It is 11 a.m. and Justin Gibson strolls into Consol Energy Park with a little more bounce in his step than usual. A rainstorm the previous night in Joliet, Ill., of all places, enabled Gibson to sneak in two extra hours of sleep before leaving for work.
Gibson typically arrives at the ballpark at about 9 a.m., often bleary eyed from being short on sleep after a long night of work. Sometimes, he doesn’t even make it home to the Meadowbrook community in North Strabane Township, opting instead to sleep at the ballpark. There is too much work to do and too few hours in a night to complete everything on his to-do list.
It’s all part of taking care of the Washington Wild Things, the visiting teams and the umpires at the ballpark.
The 21-year-old Gibson is in his second year as the Wild Things’ clubhouse manager. In baseball terms, he’s the “clubbie.”
He is the guy who will make sure the uniforms of the Wild Things and their opponents are washed and dried, the home team’s clubhouse was cleaned, the peanut butter and jelly, fruit and snacks are in stock before the game, the nearly 100 towels were washed and the hot food for the postgame meal was delivered. And that’s just for starters. Gibson has about a dozen other duties that must be performed each day so that 24 players and four coaches can stay focused on baseball during the Frontier League’s 96-game regular season.
Gibson said his job is part housekeeper, part food service, part hotel concierge and part equipment manager.
“I’ve picked up a player’s car at an auto body shop, picked up family members and girlfriends at the airport, called motels looking for the best prices for players’ families, checked on the status of mailed packages, driven the players who do not have a car in town to various locations, gone to the supermarket to buy groceries for the clubhouse,” Gibson said. “Pretty much anything the guys need, they come to me to get. One time this year, I even made breakfast for the players because they swept a series.”
When the Frontier League schedule was released last winter, Gibson anticipated this being one of his busiest days at the ballpark. The Wild Things’ opponent, the Normal CornBelters, were to arrive in Washington at about 8 a.m., off a night game at Joliet. Mother Nature, however, threw a curve into the plans as the CornBelters and Slammers were rained out.
Instead of spending the morning scrubbing grass stains, Gibson caught a break as Normal’s laundry load was light because of the rainout. Thus, there is no need for him to get to the ballpark early.
“This is going to be one of my easy days,” Gibson said optimistically.
This job stinks
Gibson’s best friend is a 35-pound commercial-sized washer.
“I’m always doing laundry,” he says.
In an average day, Gibson will wash 12 loads of laundry.
Gibson enters the ballpark through the right-field players’ entrance and makes a left turn into the Wild Things’ clubhouse, where he sees seven large black trash bags on the floor. They contain the CornBelters’ dirty laundry: smelly jerseys, pants and personal items.
Wayne Herrod, the Wild Things’ Special Events Manager, saved Gibson some time by stopping at the Red Roof Inn, which is the visiting team’s motel, at 8 a.m. and picked up the CornBelters’ laundry bags and transported them to the ballpark.
It takes at least eight hours each day to wash and dry all the laundry. Game jerseys and pants for each team, batting practice shirts and pants and personals for each player and coach must be washed and dried. If an umpire is staying in Washington to call more than one game in a series, he will likely ask the clubbie to wash his shirts and pants. And don’t forget about all those towels.
“Sometimes, I’m here until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning doing laundry,” Gibson said.
And that’s when the equipment is working properly. During one homestand this year, the washer broke. Some Frontier League ballparks have as many as three washers, but CEP has only one.
“We had to take everything to a laundromat. It wasn’t fun,” Gibson said.
It wasn’t as bad as one homestand last year, when a power outage had Gibson and Herrod splitting the laundry and taking it to different all-night laundromats because there was a morning game the next day.
“Being a clubbie is a difficult job,” Herrod says. “It’s labor intensive and it’s hard work. You have to love your job to do it.”
The job of a Wild Things’ clubbie got a little easier in 2011, when CEP had its grass playing surface that drained poorly ripped out and replaced with synthetic turf. No longer does the clubbie have to scrub grass stains and muddy pants after home games.
“It used to be that I could lay out nine pair of game pants, and you could pick out the ones worn by the three outfielders because of the mud splattered on the back of the pant legs,” Herrod said. “We used to have to soak the pants overnight in OxiClean to get them clean.”
The synthetic turf, however, created one problem. When a player slides, the tiny rubber pellets in the turf cause a black stain on pants.
“That stuff gets burned into the pants. You can’t get that out no matter what you try,” Gibson said.
A day’s work
This is the first day in Washington for second baseman Sam Montgomery, who joined the Wild Things two days earlier while they were playing in Lake Erie.
