[This is a story I wrote for the short-lived Iowa Chops hockey team, a minor league franchise affiliated with the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks. Regrettably, the franchise folded after only two years due to some shady business practices on the part of the team’s ownership]

Behind the Zamboni

February 17, 2009

“There are three things in life people like to stare at,” Charlie Brown once declared, “a rippling stream, a fire in a fire place, and a Zamboni going around and around.” The truth of this statement can be seen at Wells Fargo Arena and ice rinks across North America, where it is a source of perpetual fascination for hockey fans of all ages. Over the six decades since Frank Zamboni developed his famed machine, it has become a fixture not only in professional hockey but throughout popular culture. Since Charlie Brown first made his observation nearly 30 years ago, various “Peanuts” characters in the comic strip have referred to it more than fifty times. The venerable ice resurfacer has popped up in several other cartoons including “Spongebob Squarepants,” driven by Krusty Krab and slightly renamed as a “Clamboni.”

Numerous references have been made to the Zamboni on television and in movies and song, some humorous, some less so. On the long-running series “Cheers,” Carla’s second husband was supposedly killed when he was run over by a Zamboni. In one episode of “ER,” a drunken Zamboni driver levels a group of ice skaters, sending them to the hospital. In the film “D2: The Mighty Ducks,” three of the Ducks crash one through the boards. In the musical world, the best-known example is a hit song in which the Gear Daddies confess: “Now ever since I was young, it’s been my dream / That I might drive a Zamboni machine.” The musical “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” features the character Freddie singing about wanting his “own personal Zamboni” in the song “Great Stuff.”

Sarah Palin, arguably the world’s most famous hockey mom, admitted in a “People” magazine interview that she always wanted to have a son named Zamboni — an idea for which her husband Todd, however, expressed little enthusiasm. Perhaps the most outrageous real-life use of a Zamboni took place when WWE wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin drove one to the ring at Joe Louis Arena in St. Louis to confront Vince McMahon!

However, Life is unlikely to imitate Art (or, for that matter, the WWE) at the “Well,” thanks to the steady-handed expertise of Todd Lebel and the other three Zamboni drivers who groom the ice for Chops games and other skating events. Lebel, 29, is a Bondurant native with a background in heating, ventilation and air conditioning who has been driving Zambonis for eight years. Many people often wonder how someone manages to get that job. In Todd’s case, a layoff in 2000 pushed him into it. The following year, he took what he thought was a temporary job when the Metro Ice Sports Facility in Urbandale added a second ice sheet. After the job was completed and most of the crew was being laid off, Todd was asked if he would like to learn to drive the Zamboni. “The guy who hired me trained me for two days,” said Todd, “and then I was pretty much on my own.”

Obviously, there’s more to driving a Zamboni than just turning it on and steering. It has a lot going on, and like a tractor it requires strong mechanical aptitude. The Zamboni performs three operations simultaneously. A very sharp, 77-inch long blade, similar to those used in industrial paper cutters, shaves the ice surface, and two augers in front of the blade draw the shavings (or “snow”) up into a collection tank. Todd and his colleagues have ten of these blades, which they rotate on a weekly basis. “I generally use one blade for three games,” explained Todd. Like ice skates, their edges become dull and require regular honing. This precision grinding task is outsourced to KSW Corporation, a Des Moines firm specializing in industrial knife and blade sharpening, servicing, and fabrication. According to Mark Long of KSW (which also has facilities in Dallas), the blade is made of ball-bearing grade steel beveled at a 24-degree angle.

Asked about the challenges of his job, Todd mentioned the blade. “When I do a re-surfacing, I go through the crease (goal) area eight times. If I had the blade down each time I went over that part of the ice, I’d be bringing up white paint and wood chips!” This is why those observing Todd at work will see him cranking a large horizontal wheel mounted on his right as he makes his turns at either end of the ice, thereby raising and lowering the blade. Behind the blade, wash water is sprayed by nozzles to remove dirt and debris. A rubber squeegee sweeps the water to a vacuum nozzle to be filtered and re-circulated.

