While the Orioles produced some of the best teams in baseball over three decades, beginning in the 1960s, they went unchallenged when it came to their garden.
The tomato plants that grew at old Memorial Stadium, and the competitions between head groundskeeper Pat Santarone and manager Earl Weaver that sprouted along with them, are almost as legendary as any championships that were won. Santarone died unexpectedly Tuesday at his home in Hamilton, Mont. He was 79.
"Pat and I were very close. He was the best man at my wedding," Weaver said. "And he meant a lot to Memorial Stadium. He was just like a part of that park itself."
Santarone, head groundskeeper from 1969 to 1991, died in his sleep of natural causes.
"He played golf during the day and did some heavy yard work," said his wife, Pam. "He said that he felt tired and went to bed, and that was it. He was dead in the morning. I guess it was his heart. He had a good life, a good run, and he was happy to the end."
Santarone and Weaver became friends at Elmira, N.Y., then a Double-A Orioles affiliate. Weaver was hired as Orioles manager in 1968, and Santarone followed him the next year.
"That field in Elmira was the best minor league-conditioned field I had ever been in," said Weaver, who recommended Santarone to general manager Harry Dalton. "It was really something to walk in and see a field manicured like that in the minors."
Weaver and Santarone most recently saw each other over the winter at Weaver's home in South Florida.
"We stayed in touch, but we didn't get to see each other nearly enough," Weaver said.
Santarone and Kansas City's George Toma were regarded the best in their profession, and other groundskeepers would routinely contact them.
"Everybody was looking to see why the Orioles had so many Gold Glove infielders," former catcher Rick Dempsey said. "He helped those guys feel confident out there. He was just such a big part of the Orioles' family. He was really loved."
Players loved to monitor the competition between Santarone and Weaver over the tomatoes they planted down the left-field line. "They argued like brothers," Dempsey said.
So who had the better crop each year? "Well, he was there when I'd go on the road, and I think there was a little tomfoolery," Weaver said. "He might have been pinching off some of my buds."
Santarone is survived by his wife, daughter Debbie and son Douglas.