Remembering Pat Santarone

When I was a kid, I could recite the names of every player on the Orioles. I had trouble remembering mine – and that still happens under certain circumstances – but I had the roster memorized every year. However, I also could identify the head groundskeeper, which probably separates me from a lot of kids today

(Nothing personal, Nicole Sherry. It’s all those darned video games. They’re too distracting. And don't get me started on Wii).

The news that Pat Santarone died earlier this week of natural causes at his Montana home brought back a flood of memories. I never met the man, but what fan of the team didn’t know about his tomato-growing contests with manager Earl Weaver? And how he was so respected within the industry that other groundskeepers would consult him for advice?

I spoke with Weaver, Jim Palmer and Rick Dempsey yesterday for a story that ran in today’s Sun, and Boog Powell returned my call earlier today (he was attending to business in Ocean City yesterday and didn’t get my message until late at night). These men truly loved Santarone, and the stories they tell would keep you glued to your seats for hours.

Major League Baseball should have awarded a Gold Glove to Santarone, the way he’s credited with making life so much easier for Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger and the rest of the crew. He kept the infield rock-hard, as the players wanted it – and as the Colts despised it. But that’s how Santarone made sure the football cleats didn’t tear it up so badly that the baseball team suffered.

“He always smoothed it out much better at third base than first base,” Powell said, laughing. “I always got on his (butt) about that.”

Powell said he used to beg Santarone to water down the area around first, especially when Oakland’s fleet-footed shortstop, Bert Campaneris, came to town. Powell’s spikes would be covered in mud on a sun-splashed day.

“Wasn’t it strange how it only rained in one spot on the infield?” Powell said.

The tomato patch in left field was legendary. Powell insists that Santarone once grew a tomato so big, it wouldn’t fit in his hat. “And I have a big head,” Powell said, as if we never noticed.

“One slice would way overlap the bread – on both sides,” he said.

I relayed Weaver’s assertion yesterday that Santarone probably pinched a few of his buds while the team was on the road, preventing Weaver from winning the competitions.

“There might have been some players pulling his buds, too,” Powell said with a laugh.

Santarone made his own wine and was a wood craftsman. He once made a bat for Powell out of walnut that was so hard, you couldn’t mark it. “It was like hitting with a piece of pipe,” Powell said. “And it had no sound to it at all. It was a great idea.”

Powell said Santarone’s greatest contribution might have been a concoction he regularly brought into the clubhouse that consisted of chopped hot peppers, celery, oregano, garlic, salt and pepper. (Powell can pronounce the name, but he couldn’t spell it. The closest he came was Guardenere, which didn’t turn up in my Google search. Anyone familiar with it?) Santarone would pour a layer of vinegar over the mix and let it set for a few days, then drain it and do the same with oil. Players would keep a box of crackers and cheddar cheese in the clubhouse and feast on it.

“Dave McNally was hooked on the stuff,” Powell said. “We all loved it, and I still make it.”

I’d like to pass along a few more comments about Santarone that I gathered yesterday and couldn’t fit in my story – or arrived too late for publication:

“I always felt at ease with him,” Powell said. “It was like I knew him a long time. You could tell him anything and he wouldn’t burn you. He fit right in with our group.”

“Now that he passed, you wish you had spent a little more time together,” Weaver said.  “He was really healthy. He’d still go out and hunt moose and other stuff up there, and he’d go through that bad weather in the woods. He was quite hearty.”

“You didn’t get a whole lot of bad bounces on Pat Santarone’s field,” Palmer said. “He was a big part of such wonderful moments in Orioles history. He was an interesting guy, too. He played golf with us, made his own wine. Pat was a terrific groundskeeper and a great friend. He just enjoyed life and was very good at what he did. And he could be stubborn, too. We were in a rain delay once and he was sitting at the end of the dugout. And this was before they had radar. Weaver asks him, ‘When is it going to stop raining?’ and Pat says, ‘Let me see.’ Then he said, ‘It will be raining until it stops raining.’ That’s what he told him. Only Earl could play God.”

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