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Fired Marlins Coach Now Mows Grass

February 21, 2002

MELBOURNE, Fla. (AP) _ Riding a lawn mower at Space Coast Stadium, the former Florida Marlins coach greets passers-by with a smile and a wave, content to cut grass for the team that just fired him.

Rusty Kuntz had been with the Marlins since their first game in 1993, including four years as first-base coach and last season as an outfield and baserunning instructor.

But baseball’s bizarre offseason ownership shuffle left dozens of people out of work, including Kuntz. The Marlins last week fired him and at least 60 other employees, mostly in player development, as new owner Jeffrey Loria closed on his purchase of the club from John Henry.

Kuntz had been in uniform at spring training for 25 consecutive years, but now the former coach, player and 1984 World Series hero finds himself on the outside _ literally. This week, as the Marlins began workouts, Kuntz mowed and trimmed palm trees around the perimeter of their spring-training stadium.

``It’s a way to get out of the house,″ said Kuntz, who lives near the stadium. ``I’m not a hobby guy or a golfer or a fisherman. I just prune trees, and I like being outside watching grass grow.″

Kuntz’s motivation isn’t financial; he’ll be paid through October because he was under contract for this season with Henry. But Loria had no job for Kuntz, who received termination papers Saturday via FedEx.

So he’ll focus for now on his second career, working part-time and setting his own hours with the job title ``landscape attendant.″

The restless Kuntz has been a Marlins groundskeeper during the offseason since 1993, and before that for five years in Kissimmee for the Houston Astros, just to pick up a little extra money and keep busy. Then, when spring training started, he would turn in his mower for a baseball uniform.

Kuntz’s claim to fame was hitting a seventh-inning sacrifice fly for the game-winning RBI in the final game of the 1984 World Series for the Detroit Tigers. He became a minor league instructor in 1987 and worked for Houston and Seattle before joining the expansion Marlins.

``As soon as he wants to go back to work, he’ll go back to work,″ new Marlins manager Jeff Torborg said. ``He’s well thought of in this game. He’s very knowledgeable, a hard worker and a great personality.″

Even so, the new regime had no room for Kuntz. Neither did the team Henry bought, the Boston Red Sox. Neither did the team major league baseball took over, the Montreal Expos.

Kuntz harbors no bitterness.

``This is the first time in 26 years I haven’t been to a spring training camp,″ Kuntz said as he watched the Marlins work out in the distance. ``That’s the hard part about it.

``But obviously the contract makes it a lot easier because you’re not scrambling through this whole thing trying to find another job and take whatever is out there. All in all I’m real lucky.″

He plans to spend the summer looking for a job for next season. In the meantime, he can coach his 11-year-old son’s teams and remain on the fringes of the sport.

One morning this week Kuntz stood at the edge of a practice field talking with Torborg about the Marlins’ young players.

``I’ve known Rusty a long time,″ Torborg said. ``I was picking his brain about what to look for.″

With a grin, Torborg added: ``Then we were commenting on how well he trimmed the palm trees.″

While pruning the trees or cutting the grass, Kuntz wears headphones tuned to classic rock. The other day he listened to Pink Floyd’s ``Dark Side of the Moon,″ an album about insanity that serves as an ideal soundtrack for the crazy state of baseball.

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