In the middle of the night beneath Tropicana Field, the Clubhouse Crew waits for Evan Longoria's socks.
His underwear, too, and the over and undergarments of all the other men in blue. A few hours earlier, 1,300 miles north, the Tampa Bay Rays had defeated the Toronto Blue Jays 4-2. Rookie Tim Beckham had hit his second home run and manager Kevin Cash was ejected for the first time since his days as a player.
The team had done their job, and now it was the crew's turn. They had less than 12 hours to prepare the players — and all their stuff — for their next game with the New York Yankees.
From spring training through the playoffs, the Clubhouse Crew becomes keepers of the equipment, locker room czars, maid and mom to the three dozen major league players and coaches in their care. They scrape and scrub and color-code, all at night and out of sight.
"A lot of people don't realize they played a game at seven in another country, and tonight they'll play at seven here," says clubhouse assistant manager Ryan Denlinger, "but how do you get them from A to B?"
On this night, by 3 a.m., the team plane still hadn't landed in Tampa, and the crew members' eyes were beginning to droop. Red Bull tabs popped. The clock ticked. They waited for the text message telling them the guys were home, that the grind was about to begin.
Ping! sounded Denlinger's phone.
"They're on the ground," he yells to his crew and the three bat boys there to help.
Surrounded by the mounted Gold Glove on the wall and sea of major league jerseys lining the room, they lounge on the clubhouse's overstuffed, navy blue couches facing TVs tuned exclusively to the MLB Network.
This is home, more bachelor pad than locker room, and it is their duty to make it feel that way.
They had already restocked the refrigerator and topped off the peanut M&M jars in the kitchen, outfitted with video games and Shock Top beer on tap.
Next, the dirty work.
They admit it's not glamorous folding the underwear of grown men. But they feel lucky to be such an integral — though largely invisible — part of America's favorite pastime.
The crew all love baseball, but a couple of them had to learn to love the Rays. There's Denlinger, nicknamed Beans, who played baseball in college before moving from Pennsylvania to Tampa Bay. The other Ryan, who goes by his last name, Riddle, was raised a Yankee but has been a Rays convert for a decade. There's also St. Petersburg native Torian Sands, an original Rays bat boy from their inaugural season, and the greenest crew member, Tyler Wall, built Publix subs for eight years before getting the gig in 2009.
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In charge of them all is Jose Fernandez, who started his baseball career as a 12-year-old bat boy in Puerto Rico and, 30 years later, climbed to clubhouse manager. Fernandez travels with the team, rides the bus with the equipment. Everyone calls him Papito.
Each spring they reunite for a grueling eight-month season. They spend more time with each other than with their own families. They say the women in their lives understand.
Just before 3:30 a.m., the crew rustles, stands and stretches. The Rays bus was close. They head toward the loading dock to greet the team.
They revere the players for their talent but aren't wowed by their celebrity.
"To us, to say hello to Longoria, it's not (a big deal)," Denlinger said. "They're regular guys."
"Which one of you guys wants to take me up on the golf cart?" jokes infielder Logan Forsythe, as he waits for the crew to unload his luggage. Most of the players had driven home from the airport, but some stragglers, like Forsythe, mill about as the crew swirls, pushing large crates on wheels stacked high with Rays duffel bags.
In efficient lines they file down the hallway, past the dugout entrance sign that reads "DOIN' IT 'The Ray Way' " and the bat boys cleaning cleats and on into the clubhouse, where pop music blares from the speakers.
The crew finds ways to make the job fun; sometimes it's tough.
As the guys begin to unpack, Mikie Mahtook, who'd been called up from the minors a week before, collapses onto a couch. A few feet away, Riddle removes Mahtook's name tag from his locker, then empties it. He's heading back to the minors the next day.
Riddle stands in the middle of his domain, surrounded by half a dozen large baskets and laundry machines, sorting mounds of sweat-soaked clothes.
He has a system. The dirtiest items — grass-stained and muddy — get washed in one batch, the others in another. Then towels and pullovers, socks and skivvies. The team is constantly changing clothes, so there's always something to wash. His is the one job that never really ends.
Propped next to the piles sits the team's tool for low-level hazing: a Frozen backpack prominently featuring Disney characters Elsa, Anna and Olaf. The players force the relief pitcher with the fewest innings to lug it around.
Across the front, written in wispy cursive, glitter the words "Family Forever."
Dumb and Dumber bobbleheads in pitchers Brad Boxberger's and Jake McGee's cubbies watch Tyler Wall as he unpacks duffel bags.
He pulls out deodorant, multiple ball gloves, tennis shoes, sandals and protein powder, putting each neatly in its place. Sometimes the guys forget things, like earrings tucked away in a pocket. He's responsible for it all.
They have quirks, he admits, but it's not his place to nag.
"Our job is to make them feel comfortable," he says. "That's why we're here."
The crew members are all a little fastidious. Each cubby is color-coded, lights to darks, and the laundry is put away in a certain order: short underwear, long underwear, workout shorts, cotton T-shirts, short sleeve dri-fit, long sleeve dri-fit, cold gear, pants, pullover, fleece, hoodie, jacket and finally alternate jerseys.
"Everything works like clockwork," Wall says.
Papito hovers above the large laundry basket carrying Longoria's socks.
He'd taken care of the team by himself during their time in Toronto but didn't let his exhaustion stop him from the prep work yet to be completed. Sometimes, he sleeps at the clubhouse.
His nickname, Papito, which means "little daddy" in Spanish, has followed him since his time as a bat boy. It's the name the players know him by; he knows them by their underwear size.
"People have no idea what goes on behind the scenes to have a major league team," he says. "Basically all they have to do is show up, get dressed and play the game. Sometimes I don't know how it all gets done."
The hum of a vacuum replaces the buzz of blaring pop music. Around the room, all is in place; the jerseys hung, the socks neatly draped. In six hours, they'd be back to do it all over again.
But before they head home, before they can sleep, the Clubhouse Crew has one final task.
As a team, they hit the showers.
Contact Katie Mettler at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @kemettler.