Dashing figure at Camden Yards

Orioles groundskeeper races across the field, rousing the crowd, as relief pitchers stroll in

July 23, 2008|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,Sun reporter

Mike Palulis paced the right field warning track, then stood with hands on hips, shifting from foot to foot as he looked out over his realm - a slowly filling Camden Yards. He seemed more antsy than nervous, like something inside needed to get out. He adjusted his uniform, took some practice swings with an imaginary bat; then he paced some more.

Palulis had gotten his assignment - he was to head to the bullpen in the fifth inning - and now he was taking a moment to focus. The Orioles had, after all, just lost their 15th-straight Sunday game. On Monday night, it was time to turn their luck around, bring the fans to their feet.

In the bottom of the fifth inning, Palulis, with dizzying speed, did just that.

While the Orioles are languishing near the bottom of the American League East, Palulis has emerged as a bright spot on the squad - a crowd pleaser who charges in from the bullpen and, with an intensity previously unseen in his position, gets the job done.

Unfortunately - at least for the 48-50 Orioles - he's on the groundskeeping crew.

To see his prideful stance as he awaits his duties, to hear him talk - "I help the team in any way possible, and right now we've got to pick it up a little more" - you'd think he owned the club.

To watch the fan reaction when - on the nights he pulls bullpen duty - Palulis runs the jacket of an entering relief pitcher from the bullpen to the dugout, and then, as if suddenly supercharged, runs even faster back to the bullpen, you'd think he was an All-Star.

"Wow," a fan remarked as the applause for Palulis subsided Monday night - when, once again, his speedy return to the bullpen was highlighted on the huge outfield screen. "That guy's a greyhound."

Nobody's sure what led to the formation of an unofficial Mike Palulis fan club, but most suspect that it originated, like all good things, in left field - specifically on a student night when a spirited crowd first applauded his intense hustle.

Since then, Palulis, 24, whose day job is as a courtesy clerk at a grocery store, has reached a milestone, the 400-game mark.

Perhaps even more notably, he has single-handedly turned one of the more boring lulls in the game of baseball - the arrival of a relief pitcher - into something fans look forward to.

"I just have all this energy inside," Palulis said, by way of explanation.

Palulis, who attended the Harbour School, a private school for students with learning differences, is in his fifth year with the Orioles groundskeeping crew.

"The first year, I did struggle a little bit," he said in an interview before Monday's game against the Toronto Blue Jays. "But I showed up early and learned how to cut the grass and water the infield." Palulis says the applause for his bullpen runs started about two months ago.

"It's like a running back going 100 yards into the end zone," he said of the sprint. "When I get back to the bullpen, I'm a little out of breath, and I concentrate more on the game."

Palulis is the second most senior member of the grounds crew, in terms of age and time served. Most are high school and college students. He's also one of the most devoted and reliable, said Nicole Sherry, head groundskeeper. Last year, he was named to the Orioles grounds crew hall of fame, as a plaque in the crew's locker room attests.

"Mike is always here, no matter what," Sherry said before Palulis appeared in his 410th game. "That's a long time to go without missing a game. He's really dependable. He's a great guy."

Sherry said all crew members working the bullpen are instructed to run when they deliver the jacket of an incoming relief pitcher to his team's dugout. "They have to get across the field and get back fast, like in 30 to 60 seconds."

But none runs like Mike, who brings a laser-like determination and lightning speed to most everything he undertakes, according to his supervisors.

Palulis says he fell in love with the Orioles at age 3. He can remember his father, Frank, a financial adviser, taking him to games at Memorial Stadium, but the idea of working for the organization didn't enter his mind until six years ago.

"It was in 2002 - on Feb. 3, a Sunday, I believe - and I went to the Baltimore Convention Center with my dad. My sister had gotten us tickets for the Fanfest, and we were walking around and I saw this table with job applications on it, and I decided to go for that."

"He really wanted a job there," said his mother, Steffany Palulis, a freelance editor who works from home. "He was very persistent. He would call and leave messages that he wanted to work on the grounds crew."

In 2003, he was offered the job. His parents were supportive, Palulis said, but he thinks they might have had some qualms about him taking the job, not the least of which was how he would get to the games from their home in Ellicott City. Palulis, at 19, had no driver's license. Within days he got one, and a car - a black Honda Civic, with Orioles stickers on the rear window.

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