At the very rear, a sprinkler pipe wets a cloth towel that lays down clean water heated to between 120 and 140 degrees, melting and smoothing the ice to form a smooth new surface. Todd noted that this water is filtered and treated before being heated to remove suspended solids, minerals and chemicals. If not removed, these substances can make the ice brittle, soft, smelly or cloudy. The application of this heated water was another challenge for Todd. “The tank holds 200 gallons,” he said, “and ideally you want to use the entire tank each time. One thing I had to learn was that if you go too fast, you don’t put enough water down. If you go too slowly, you run out of water.” Although its top speed is only nine miles per hour, Todd noted that that represents a fair amount of power. “It weighs about 6,500 pounds when empty, and roughly 8,000 pounds when it’s loaded up for operation,” he pointed out.

The Zamboni is fitted with a retractable rotary board brush on the machine’s left side to sweep up loose ice along the kick plates below the dasher boards. Although this brush (added in 1976) reduces the need for edging of the rink, it does not eliminate it altogether. Consequently, fans arriving very early or staying very late will also see Todd pushing an edger, similar in size and shape to a rotary lawnmower, used to prevent excess buildup around the perimeter. (Some post-2000 Zamboni models have an edging device, a secondary side-mounted blade).

However, there is another, more impressive bit of machinery that fans never get to see Todd operate: the huge pumping station that generates the chilled brine running underneath the three-quarter-inch layer of ice representing more than 10,000 gallons of water. Two identical sets of compressors, evaporators, heat exchangers and pumps cool the brine to between 6 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit and circulate it. Having two complete stations not only allows maintenance and repairs without interruption of cooling, said Todd, but is also is useful when ice needs to be built up quickly and he can run them both simultaneously. Todd also pointed out that it’s one thing to keep the ice properly cooled during a practice as opposed to a game. “When you’ve got thousands of people in the stands and all those lights are on, that means a lot more heat, and you have to make adjustments to counteract that,” he explained.

While celebrities such as Disney chief Michael Eisner, country singer Garth Brooks, and racecar driver Richard Petty have climbed behind the wheel of the Zamboni, very few ordinary people ever fulfill the common fantasy of driving one. However, the Des Moines Chops offer their fans the next-best thing: a ride in the passenger seat. One such lucky fan is Vanessa Little, a Pella native now residing in Prior Lake, Minnesota, a Twin Cities suburb. Although she wouldn’t describe herself as a serious hockey fan, Vanessa made a tongue-in-cheek admission that she does “tend to cheer for the Zamboni driver.” Her younger sister, Stephanie Kindred, however, is a very different story, according to Vanessa. Stephanie is not only a Chops season ticket holder, she even plays in a Des Moines recreational hockey league.

Vanessa’s ride on December 27, 2008 was a “girl’s night out.” Vanessa was back in Des Moines with her husband to celebrate Christmas with her family. “Stephanie decided to take me to a hockey game so she could get me on the Zamboni,” explained Vanessa “I had always told Stephanie that I wanted to ride [one], and … that was her Christmas gift to me.” Confessing that she was nervous but excited before her ride, Vanessa decided after the second lap around the rink that it was rather cold out on the ice. “My jacket would have been a smart addition!” she observed. (According to Todd, the ice temperature is usually about 18 degrees Fahrenheit).

A young lady with a lively sense of humor, Vanessa said that she had “tons of fun” that night, giving her best “princess wave” to the crowd and blowing kisses to her adoring fans. “I would have to say that the funniest part of the night was when I went to the hot dog stand,” she recalled, “and while biting into an enormous hot dog someone recognized me as being the girl on the Zamboni!” Vanessa expressed her gratitude to Nate Newborn of the Chops’ ticket sales staff for helping to arrange a “fabulous” evening, as well as to her sister. “For the benefit of all cute, responsible, fun guys out there,” she added, “Stephanie is single, successful and cute!”

One week later, another family celebration was the occasion for a considerably younger Chops fan, Hunter Wacha, to ride the Zamboni. Hunter took his ride on January 10th as a slightly delayed birthday present: he had turned 7 years old a week earlier on the 3rd. Currently in the first grade at Wright Elementary School, Hunter attended his first professional hockey game a year earlier, according to his mother Ana. “His kindergarten teacher gave us some free tickets to a Stars game,” she explained. Hunter went to two more Stars games, and seeing how much Hunter enjoyed his first hockey game, Ana came up with the idea of a Zamboni ride for his birthday. She contacted the Chops ticket staff, which was happy to oblige.