“The manager said we’d have a new player meeting them on the road, so I had to make him a bag based on the sizes the player gave us,” explained Gibson, who gathered two pants, two jerseys, two hats, two socks and hoped they would fit.
Now, Montgomery needs his home uniforms. Gibson quickly finds the pants, but the red No. 6 jersey is missing. After a moment of panic, Gibson locates the jersey. It had fallen out of a box of red jerseys and was hidden behind another box on the floor in an equipment cage in the clubhouse.
Gibson is one of the first persons a player meets after joining the Wild Things. He also might be the last person that player talks to before leaving Washington after being released or traded. Gibson has to make sure the player turns in all his Wild Things gear.
“That’s the most awkward part of the job,” Gibson said. “I have to approach an emotional kid who was just cut and tell him I need this, this and that back. That’s the heartbreaking part of this. I’m the first guy they talk to after hearing the worst news possible.”
Gibson just finished putting all the washed personal items, which are hanging on laundry loops, in each locker when a player enters the clubhouse and hands Gibson a bag filled with dirty laundry. Players often ask Gibson to do their laundry instead of doing it themselves at their host family’s house or at a laundromat.
“It’s no big deal. I tell the guys I will get to it when I can,” he says. “It’s not time-specific.”
Gibson also is in charge of the complimentary ticket list for the players. Each player is entitled to four tickets. On this night, outfielder Scott Kalamar is in need of 13 tickets, including one for his grandmother. Gibson suggests to a front office employee that if a fan hasn’t been determined for the Sweetheart of the Night promotion, then Kalamar’s grandmother might be a good choice.
On most game nights, batting practice for the Wild Things ends about 5 p.m., and Gibson starts collecting batting practice shirts and pants. Some players take showers before the game, which means more towels to launder. Sometime late in the afternoon, Gibson will drive down the hill to the Washington Crown Center Mall and get sandwiches and fast food for the players. They put in their order ahead of time.
Game time for the Wild Things is 7:05 p.m. and Gibson watches from a variety of locations around the ballpark. On this night, he spends most of his time in the clubhouse. Gibson is entering his junior year at St. Francis University in Loretto and majors in managerial information systems. He is taking two online courses.
“Tonight, I’ll try to do some homework during the game,” he says. “I only have to do laundry and get the food for the postgame meal. The game is the one time I get a break.”
The other guys
Kyle Gibson, Justin’s 24-year-old brother, is the visiting team’s clubbie. This year, that means he works out of Ross Memorial Park. With the Pennsylvania Rebellion softball team using the former visitor’s clubhouse at CEP, Frontier League teams have been evicted and are using one of Washington & Jefferson College’s baseball locker rooms, which are located in a building adjacent to the CEP parking lot beyond the left-field gate.
The W&J facility is smaller than what the Frontier League players are used to, and it seems even smaller with shopping carts that double as laundry bins sitting in the hallway. That doesn’t mean Kyle Gibson’s list of duties is smaller.
“I get here around 2 p.m., which is an hour or two before the visiting team arrives,” he said. “I get the pregame food and the team’s personal items that were washed by Justin. I make sure everything is vacuumed, that there are drinks for the coaches, the umpires’ room is cleaned. I put the baseballs in the umpires’ room and I’ll mud the baseballs, if they prefer I do it. … Most people don’t realize everything that goes on behind the scenes.”
Two nights earlier, Kyle Gibson’s duties included makeshift ambulance driver. When a Joliet player fractured his leg in two places while sliding into second base, Gibson drove the player to Washington Hospital for X-rays.
“After the game, I’ll take all the extra food from the concession stands to the picnic area, where we’ll feed the visiting team,” he said.
Kyle Gibson also makes sure the umpires have a postgame meal and a cold drink for the ride home or back to the motel.
After the players board the bus for the motel, Kyle Gibson gathers the dirty uniforms that have been tossed in the shopping carts and transports them to the Wild Things’ clubhouse for Justin to wash.
“On a good night, I leave here between 11:30 and midnight,” the elder Gibson says. “The nights when both teams are leaving for another town are Justin’s longest and my easiest. The visiting team takes all its dirty uniforms with them for somebody else to wash. The Wild Things don’t leave for the next city until Justin is done with their laundry.”
Kyle Gibson has a degree in psychology. He is working toward a master’s degree in human resources at St. Francis. Gibson, who spent a year as the Wild Things’ clubbie, said he wouldn’t mind working for an affiliated minor-league team, but what he really wants is a full-time job as a track coach.
“This is the ideal summer job,” he says. “I’m in graduate school, but I’m working six in a row, then off for six, or working three in a row and then off for three. I’m not working every day.”
