Affiliations change. Players and coaches change. Uniforms change. Baseball stays the same.
Opening night at Chukchansi Park ushered in a new era for the Grizzlies. For the first time in their 18-year history, Fresno’s Triple-A team has a different parent club. The men in uniform are employed by the Astros, not the Giants.
If that wasn’t clear before Thursday, it became so during the home team’s pregame introductions. Each time a player got introduced over the public-address system, there was a new, unfamiliar name to go with a new, unfamiliar face.
In the end, though, baseball is still baseball. It contains certain rituals that persist irrespective of who’s playing. Rituals you don’t find in any other setting or in any other sport.
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Four hours before first pitch, Steven Andrade sits on a chair in the Grizzlies’ equipment room. In front of the clubhouse assistant/batboy is a stack of cardboard boxes each containing a dozen baseballs, plus a white container marked “Baseball Rubbing Mud.”
Brand-new baseballs are notoriously slick. To give pitchers a firmer grip, and more control over where they’re aiming, each new ball is “rubbed up” with special mud. The mud is indeed special. It comes from the Delaware River, specifically the New Jersey side, and has the consistency of chocolate pudding.
Each ball must be rubbed individually and at least 10 dozen baseballs are treated before each game. The entire process takes 45 minutes to an hour. So Andrade better get to work.
Andrade dips his right index finger in the mud, then smears the dab into his left palm. He then takes a fresh baseball and works it around his hand until the mud is evenly distributed before dropping it back in the box.
“It seems like a trivial process, but you have to get it right,” Andrade says. “You don’t want to add too much mud. If the balls are too dark, pitchers don’t want to use them.”
While Andrade takes care of the baseballs, David Jacinto takes care of the field. The Grizzlies’ head groundskeeper waits patiently for the Las Vegas 51s to finish batting practice before he and his crew can apply the finishing touches.
Jacinto uses a cart to remove the portable batting cage, then attaches a mesh steel mat to the rear that he uses to smooth the infield dirt. While he does this, crew member Alberto Macias paints the infield foul lines.
Yup, the white lines that extend from each side of the batter’s box to the outfield grass are spray-painted. So are the coaches’ boxes and the running lane along first base. To keep the lines straight, Macias first marks them using a string tied around two stakes. He then paints along the inside of the string with help from a wheeled cart.
Chalk is still used for the batter’s box, and Jacinto takes great care to make sure the outline is straight. Even though it won’t last as soon as the first batter digs in.
“I know it’s going to get destroyed right away,” Jacinto says. “That’s part of the game.”
It’s also Jacinto’s job to ensure the field is green, which isn’t as easy as it sounds during a drought. The field used to get watered daily. Now it only gets watered two or three times a week.
How does the grass stay green with less watering? Jacinto is using new chemicals that hold moisture better at the root level.
“The grass grows less and we use less water,” Jacinto says, surveying the field. “I’m pretty happy with how the field looks.”
As Jacinto finishes his pregame routine, Felix Diaz is just starting his. You can’t have baseball without hot dogs, and Diaz is busy grilling the finest in the ballpark.
These aren’t your ordinary hot dogs. They’re Polish sausages, Italian sausages and bratwurst. There’s even the Grizzly Adams, a spicy Polish topped with barbecued pork. And don’t forget peppers and onions. Diaz is busy grilling those, too.
On a busy night like Thursday, Diaz might sell 250 to 300 sausages and franks at his concourse stand. On a slow night, perhaps 50. He cooks them all on an open grill and uses a meat thermometer to ensure they reach an internal temperature between 155 and 165 degrees.
Upon request, Diaz will even split each hot dog lengthwise, sautee each side, then fill the center with peppers and onions or sauerkraut.
“I’m the only one that has sauerkraut,” he says with pride. “People will come here with hot dogs they bought at other stands.”
Much of the Grizzlies’ offseason centered around all the newness, and for understandable reasons. The affiliation switch was a shock to longtime fans, especially those with orange and black leanings.
So much change took place that people wondered if games at The Chuk would ever be the same. It took opening night to provide an answer.
Players and coaches come and go, and so do minor-league affiliations. But baseball, and its rituals, are eternal.