Both of Hunter’s parents have a sports background. His father Steve, a Hudson native who works for Nationwide Insurance, played high school basketball; Ana, a home child daycare provider (and proud Lincoln High School alumnus) played softball as a schoolgirl. Ana, however, is the serious hockey fan of the two, said her husband, and she mentioned she has been a Buccaneers season ticket holder. Ana and Steve expressed their appreciation of Ryan Smiley’s efforts to make Hudson’s night as special as possible. “After Ryan had gotten us all our tickets, I called him up and told him we needed a couple more,” recounted Steve. “Ryan said it wouldn’t be a problem. Then I called him up again a couple hours later and said I needed two more, and he took care of it.”

Hunter’s birthday treat included meeting the Chops players and other VIP perks. Although he is generally an exuberant young fellow, Hunter’s voice became a bit quieter when he admitted “As I was heading down to the Zamboni, I got nervous and my legs began to shake.” His jitters quickly disappeared in the excitement of the ride, however, as he was cheered on by two dozen family members and friends, including all four of his grandparents. Along with a towel, cowbell, and official AHL puck, one of the souvenirs Hunter took home from his ride courtesy of the Chops was a was a kid-size goalie stick. Not surprisingly, given his parents’ sports background, Hunter is already a triple-threat athlete: he plays baseball, soccer and basketball. However, Hunter doesn’t seem particularly interested in being a netminder, saying he’d rather score goals. Although Hunter hasn’t yet learned to skate, Ana said they’d just gotten him a pair of ice skates, which means he’ll probably be finding the back of the net before too long.

Now so much a part of the game of hockey, the machine driven by Todd and ridden by Vanessa, Hunter, and numerous other Chops fans was first built in just about the last place most people associate with the sport: Southern California. (Of course, Chops fans, given their Anaheim connection, know better). The man who gave it its name, Frank Zamboni, Jr., was born in 1901 in Eureka, Utah. The following year, his parents bought a farm near Pocatello, Idaho. At the age of 15, his father pulled him out of school to help with the farm; he also began working as a mechanic in a local garage. In 1920, his parents sold the farm and moved Los Angeles, where Frank’s older brother ran an automotive garage. Frank worked there and then in a blacksmith shop, making enough money to go to a Chicago trade school to learn the electric business. He returned to L.A. in 1922 and with his younger brother went into business in the nearby town of Hynes. In addition to electrical work, they also specialized in drilling wells and installing pumping equipment for local dairies.

In 1927, the two brothers built an ice-making plant to supply block ice to fruit and vegetable packing plants shipping produce in rail cars. When the first refrigerated railroad car was built in 1935, the Zamboni brothers realized their business had become obsolete. In 1939, they sold the business but kept their refrigeration equipment, using it to build an ice rink the following year they called Iceland. At the time, the 20,000-square-foot rink was one of the largest in the country. The 100 by 200-foot open-air arena could accommodate 800 skaters. In May of that same year, the brothers added a dome to shield the ice from the California sun. Frank then began pondering how he might improve the maintenance of his ice surface. It took three experienced men 90 minutes to manually resurface the rink. Frank felt too much skating time was being lost and decided there must be a better way.

His first attempts to modify a tractor to do the job were unsuccessful, and he laid the project aside for several years. While serving as a member of the local Chamber of Commerce, Frank was elected president of the Kiwanis Club in 1946. He spearheaded an initiative to unify the town of Hynes (where his business was located) with the neighboring town of Clearwater (where he lived. Two years later, the new combined city of Paramount was incorporated. He then resumed his experimenting in 1947, and the next year finally built an ice resurfacer that worked fairly well and allowed one man to do the entire operation in ten minutes.

