Jason Lizakowski frowned as he studied a map of the room he was standing in. His workday, now nearly 18 hours old, had proceeded smoothly until a glitch, in the form of Ben Francisco's equipment bag, had appeared at his feet shortly before 2 a.m. in the visitors clubhouse at Target Field.
A small problem, probably, but in Lizakowski's world, there are no small problems. His reputation, his income, his livelihood depend on eliminating glitches, on creating an environment as close to perfect as possible. But something had gone wrong. Lizakowski had mapped out locker stalls for each member of the Toronto Blue Jays, who would arrive that afternoon to open a four-game series with the Twins, but the roster he used inexplicably excluded Francisco.
Now he had to juggle the locker-room setup to find the six-year veteran suitably spacious quarters for his uniforms and gear -- a task that is surprisingly delicate. "You never want to pinch a veteran," Lizakowski said, "pinch" meaning assigning him to a cramped spot with no vacant adjacent locker, the plight of rookies and relief pitchers. "Those guys have earned their stripes. You have to treat them right."
That's the essence of Lizakowski's job -- treating ballplayers well. With a staff of four, he operates in some of the most off-limits territory in Target Field, behind enemy lines, in a sense. As each team arrives to play the Twins, the clubhouse staff creates a bubble that the visiting team lives in, with its own kitchen, laundry rooms, workout and training rooms, batting cages and dressing rooms, all connected to the dugout on the playing field. Security guards man the doors, entry is limited to a couple of media-access periods and each visiting team makes itself at home for the duration of its stay.
Officially, Lizakowski's title is visitors equipment manager, but bats and gloves are a small fraction of his responsibilities. For two, three or four days, the visiting clubhouse is a self-contained fiefdom, with the visiting team's manager as king, the players as favored guests and Lizakowski as mayor, making sure requests are granted and problems are solved.
"When you get to the ballpark, you only want to think about baseball. Getting yourself ready to play should be the only thing on your mind," said Angels outfielder and former Twins star Torii Hunter. "The clubhouse guys, they take care of everything else."
Three meals a day provided
Lizakowski, appointed to the head job by Twins GM Terry Ryan last January, is generally at Target Field, putting that day's soup on the stove, by 8 a.m. if there's a game that night, earlier if it's a day game. His cook, 27-year-old Marcus McKenzie, shows up three hours later, but only after making a daily run to a grocery store to replenish supplies and buy fresh produce. The rest of the staff -- Ben Bakker, 24; Zach Strouts, 25; and Mario Munoz, 25 -- are at work by noon, an hour or two before the first player or coach wanders in.
By the time the team buses arrive at 2:30, every dirty uniform has been laundered, every glove is in its owner's locker, every bat is in the rack. The shoes have all been shined, socks sorted, pants repaired and each player's possessions are laid out neatly on their shelves.
"Mostly, it's just about being organized," Lizakowski said. "These guys travel so much, you try to make sure they know where everything is, so they never have to go hunting for anything."
Especially food. Lizakowski has worked in the visitors clubhouse for 15 years, since the days when Metrodome food service "meant we had a George Foreman grill in the middle of the clubhouse" but little else. "Basically, we're providing three meals a day now," Lizakowski said. "We spend a lot of time dealing with food."
They cook some of it themselves, but much of it is catered by half a dozen nearby restaurants, on a rotating basis so it's always new to the players. On a typical gameday, players will find a luncheon spread laid out when they arrive -- sandwiches, salads, side dishes and burritos from eateries such as Jason's Deli or Chipotle. When the visitors head outside for batting practice shortly after 5, the staff removes the leftovers and whips up a pregame snack of cold cuts, chicken wings, shrimp cocktail, cheeses, vegetables and fresh fruit.
On this day, Lizakowski is trying out a new appetizer: bruschetta, made by hand. "You want to try to give them something different," he said. "Make them look forward to coming back."
Midway through the game, the postgame meal arrives, normally the most substantial spread offered in the clubhouse. Lizakowski contracts with chains like P.F. Chang's or hires local restaurants like Pepito's.
