Inside the Visitor’s Clubhouse at Tiger’s Stadium
DETROIT (AP) _ It’s 6:30 a.m. and the sultry summer sun casts an eerie light around the odd shapes and corners of Tiger Stadium as Rip Collins pulls into the parking lot.
The Seattle Mariners, who played in Cleveland, arrived in the middle the night with wet, dirty uniforms and it’s Rip’s job to get the stuff clean.
Collins, 68, runs ″Rip’s Roost,″ the name the players have put on the visitor’s clubhouse at Tiger Stadium. It’s a job he’s held since 1975 and, frankly, he can’t imagine doing anything else. Collins has parlayed a never- ending line of dirty underwear, crabby ballplayers and picking up after grown men into a comfortable living.
″These aren’t the bad guys,″ Collins says. ″They aren’t the enemy as far as I’m concerned. They’re away from home. They need some attention, that’s all.″
A truck arrives at 9:30 a.m. with the rest of the Mariners’ equipment and Collins and four helpers begin unpacking bags and hanging the contents in lockers.
Collins is employed by the Tigers but the tips are what make the job worthwhile. Billy Martin, when he’s working, normally leaves him $175 after a three-game stand. Cal Ripken Jr. writes a check for $160.
″The managers are all good,″ Collins says. ″Tony LaRussa is very generous. Some of the older fellows are $10 a day guys. The ones that came up the hard way.″
A little past noon, Collins shifts to his role as supply sergeant as he steers his car out the stadium parking lot, heading on a shopping mission. He stocks up on fruit juices, candy, tobaccos - for chewing and smoking - and beer. He buys the goodies and pays for the nightly food spread from his own pocket, knowing he’ll make it back in tips.
Confidence has never been a problem with Charles Collins, a man who was raised in the Corktown neighborhood adjacent to the ballpark.
During World War II, he applied for gunnery school and somehow ended up at pre-flight school in Chapel Hill, N.C.
While at Chapel Hill he played on the post baseball team, known as the Cloud Buster Nine, with a young Marine pilot named Ted Williams. That’s where he earned the nickname ″Rip″ which has stuck.
During the Korean War, Collins flew 129 missions, made 120 day carrier landings and 50 more at night.
″Now that’s a thrill a minute,″ he says.
He returned in 1952 with two Distinguished Flying Crosses and eight Air Medals.
Collins began his career as an equipment man in 1962, working as an assistant for the Detroit Lions. Twenty years later, Collins became head equipment man for the Detroit Wheels of the short-lived World Football League, thereby beginning one of the great adventures of his life.
″Boy that was a humdinger. Whooeeee,″ Collins recalls, rolling his eyes and working his cigar a little harder. ″It was so badly run. I remember one time the business manager came out to practice to hand out pay checks. The kids were stuffing them in their jocks, they didn’t know what to do.″
The club folded one day while he was washing the uniforms.
Late in 1974 Collins was offered the Tiger Stadium job. He started the next season and is now a fixture.
Some of the Seattle players arrive about 3 p.m. for some early batting practice. An hour or so later, they’re clamoring for dry underwear and Collins has it ready. There are few surprises any more.
Earlier, when the Red Sox were in town, Rip and the boys spent half the week sewing buttons on Boston’s new uniforms because the factory did a poor job.
Rip is wearing a gold Mariners pendant around his neck, having removed the California Angels pendant and slipped it into a drawer earlier in the day.
While the game is going on outside, Collins and his crew tidy up, do a little laundry and, if they’re lucky, watch some television. Early in the season there’s always a hockey game tuned in.
″I’m not much of a (baseball) fan,″ Rip says. ″I really don’t care much for the baseball games. I never pay any attention to them, to tell you the truth. I love to watch hockey.″
In the seventh inning, they start setting the table for the food spread.
If Collins has an Achilles’ heel, it’s the spread, generally a heavy combination of greasy meat, potatoes, gravy, white bread and salad, washed down with milk or beer. Many players complain about the spread, which mystifies Collins, who has it catered either by ″three Polish ladies who turn out good food.″
The players eat, but it’s clearly an ordeal for both sides.
″That’s the worst part of this job,″ he says. ″We’ve got to do it because there’s only a few places to eat after 10 o’clock at night. But you just can’t please everybody.″
After the game, the clubhouse is a frenzy of motion and sound.
The 45 minutes until the Mariners’ bus leaves for the hotel are hectic for Collins and the boys. A radio blares, the showers hiss and reporters and camera crews make the already too-small room even tighter. People try to squeeze around the table ladden with food. Dirty uniform parts fly through the air from all directions, tossed generally toward large cloth hampers which can be loaded easily onto a laundry truck. Up near the door, a boy begins knocking mud and dirt from a mountainous pile of spiked shoes which all must be cleaned and polished.
Everybody wants something - at once. Then, just as suddenly, the crush is over, the bus departs and it’s quiet.
Somebody begins cleaning the pots and pans from the spread, somebody else cleans the shower room, the rug is vacuumed, underwear is turned inside out, ready to be washed first thing in the morning.
At 12:40 a.m. Collins pops a smart salute to the night man guarding the main gate. Trash blows around the ballpark as he heads for home.
″I’m glad there wasn’t any rain delay tonight,″ he says. ″I hate rain delays. The players come up the tunnel and eat and drink you out of house and home.″
Light from the vapor lamps catches two large rings, one on each of Collins’ strong hands. One is from the Tigers, from the 1984 World Series championship, the other from the Lions NFL championship in 1957.
″I’ve been coming and going from this ballpark a long time,″ he says. ″I’ve got a pass with Frank Navin’s signature on it. They’d give them to the kids for picking up trash.
″I’ve lived around here all my life, but I’ve never grown tired ot it. I’m a lucky guy.″
End Advance for Weekend Editions, July 23-24, and Thereafter