After designing and building fifteen prototypes, Frank Zamboni was awarded a patent for this “Model A” in 1950. Built with war surplus axles and airplane parts, it had 4-wheel drive and 4-wheel steering. The latter feature was eliminated after drivers repeatedly became wedged into the boards. This modification convinced Mr. Zamboni that a Jeep® chassis would be perfect platform for subsequent models. That same year, at the request of Olympic skating star Sonja Henjie, Zamboni built four Model B resurfacers. This created a tremendous advertising and public relations boost for the machine, and as inquiries and orders began pouring in, Mr. Zamboni decided to form his own manufacturing company. He wanted to dub it in honor of his hometown, but the name Paramount Engineering was already spoken for, so he used his own name instead.

Shortly thereafter, he made a Model C, which had an elevated driver’s seat to improve sight lines. In a dramatic public relations event, Frank drove one 450 miles up the California coast to an ice rink in Berkeley! This model was followed by D and E versions, still using a complete Jeep chassis. In 1954, Zamboni began mass-producing the Model E. Again showing his flair for promotion, Zamboni demonstrated the machine in Boston after an Ice Capades show on New Years Day. A Bruins game was slated later that day, and he resurfaced the ice in front of Bruins management, who were so impressed they immediately ordered one. (That Model E21, retired in 1988, was fully restored and now resides in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto).

In 1956, Zamboni rolled out the Model F, which employed a stripped-down Jeep chassis, creating greater capacity for both snow and water. Never content, he kept tinkering and in 1964 brought out the HD series which introduced a vertical auger, a screw-like device that conveyed the snow to a quick-dumping tank (early models had to be shoveled out by hand). In 1978, the release of the 500 Series marked the advent of the modern ice resurfacer. Among other improvements, it used a liquid-cooled engine (versus earlier air-cooled systems). Wells Fargo Arena has two late-models, a 540 series (circa 2004) and a slightly older model built in 2000. According to Todd, Zambonis are built to last. “There are still models from the ‘70s in service,” said Todd. “As long as you can get the parts and do the routine maintenance – checking fluids, filters, belts, lubricating bearings, that sort of thing — they’ll last indefinitely.” Even the metal studs on the tires, essential for the necessary traction, are made of tungsten-carbide which will never wear out.

American hockey fans may be surprised to learn that north of the border, the Zamboni is an endangered species for both business and environmental reasons. The very first prototypes were mounted on Ford-Ferguson tractors, and Frank J. Zamboni Co., Inc. has maintained a working relationship with Ford Motor Corp. over the years. This is why Vancouver’s General Motors Place, home of the Canucks, uses a competitor’s machine, the Olympia. The Montreal Canadians, concerned about the carbon monoxide produced by the propane-fueled Zamboni, have switched to the Finnish-made all-electric Icecat, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are following suit. (This, despite the fact that the Zamboni was designated the “Official Ice Resurfacer of the NHL” in 2002). Of course, in hockey-mad Canada, where the sport does not face the economic competition from football, baseball and basketball that it does in the U.S., money is no object. However, the Icecat’s hefty $160,000 price tag (roughly twice that of a Zamboni) makes it impractical for smaller venues and minor league teams like the Chops.

This is no cause for concern by Chops fans, however. It is worth noting that neither the Montreal Forum nor Toronto’s Air Canada Centre are as new as Wells Fargo Arena, which is equipped with state-of-the-art climate control and ventilation systems. According to Brian Puza, Chops general services manager, exhaust fans running throughout the game and positive air flow is maintained. “For every fan in the stands,” said Brian, “we pump in twenty cubic feet of fresh air. We also have air quality monitors to ensure that the fans have a healthy environment.” Moreover, the Zamboni Company is not standing pat in the face of this challenge, either. Two years after Frank Zamboni passed away in 1988, under the leadership of his son Richard the company rolled out its own all-electric model 552.

Despite fierce competition the venerable Zamboni keeps rolling along on its studded tires. In 2007, the 8,500th Zamboni to be built was delivered to the city of Kitchener, Ontario. Perhaps the ultimate recognition of its lasting place in the popular mind occurred in the mid-1990s, when Zamboni appeared as a proper noun in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Like Kleenex®, Zamboni is a registered trademark that is often used as a generic term — something the company’s lawyers aggressively discourage.

