O's Santarone puts down rake to manicure retirement plans

February 01, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

Pat Santarone, who has spent a lifetime manicuring baseball fields, has traded in his rake for a fishing rod, a camera and a life in the Montana outdoors.

The Orioles' colorful groundskeeper for the last 22 years, Santarone has chosen retirement over the lure of the new stadium under construction at Camden Yards. However, he will serve as an adviser and consultant for the preparation of Memorial Stadium's final baseball season and the installation of the field at the new park. He will work closely with Paul Zwaska, his assistant of five years, who will succeed him as head groundskeeper.

Santarone admits he was tempted to stay on until the completion of the new park, and though they knew of his desire to retire, the Orioles had hoped he would remain another year.

"I'm old enough [62] and I think I've earned it," Santarone said when asked why he decided to step down now. "I've paid my dues and there are so many things I want to do.

"So often in life, people wait until it's too late and I don't want to do that. I want to do it while I'm still feeling pretty good," said Santarone, who will move to Montana after selling his house in northern Baltimore County.

"I want to do some hunting and fishing, I'd like to pursue photography a little more [he does his own lab work], and do some writing [he has almost completed a manuscript on the techniques of his trade]."

In his retirement, Santarone will also have ample opportunity to continue using his culinary skills and serving as steward of his own wine. An excellent chef, Santarone has won numerous awards for a variety of dishes that range from chili ("Raging Inferno") to venison. One of his prize-winning recipes is called Chicken Campania and calls for 20 ingredients ("everything from the chicken to an anchovy").

Why the move to Montana?

"There are no big cities -- Montana is the third largest state in the country, but it doesn't have as many people as the city of Baltimore," he said. "The air is the cleanest I've ever seen and the trout streams are so pristine you can drink out of them."

The move west also will reduce Santarone's bill for transportation of grapes from California. A wine connoisseur, the bottles served at his table are his own vintage. Santarone annually has at least 3,000 pounds of grapes shipped from the same vineyard, so his homemade supply is always well stocked.

Santarone grew treating baseball fields like fine wine, succeeding his father as groundskeeper in Elmira, N.Y., in 1952. "We lived right next to the park -- home runs to rightfield ended up in our back yard. I worked with my father from the time I was a little kid, and took over the job when he died," said Santarone. "Except for the three years in the service [1947-50], I've been doing it all my life."

It was in Elmira that Santarone crossed paths with Earl Weaver, who would go on to become one of his best friends. The year after Weaver became a big-league manager, the Orioles needed someone to replace the late Joe Brown and it was his recommendation, along with players like Mark Belanger, Andy Etchebarren and Dave McNally, that led then-GM Harry Dalton to offer Santarone a job in Baltimore.

To this day, Santarone and Weaver are best friends -- and chief antagonists. Neither would hesitate to jokingly criticize the other's work, and it was Weaver's passion for gardening that sparked a long-running argument over who could grow the biggest, and best, tomatoes.

They marketed their famed "tomato patch" rivalry into a plant food that is still on the market.

The fun memories go all the way back to the Elmira days.

"My best memories are of winning pennants in Elmira -- and the World Series here," said Santarone.

"Everybody around baseball dreams of going to the big leagues -- players, managers, coaches, writers, and groundskeepers, too. I used to watch on television and think 'I'd like to be a groundskeeper in the World Series.'

"Then, the first three years I was here, we were in the World Series and I said to myself, 'Look what I'm doing.' I couldn't believe it."

Santarone admits that "some of the glamour has worn off," but not so much that he won't miss his daily contact at the ballpark.

"Professionally, what I'll miss the most is the excitement of a pennant race -- and winning a pennant," he said. "Personally, we're going to miss all the good friends we've made in Baltimore. That will be tough."

Santarone has no set timetable for his departure, but he expects to be commuting from Montana when the field goes into the new stadium this summer.

"I've made the deposit in Montana," said Santarone, "and it will be mine once we sell here. The market's a little soft right now, but we can wait. That's one good thing about retiring -- it's not like being transferred, you can go whenever you want."

Santarone and his wife Dee will leave as soon as they find a buyer -- someone who undoubtedly will appreciate a manicured lawn.

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