A runner’s world
The Gibsons come from a family of runners.
Jeff, their father, was a two-time state cross country champion and won the state 800-meter gold medal in 1977. The tradition continues with the kids. Nick Gibson held the 800- and 1,600-meter records at Canon-McMillan. He won the WPIAL championship in the latter event. Kyle Gibson held the C-M course record in cross country and was second in the WPIAL as a junior in the 1,600 meters and fifth in the 3,200. As a senior, he placed 11th at the WPIAL Cross Country Championships, second again in the 3,200 at the Track & Field Championships and fifth in the state. Kyle ran track in college at St. Francis and at California University.
Their sister, Taryn, is a track coach at the University of Louisville. She holds the school’s indoor record in the 10,000 meters and was an NCAA qualifier.
But the Gibson who had the best times as a freshman and sophomore at Canon-McMillan was Justin. As a freshman, he ran 2:02 in the 800 meters and 52 seconds in the 400 meters. Nick and Justin helped Canon-Mac to the WPIAL Class AAA team title in 2010. Both Gibsons were on the 3,2000 relay team that set the school record that day.
“I won all of my freshman and sophomore races,” Justin recalled. “I had a good start. As a sophomore, I was on two relay teams that qualified for states, and my junior year I qualified for states in the indoor 800. All of that was while having leg problems. I started having trouble during my sophomore year. My times weren’t improving, and we couldn’t figure out why.”
The reason was compartment syndrome, a condition in which pressure increases within a muscle “compartment” of the lower leg, cutting off the blood supply and causing swelling and pain. Justin underwent a surgical procedure called a fasciotomy. It involved making two long incisions in the fascia of both legs to release the pressure.
“It was from all the stress and pressure on the legs from running,” Justin said. “The beginning of my senior year, I decided to have my first surgery, on both legs. … I’ve been told there is a 90 percent success rate with the first surgery. I fell into the other 10 percent.”
Making a comeback more difficult for Justin was a bout with anemia during his junior year. He’s also had ulcerative colitis.
With his junior and senior seasons of high school track basically a washout, Justin enrolled at St. Francis and restarted his track career, but only briefly.
“It started to happen again my freshman year. They found out it was the same thing, compartment syndrome,” he said. “In January of my freshman year, I had the same surgery. I spent a month in a wheelchair. The campus in Loretto is not so handicap accessible, especially in the winter. There were plenty of times when I got stuck in the snow and had to call friends to get me out.”
Justin competed in only one race at St. Francis, but he hopes to be pain-free and faster next season. He has the four surgical scars on each lower leg as a reminder of his long road back.
“I love to race. I am a competitor,” he said. “I’ve gone through a lot with the surgeries and fighting anemia. It has been an emotional rollercoaster.”
When track practice begins at St. Francis, Justin will have to impress the coaching staff, which includes Kyle, who is a graduate assistant for the Red Flash. It a strange dynamic because, while at the ballpark, Kyle often has to take directions from Justin.
All in a night’s work
The game ends – a 5-3 Wild Things victory – and the laundry begins again. Players make their way through the hallway past Justin Gibson to and from the showers or trainer’s room and toss their dirty uniforms and wet towels into the shopping carts/laundry bins.
During the game, in addition to doing laundry and homework, Justin Gibson had to stock the beverage machine in the clubhouse. Kyle Gibson, meanwhile, was summoned by the umpires in the eighth inning. They requested he go to their locker room and retrieve two dozen baseballs. The umpires take four dozen to the field before each game and tonight’s supply was running low.
One of the traditions of baseball is, before departing for the next city and series, the players will tip the clubbie for his help. There are league rules about the minimum each player must tip the clubbie per day on getaway days (the last day of a series). Some players tip more.
“This is a good job,” says Justin Gibson. “Obviously, I’m busy a lot of the time, but you get to watch baseball and connect with the guys on a professional and personal level. I still stay in contact with several of the players from last year’s team.
“There are long nights, of course. Some days the team will leave at 7 a.m. following a night game. I might get done at 3 a.m., so I’m not going to drive home to turn around and be back here in two hours. That’s why I keep a memory foam mattress in my car. For those nights, I’ll pull it out and sleep in the trainer’s room.”
Justin Gibson ended his night by doing laundry, picking up trash and hangers, emptying the garbage cans, wiping everything in the locker room with disinfectant and vacuuming. He did 15 loads of laundry.
“I consider that a light day. If both teams were arriving today, it would be close to 20 loads of laundry. Today was one of the easiest days I had all year. I’ll even get out of here early.”
Justin Gibson leaves the ballpark at about 1:30 a.m. He’ll be back in a few hours to do it all over again.