ST. PETERSBURG — Three hours before game time, on the lowest level of Tropicana Field, workers crowd between gray metal lockers and wait in front of a window labeled "Wardrobe Department."
When a petite woman leans out, they start shouting orders.
"Thirteen hats for 313!"
"A dozen shirts for 218!"
"How big do they come?" a bearded man in the back asks. "You got one that will fit me?"
Therese Nelson, 56, looks him over. "We got small to 6X," she says, smiling. "Something for everyone here."
Nelson has worked at the stadium since the Rays came to St. Petersburg. She has mopped floors, cleaned suites and tossed salads at a food stand.
Now she clothes concession workers.
When you buy beer at Tropicana Field, when you order a hot dog, when you squirt ketchup from a container, the worker who poured that beer, the one who grilled that hot dog, who filled that ketchup container all wear shirts washed by Nelson.
After every game, she launders 962 uniforms, hangs them and sorts them by size. Before every game, she hands them out. She's one of the first workers to show up at the stadium; often, the last one to leave.
In 13 seasons, Nelson has been to almost every home game.
But she has seen only 10 from the stands.
• • •
Her childhood was lost to hospitals. She battled polio for the first six years, and was seldom allowed to come home. When she was home, she watched from her window as other kids played catch.
Then Nelson had her own children: four boys and four girls. By adding herself to the lineup, she had enough players for a team
"When they were young, we played baseball all the time," she says. "That was our game. I made up for what I'd lost."
She never had a career, with all those children to raise. Her husband provided "some," she says. "God blessed me."
But by the time her kids were old enough to look after themselves, by the time she was in her 40s and divorced, she needed a job.
She heard St. Petersburg was getting a baseball team. Tropicana Field needed workers.
"I didn't have much experience — with anything," she says. "But they gave me a chance."
• • •
Once the Rays take the field, all the workers have signed out their uniforms and taken their positions in the stands. Beers are chilling; nacho cheese is warming. Nelson's wardrobe room is empty.
So she closes the window and pulls on her second hat: the navy blue cap of concession volunteers.
"I can't sit down here by myself," she says, riding the escalator to the 300-level. "Now's my time to give back."
The food stands at Tropicana Field are mostly staffed by nonprofits: Little League ball clubs, high school band boosters, churches. According to Nelson, workers can make $40 to $50 each per game, which they donate to their groups.
From the first pitch until the top of the seventh inning, Nelson volunteers in section 303's Grand Slam Grill.
"You got to help the poor and needy," she says, drizzling the foam off a large Budweiser. "That's what The Word says."
Nelson gives every game's "love offering" to her godmother, Mentha Thomas, the woman she calls "Mom." Thomas is the pastor of House of Praise & Blessing.
"Therese is a hard-worker. She has a heart of gold," Thomas said. "That smile you see all the time, while she's handing out all those shirts, while she's serving all these fans, that smile is real."
By the top of the seventh inning, food sales slow down. Workers start to clean the stands. Beers are warming; nacho cheese is chilling.
Nelson heads back to her wardrobe room to check in uniforms. To turn loaned concessions shirts right side out, to remove name tags and pour Whisk on pizza stains.
To gear up for the next game.
Lane Degregory can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8825.