot and sweaty and the work would be dirty.
What she learned during the process, though, is how many little intricacies there are to putting a baseball field together each day.
Life put herself right in the middle of everything Shane Cabral, Bob and Devin Craft, Jake Sheldon and the rest of the rest of the grounds crew do before and after every home game.
Before first pitch, she pulled tarp, set up and took down the batting practice equipment, raked and prepared the mound, chalked the first- and third-base lines and helped water the clay.
At the end of the fifth inning, she dragged the infield.
After the final out, she cleaned the bullpens, tamped down the batters boxes, rode the Sand Pro infield groomer and hosed of the bases underneath the center field boardwalk.
And that was just in the main stadium. Charlotte Sports Complex has five more full-sized fields, two eight-mound bullpens and a half-field on the property.
“It’s nice to have someone come out here and do what we do that’s usually watching. It was almost like an Undercover Boss type thing,” Cabral said. “I made sure she was right in there, and she seemed really into it.”
For some, experiencing it once would have been enough. Three days would have been plenty. But that’s not the type of person Life is.
Life saw the pride the grounds crew takes in the work it does on the field. She felt their passion firsthand. Getting a field ready for play can be a thankless job, yet Life worked along Cabral’s crew as it strove for nothing less than perfection.
It’s an experience Life believes will stick with her. So much so that she’s already talked to Cabral about coming back in November to help the grounds crew rebuild all seven fields for spring training.
Said Life: “I wouldn’t have traded these three days for anything.”