Not enough? McKenzie is always on hand to grill up a burger, chicken or eggs on demand, or track down anything else a player might request. And the lunchroom itself is stocked with more snacks than a convenience store, basically everything but the lottery tickets: chips, ice cream, sunflower seeds, jerky, gum, energy drinks, soda, smoothies and 20 different boxes of candy bars. (The latter are taken off the shelves and breaded foods stricken from the menu when a "health" team such as the Blue Jays, who discourage junk foods, comes to town.)
The meals -- nearly all the food in the clubhouse, in fact -- aren't paid for by the Twins, but by Lizakowski, as an independent contractor. He provides the food, and players (who are paid nearly $100 per diem for meals while on the road) are charged $60 per day in clubhouse "dues," creating a balancing act of accounting. "I can't afford to feed them lobster tails every night," he joked, but he comes pretty close. Visiting players' favorite spread? The steaks and extras from Capital Grille, Lizakowski said. "The lobster macaroni is real popular."
'Pretty good service'
One player -- the clubbies, as they're called, swear they will never reveal who -- once forgot it was getaway day and arrived at the ballpark without his luggage. A clubbie hustled to the team hotel and packed for him.
A manager -- his name similarly secret -- once forgot his laptop and needed a favor in a hurry. A pitcher requested a bottle of wine for the flight home and sent a clubbie on the errand. And Hunter recalls a day during his time with the Twins when he left something at his Minnetonka home and tossed the keys to his Hummer to a clubbie, who drove back to Hunter's home.
"He washed the car too," Hunter said. "Pretty good service."
For that service, for the packing and unpacking and basically being on call at all times, the clubbies are normally tipped at the end of each series, creating a weird postgame chaos of hauling bags, collecting uniforms and accepting $20, $50 or $100 handshakes. It's all remarkably informal, considering it's the bulk of the clubbies' wages, but Lizakowski said peer pressure is the reason he has no fear of being stiffed. "If someone didn't pay, he'd never hear the end of it from the other players," he said.
Still, some players are more generous than others. When Hunter signed a $90 million contract with the Angels, he left a memorable tip for his favorite clubbie: a motorcycle.
"Honestly, I don't think any of us do it for the money," said Strouts, and that must be true. Lizakowski's four assistants all have college degrees -- Munoz, who serves as the visiting team's uniformed batboy, even has a master's degree in sports and exercise science -- yet earn minimum wage plus tips at a job that lasts only 81 days a year. "For work, it's a lot of fun."
They know when to tamp down the fun too. The clubbies were enjoying a brief break from work during last Wednesday's game, needling each other loudly in the empty clubhouse. Then Angels manager Mike Scioscia, ejected from the game, returned to the clubhouse, sat down in his office a few feet away and turned on the TV. Nobody knew his mood, but the clubbies turned quiet, just in case.
"You want to be seen but never heard," said McKenzie, a lefthanded pitcher who played for the Gophers and the St. Paul Saints. He now assists his father Mark "Lunch" McKenzie, coach of the Concordia (St. Paul) baseball team and wants to go into coaching himself. But being a clubbie is a family job, too -- his father has run the visitors locker room at the Metrodome for the Vikings for several years.
"I've been helping out for a long time," McKenzie said. "We all just love being around the game."
Even if they rarely see it. Televisions are tuned to the game in the clubhouse, but the clubbies have only occasional free moments to watch.
On getaway day, dirty uniforms are thrown into giant bags to be laundered at the next stop. When the Blue Jays' equipment arrived from Oakland shortly before midnight last Wednesday, Strouts, a substitute teacher when the Twins are out of town, sorted and washed their dirty garb, scrubbing grass stains by hand. His fellow clubbies began hanging the clean uniforms in stalls occupied only hours earlier by the Angels.
Finally, they finished, the Francisco dilemma solved with some creative shuffling. Lizakowski declared himself satisfied with the long, two-team day, but he's still got some bookkeeping to handle. And another game tomorrow.
"You've got to keep up the energy. You have to show the players you're trying," he said. "In this business, reputation is everything."