Only some of the highlights of the Zamboni’s history have been presented here; the full story of Frank Zamboni, the machine he built, and the company he founded, would easily fill a book. One example: Mr. Zamboni, at the request of the manufacturers of Astro-Turf®, developed a machine to remove water from outdoor artificial turf fields, as well as machines which remove paint stripes and roll up artificial turf in indoor arenas. Those interested in learning more about this fascinating subject can visit the firm’s Web site, www.zamboni.com, for a wealth of biographical detail, technical information and trivia related to the topic.

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Take me out to the ball game — to hear some good jazz music!

West Des Moines Press Citizen
June 6, 2004

In a discussion of the sound track for the Ken Burns film Baseball, one commentator on National Public Radio predicted it would leave most viewers humming the 1908 vaudeville classic “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The movie features literally dozens of versions of the much-beloved song, including country & western, delta blues and swing; Burns has called it “an amazingly flexible tune.”

In Des Moines, baseball fans arriving at Sec Taylor Stadium are greeted by an exuberant Dixieland version of the tune, courtesy of Party Gras, a musical sextet that performs Fridays, Saturdays and holidays at I-Cubs home games. “We play a lot of music that comes from the 1900s through the 1930s,” says the driving force behind the music, drummer Kurt Bowermaster, a 1980 graduate of Valley High School. … [Full story].

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Urbandale’s Dirk Brinkmeyer has been official scorer for over 20 years

Urbandale Press Citizen

August 11, 2004

It takes many people besides ballplayers to stage a professional baseball game, and most of them are highly visible. At Sec Taylor Stadium, the umpires, groundskeepers, batboys and even announcers all perform their jobs more-or-less under public scrutiny. However, one essential person — the scorekeeper — is unseen by crowd and cameras.

Urbandale resident Dirk Brinkmeyer, the official scorer at I-Cubs games, sits directly behind home plate in the press box next to the announcers’ booths. From there, 75 feet above the playing field, he has the responsibility of judging, on any given play, whether a hit should be awarded or an error charged.

Brinkmeyer knows that batting averages and earned run averages hinge on the decisions made by him and other scorekeepers. “Ordinarily, I don’t feel too much pressure in that regard,” he said, “but when there’s a no-hitter going into the late innings, that can be kind of tense.” He been doing it for more than 20 years, starting out as a backup scorer for the Iowa Cubs in 1983. … [Full story]

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Des Moines man keeps Cubs’ field lush and green

South Des Moines Press Citizen
July 28, 2004

Many writers and commentators have discussed the seemingly universal appeal of a lush green baseball field.

Some have suggested it holds sentimental and cultural values, reminding us of childhood memories and America’s agrarian roots. Others, perhaps more pragmatic-minded, note that property values — what’s known in the real estate business as “curb appeal” — are directly tied to an attractive lawn.

So, it’s not just local baseball fans who appreciate the work of Chris Schlosser, the head groundskeeper at Sec Taylor Stadium. Any Des Moines homeowner who nurses his or her yard through drought, weeds, and all the other pitfalls of summertime lawncare can admire Schlosser’s green thumb. … [Full Story]

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McFarling has dream job as I-Cubs batboy

Urbandale Press Citizen
July 2, 2004

The great baseball player Roy Campanella once said “You gotta be a man to play baseball for a living, but you gotta have a lot of little boy in you, too.”

For most fans, perhaps no figure in professional baseball better represents this idea than the batboy. For decades, his job has been the stuff of dreams for innumerable American youngsters, relatively few of whom ever get a chance at it.

Craig McFarling, an Urbandale resident now in his third season with the Iowa Cubs, had to show persistence in order to land the job. … [Full Story]

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Double homecoming for former I-Cubs catcher Mike Mahoney

West Des Moines Press Citizen
June 16, 2004

When the Memphis Redbirds came to Des Moines last week for a four-game series with the Iowa Cubs, it was a double homecoming for WDM’s Mike Mahoney, now in his ninth season in professional baseball since graduating from Dowling High School in 1991.

