Dashing figure at Camden Yards

The Baltimore Sun

Mike Palulis paced the right field warning track, then stood with hands on hips, shifting from foot to foot as he looked out over his realm - a slowly filling Camden Yards. He seemed more antsy than nervous, like something inside needed to get out. He adjusted his uniform, took some practice swings with an imaginary bat; then he paced some more.

Palulis had gotten his assignment - he was to head to the bullpen in the fifth inning - and now he was taking a moment to focus. The Orioles had, after all, just lost their 15th-straight Sunday game. On Monday night, it was time to turn their luck around, bring the fans to their feet.

In the bottom of the fifth inning, Palulis, with dizzying speed, did just that.

While the Orioles are languishing near the bottom of the American League East, Palulis has emerged as a bright spot on the squad - a crowd pleaser who charges in from the bullpen and, with an intensity previously unseen in his position, gets the job done.

Unfortunately - at least for the 48-50 Orioles - he's on the groundskeeping crew.

To see his prideful stance as he awaits his duties, to hear him talk - "I help the team in any way possible, and right now we've got to pick it up a little more" - you'd think he owned the club.

To watch the fan reaction when - on the nights he pulls bullpen duty - Palulis runs the jacket of an entering relief pitcher from the bullpen to the dugout, and then, as if suddenly supercharged, runs even faster back to the bullpen, you'd think he was an All-Star.

"Wow," a fan remarked as the applause for Palulis subsided Monday night - when, once again, his speedy return to the bullpen was highlighted on the huge outfield screen. "That guy's a greyhound."

Nobody's sure what led to the formation of an unofficial Mike Palulis fan club, but most suspect that it originated, like all good things, in left field - specifically on a student night when a spirited crowd first applauded his intense hustle.

Since then, Palulis, 24, whose day job is as a courtesy clerk at a grocery store, has reached a milestone, the 400-game mark.

Perhaps even more notably, he has single-handedly turned one of the more boring lulls in the game of baseball - the arrival of a relief pitcher - into something fans look forward to.

"I just have all this energy inside," Palulis said, by way of explanation.

Palulis, who attended the Harbour School, a private school for students with learning differences, is in his fifth year with the Orioles groundskeeping crew.

"The first year, I did struggle a little bit," he said in an interview before Monday's game against the Toronto Blue Jays. "But I showed up early and learned how to cut the grass and water the infield." Palulis says the applause for his bullpen runs started about two months ago.

"It's like a running back going 100 yards into the end zone," he said of the sprint. "When I get back to the bullpen, I'm a little out of breath, and I concentrate more on the game."

Palulis is the second most senior member of the grounds crew, in terms of age and time served. Most are high school and college students. He's also one of the most devoted and reliable, said Nicole Sherry, head groundskeeper. Last year, he was named to the Orioles grounds crew hall of fame, as a plaque in the crew's locker room attests.

"Mike is always here, no matter what," Sherry said before Palulis appeared in his 410th game. "That's a long time to go without missing a game. He's really dependable. He's a great guy."

Sherry said all crew members working the bullpen are instructed to run when they deliver the jacket of an incoming relief pitcher to his team's dugout. "They have to get across the field and get back fast, like in 30 to 60 seconds."

But none runs like Mike, who brings a laser-like determination and lightning speed to most everything he undertakes, according to his supervisors.

Palulis says he fell in love with the Orioles at age 3. He can remember his father, Frank, a financial adviser, taking him to games at Memorial Stadium, but the idea of working for the organization didn't enter his mind until six years ago.

"It was in 2002 - on Feb. 3, a Sunday, I believe - and I went to the Baltimore Convention Center with my dad. My sister had gotten us tickets for the Fanfest, and we were walking around and I saw this table with job applications on it, and I decided to go for that."

"He really wanted a job there," said his mother, Steffany Palulis, a freelance editor who works from home. "He was very persistent. He would call and leave messages that he wanted to work on the grounds crew."

