Although he drives a golf cart rather than a sleigh, Scott Harrison felt like Santa Claus as he puttered around Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla.
The grounds crew tending the lawns around the practice fields of the spring training home of the Minnesota Twins regularly hands him any baseballs they run across. As Harrison made his rounds shuttling fans from the parking lot to the front gate last spring, he kept an eye out for youngsters who would be thrilled with such a souvenir.
"I love to find that little kid, that Twins fan with their jersey and their tiny glove, and hand them a baseball. They smile from head to toe," Harrison said. "That's what it's all about."
Born and raised in Robbinsdale, Harrison, 69, started rooting for the Twins when he was no older than the children accepting his gifts. He cherishes memories of watching the legends from another era — Harmon Killebrew, Jim Kaat, Earl Batty — when his dad took him to the old Met Stadium in Bloomington.
"I'm a lifelong fan and now I get to be part of it," Harrison said in an interview conducted at the stadium last March. "I'm livin' the dream."
Harrison started his part-time gig working for the Twins a dozen years ago when he retired from his job as a carpenter and moved to Fort Myers. He joined a team of about 400 game-day workers whom the Twins rely on to keep operations running smoothly for crowds enjoying spring training in the Florida sun. They will be there on Feb. 25 as spring exhibition games return, in the heart of the southwest Florida region that is still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Ian.
The work is hardly glamorous or lucrative. Last spring, for their labor in concession stands and parking lots, selling programs and taking tickets, most of them earned a wage of $10.15 an hour, plus a free hot dog and soda with each shift.
"These people are critical to us. They understand our brand and our values. They help us give our guests a fun, welcoming experience," said Mark Weber, director of Florida baseball operations for the Twins.
Spring training staffers don't have to be Minnesotans or retirees, but that's who makes up the majority of the Hammond Stadium game-day workforce.
"Eight out of ten of them come back the next year because they like the games, being outside and the camaraderie. They make friends and look forward to socializing with each other," Weber said. "Instead of golfing or fishing, these people like to come to the park to work."
On the job
One day last March when the high in Minneapolis was 28 degrees, the thermometer peaked 60 degrees higher at game time in Fort Myers.
Two and a half hours before the first pitch at 1:05 p.m., Greg Lecy was already on duty. His work as an usher began with a check of his section, looking for trash or seagull splashes. By the time fans showed up to watch batting practice, Lecy was in position, wearing a crisp Twins logo shirt, a smile and a thick coat of sunscreen.
"I found one that doesn't sweat off and I lather up pretty good. That sun can be brutal in the middle of the day and we're out here for four or five hours," said Lecy, 64, a retired orthodontist from Marshall, Minn.
In 2018, the first year he and his wife rented a place in southwest Florida, Lecy started as a fill-in usher. By the next year, he had a regular gig.
"I greet fans, help them find their seats, answer questions about where the bathrooms are," said Lecy. "They ask about the best place to stand to get autographs after the game. I get to watch a little but at least in the first few innings, I'm so busy that if someone asked the score, I wouldn't be able to tell them."
Mary Harper arrived even earlier than Lecy. For her job on the parking crew, she got to the stadium at 9:30 a.m. to be ready for the diehards and tailgaters eager to wring every minute out of their Twins outing when gates open at 10. After donning a baseball cap and vest and grabbing a neon orange pointer, she smiled as she guided car after car into spaces in the grassy lots.
"We're the first faces the fans see and we're here to represent the Twins. They don't want anyone crabby out here," said Harper, 63, a retired technical college teacher from Brownsville, Minn.
After the game, drivers are able to direct themselves out. By the bottom of the third inning, Harper and the other workers assigned to the parking crew head into the stadium to root for the Twins.
"We don't sit in the stands, we do the walkaround or sit at the bar. We joke that we spend all the money we make on beer," she said. "I've met so many ballpark friends and everyone's always in a grand mood. I love it."
Harper began vacationing in Fort Myers 20 years ago, and later purchased a condo four miles from the stadium.
"Sometimes after standing for hours, I'm ready to go home and soak in the pool," she admitted.
Jim and Marie Schafer work at Hammond Stadium, but not for the Twins — and not for money. The Brooklyn Park great-grandparents moved to Fort Myers in 2004, trading careers for volunteering.
"We were eating out too much so we thought we'd better get busy," said Marie.
A retired mortgage broker, Jim, 80, donates his time at the Ronald McDonald House, while Marie, 81, who worked in health care, helps out at a thrift shop run by a hospice organization. They also volunteer at a performing arts center and earn free tickets for Broadway touring shows, and give their Sundays to the Lee County tourism association, staffing the kiosk at the airport to assist arriving visitors.
"People ask, what are your favorite beaches, where can you see manatees. We give them a booklet with all the things we have available here, a list of the restaurants," said Jim.
They answer similar questions for Twins fans when they man a tourism booth at Hammond Stadium.
"We sign up for three games as soon as the schedule comes out; that's all we can get because so many volunteers want to do this," said Marie. "We live three miles away so we ride our bikes over around 11. The booth closes at 2 and then we watch the game."
"People in our family are envious we get to see the Twins up close," Jim added. "They want the report on how the team is looking."
How ever they are involved, the time spent pitching in is a positive for the older people who keep the stadium functioning.
"People are living longer and better, and have higher expectations for their retirement. We know from research that building happiness in these years comes from staying engaged, giving of yourself, being part of a community," said Mary Meehan, consumer strategist at Minneapolis-based Panoramix Global.
She salutes the Twins for tapping this older workforce at a time when hiring and retaining staff has become trickier across many industries.
"Businesses, the smart ones, consider the boomer generation to be a vital resource rather than a burden. They are important for the economy and the health of our society," she said.
Winds of adversity
For the past few years, unprecedented circumstances threw a curveball at the action in Fort Myers and the team's need for onsite workers.
In 2020, Major League Baseball canceled spring training in an effort to stop the early spread of the coronavirus. In 2021, the Twins cut back on staff when the team took health precautions and limited attendance. Then last year, an MLB lockout whittled the preview season in half.
Just when the coast seemed clear, Hurricane Ian made landfall in Lee County as a Category 4 storm on Sept. 28, devastating beaches and the tourist communities of Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel. Ten miles inland, Hammond Stadium sustained minor damage, but the region that has long been popular with Minnesotans is still enduring a lengthy rebuilding.
Even in Ian's wake, everyone we interviewed for this story said they were planning to be back in Fort Myers for spring 2023.
"We got the email from Twins organization saying we will have spring training and they want to be seen as a beacon of hope for the people of southwest Florida," Mary Harper wrote in an email. "So yes, [we] will be back parking cars and enjoying hot weather, cold beer and great baseball!"
The Twins are planning an enthusiastic return and a full slate of 17 preseason games. At the end of the spring season, the club, as always, will throw an appreciation party for its stadium team to "sincerely thank them for their loyalty and passion," according to Weber.
The smiling snowbirds may even help the Twins to subtly recruit their next generation of game-day labor. Weber suspects the very presence of these workers might plant an idea in the minds of fans in the stands as they envision their own retirements.
"We know people come to this area as fans, enjoy the games and later move here," he said. "During spring training, hope springs eternal and everyone is happy. Why wouldn't they want to be part of this atmosphere?"
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based writer and broadcaster.