As a Des Moines-area native, Mahoney, who has spent most of the past four seasons playing for the home team at Sec Taylor Stadium (now Principal Park), is also a hometown hero, as could be seen from the numerous well-wishers and autograph-seekers in the stands. At Saturday night’s series opener, a couple of young fans even sported jerseys with his name. … [Full story]
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West Des Moines outfielder shines on Hawkeye baseball team

West Des Moines Press Citizen

April 14, 2004

On Wednesday, April 7, the Iowa Cubs tuned up for their season opener the following night with a seven-inning exhibition game against the University of Iowa Hawkeyes – the I-Cubs’ first exhibition match since 1998 and their first ever against a college team.

Prior to the game, I-Cubs general manager Sam Bernabe spoke of the talent on the UI team, saying he anticipated a “very competitive” game. One of the talented Hawkeyes to whom Bernabe referred was outfielder Nate Yoho of West Des Moines.

Yoho, a 2002 graduate of Valley High School, is seen by his coach, Jack Dahm, as “one of the guys we need to play well if our team is going to be successful.” Dahm, a former major leaguer who previously coached at Creighton for 10 years, is in his first season as UI’s head baseball coach. … [Full story]

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W. P. Kinsella: Baseball’s Magical Realist

The Diamond Angle (baseball e-zine)

July 2003

The troubled South American country of Colombia, flanked to the northwest by Panama, home of Rod Carew, and to the northeast by Venezuela, birthplace of Luis Aparicio, has no comparable stars in the pantheon of yanqui baseball.

The vaunted Colombian author Gabriel Garcia-Márquez, sometimes dubbed Latin America’s answer to William Faulkner and James Joyce, hasn’t written about the sport. The politically-minded writer, who has raised some hackles in Miami by getting chummy with Fidel Castro for many years, may well have seen a ball game or two in Havana. Like most Cubaños, Castro is a huge fan, and he has often played cordial host to the Nobel-winning novelist, best known for the 1967 epic One Hundred Years of Solitude, first published in English in 1970. (Of course, while the Southern-fried Faulkner did make some singular observations about golf and swimming in The Sound and the Fury, neither he nor Joyce wrote much about baseball, either—although the Irishman did pass droll remarks about cricket, soccer, boxing and horse racing).

For literary-minded baseball fans, in light of Garcia-Márquez’s accomplishments as a writer, his omission is probably our loss as well. He and Jorge Luis Borges of Argentina are the most prominent practitioners of the literary style known as “Magical Realism,” a worldwide movement in both painting and prose fiction during the last century. In novels of this genre, the frame or surface of a work may be conventionally realistic but contrasting elements—such as the supernatural, myths, dreams and fantasy—invade the realism and change the whole basis of the literary art. … [Full essay]

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Down on the Farm:
A Long Look at Jerry Reuss and the Iowa Cubs

The Diamond Angle (baseball e-zine)
June 8, 2002

The Boys of Summer looked a bit chilly as they trooped out of the clubhouse for a Saturday afternoon practice on a windy April day in Des Moines. The Iowa Cubs, triple-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, formed a large circle in left field in preparation for stretching exercises. The weather had shifted dramatically. After a brief spell of unseasonably warm temperatures earlier that week, the mercury had dropped 40 degrees overnight. Many of the I-Cubs had adjusted their uniforms accordingly. Half of the squad sported knit caps (either Cubs red or Cubs blue), several wore woolen jerseys, and most had on gloves.

At the edge of the infield, manager Bruce Kimm calibrated a pitching machine, aimed at a steep angle towards the left field wall. Swinging a bat like a walking cane and strolling among the players was Jerry Reuss, former big league star now in his second season as their pitching coach. Tall, with a relaxed but erect bearing and a striking head of white hair, Reuss resembled a genial but dignified senator, greeting constituents and engaging in cordial discussion here and there.

The Iowa Cubs, including its three-man coaching staff, are a youthful collection, and Reuss, 53, is literally the elder statesman of the bunch. In his prime, Reuss, a lefthander who won 220 games with eight different teams, looked like a prototypical power pitcher, but he actually owed his success to pinpoint control and a great deal of savvy. At 6 feet 5 inches in height, he remains a quietly imposing figure, with a studious air well-suited to his new role as a mentor of young pitchers. … [Full story]

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