In 2003, he was offered the job. His parents were supportive, Palulis said, but he thinks they might have had some qualms about him taking the job, not the least of which was how he would get to the games from their home in Ellicott City. Palulis, at 19, had no driver's license. Within days he got one, and a car - a black Honda Civic, with Orioles stickers on the rear window.

If anybody had doubts about his abilities to get the job, get to the job, or do the job, Palulis said "they didn't know how much I loved baseball."

The score was tied 3-3 in the bottom of the fifth inning Monday night when Melvin Mora smacked a bases-loaded single off Toronto starting pitcher Jesse Litsch, scoring two runs. It was Litsch's last pitch. Reliever Brandon League was called in and slowly trotted to the mound.

As he did, another form exited the bullpen in khaki pants, orange shirt and Orioles cap. Palulis was carrying League's jacket. (Never mind that it was 97 degrees; baseball's traditions are sacrosanct.) Palulis ran, but it was clear - to anyone who had seen him before - he was holding back. With a smile, outside the Blue Jays dugout, he handed the jacket to the bat boy, then he turned.

This time, he took off like a jet on a runway. He started fast, and as the crowd's cheers grew louder, he ran faster. By the time he passed second base, he was at full tilt, knees flying high, arms churning at his side. As he flew across the outfield, his blurred image appeared on the big outfield screen, and it remained there until he streaked through the bullpen door.

Palulis would make the sprint five more times Monday night, as each new relief pitcher came into the game. (The Orioles won, 8-3.) And five more times he would get a rousing round of applause.

There is more to a groundskeeper's job than delivering a relief pitcher's jacket, and most of it is relatively thankless and outside the limelight.

Before the game, there's spreading clay on the infield and raking it. There's picking up objects from the field - whether they be dropped by fan or player. Sunflower seed shells can be particularly pesky. Used chewing tobacco is no fun, and discarded gum, especially once it has melted into the rubber warning track, is the worst of all.

As they gathered on the foul line Monday, waiting for batting practice to wrap up, most members of the crew were talking, but Palulis stood at attention, arms behind his back, his toes lined up just behind the grass.

When they sprang into action, Palulis was the first one out. Batting cages and screens were dismantled and toted across the outfield. Tarps were pulled up. The infield was dragged and raked. The white lines were laid down and the bases installed. After helping with the screens and cleaning the infield, Palulis assisted with the hose, spraying the infield as the crowd of 12,772 filed into the stadium. By 7 p.m., the crew members were done and in their designated spot - a single row of seats behind a wire mesh fence in the outfield.

Palulis brings the same vigor to his job as a courtesy clerk at the Safeway in Ellicott City, where he has worked since he was 16.

"He's a quick mover. Mike has a lot of energy," said Patti Hutchison, manager of the Enchanted Forest store. "Whatever job we give him, he approaches it with a positive, can-do attitude."

His duties there range from helping customers with their bags to cleaning up spills. Hutchison said the store keeps the Orioles schedule posted so they can be sure and give Palulis time off during homestands.

Palulis, whose all-time favorite player is Cal Ripken Jr., lives and dies with the team. "I want to win so bad right now," he said before Monday's game. He considers himself friends with most of the relief pitchers, and bullpen catcher Ruben Felix, with whom he once had a footrace. Felix won.

The grounds crew rotates assignments, so Palulis usually finds himself in the bullpen about every fourth or fifth home game. (Orioles officials declined to say what groundskeepers are paid, other than that it is an hourly wage.)

He's not always going full speed, Palulis acknowledged.

"I just run when I need to run, like when something's going on and I need to fix it."

Some fans find it refreshing, in a world of blase players and million-dollar salaries, to see someone working so hard and enthusiastically for so much less.

And it is reassuring as well: Even if the Orioles don't blast into the stratosphere this season, fans can count on the fact that - when his rotation in the bullpen comes up, and a pitcher peters out - Mike Palulis will.

john.woestendiek@baltsun.com

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