Baseball groundskeepers are like offensive linemen: You don't hear much about them until something goes wrong, or unless they happen to grow pretty good tomatoes.
Paul Zwaska, in his second season as the Orioles' head groundskeeper, doesn't have the famous green thumb of his well-known predecessor. Nor does he yet have Pat Santarone's high-profile reputation. But when several prominent members of the Orioles pitching staff followed Rick Sutcliffe's lead by openly criticizing the mound at Camden Yards, Zwaska found himself in a spotlight different from the kind Santarone usually experienced.
It was unwanted, but not unexpected.
"It was no shock," Zwaska said yesterday, recalling statements made Friday by Sutcliffe, Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald. "It was a legitimate gripe."
Sutcliffe blamed the condition of the mound during an Aug. 9 game against the Cleveland Indians for a variety of physical problems that nearly caused him to miss his next start in Kansas City.
The veteran right-hander said that he felt "something pop" in his neck and also had a bruised instep from a large hole in front of the pitching rubber. The other pitchers backed Sutcliffe's remarks by saying they had similar troubles with holes in the mound this season.
"If something like that had happened to Ben or Mussina or Rhodes, all hell would have broken loose," Sutcliffe said. "I'm more a suspect than a prospect at this stage."
Sutcliffe said there had been minor problems with the mound most of the season, but not enough to complain about. He said he didn't realize that some of the other starters were unhappy about it as well.
"If I had known that, I would have said something earlier," he said.
Mound problems in Baltimore are nothing new. Several opposing pitchers, most notably Nolan Ryan, griped in recent years about the condition of the mound at Memorial Stadium and tried to avoid pitching there.
Though nobody had made any disparaging remarks since Camden Yards opened earlier this year, there had been a great deal of quiet discussion among the pitchers.
"If you can't get your foot level, you can't pitch," Mike Flanagan said. "A couple of times there's been a big hole. It can be awkward."
Orioles manager Johnny Oates, who was seen talking animatedly to Zwaska for several minutes before last night's game against the Seattle Mariners, tried to defuse any brewing controversy about the mound.
"I'm not concerned," Oates said. "There is nothing wrong with the mound."
Zwaska said that the problem had been remedied early last week after the Orioles left for Toronto and before Sutcliffe made the remarks after his start in Kansas City.
When the mound was put in last November, Zwaska said, there wasn't enough water to give the clay composition from which it is made the proper moisture.