26th of Apr | Story

Full speed ahead


CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas | Tina Athans presses hard on the glass and wipes a fingerprint off the suite window overlooking Whataburger Field. Athans sees everything. Just a minute before, she spotted a straw that had rolled under the lip of the railing on the suite’s balcony. The cleaning crew didn’t see it, and if someone had been sitting in that seat, they probably wouldn’t have noticed, either.

Athans walks the entire ballpark before each game. She flushes every toilet, turns on every faucet, flicks on lights, checks the seats. She takes notes on her phone – this section needs to be vacuumed, this suite needs a light bulb replaced. She has the attention to detail and ability to run a tight ship – thanks to 23 years in the Navy, from which she retired as a lieutenant commander – required by her position as director of stadium operations. It’s how she got the job in the first place.

Athans was retiring around the time the Hooks were moving to town. She and her family wanted to stay in Corpus Christi, but she didn’t know how to translate her military talents into a civilian job. “When I went in in the ’80s, when you had a resume, the more pages the better,” she says. “Coming out and having one page and 23 years of ‘I managed millions of dollars, people, I can shoot with marksmanship, I can be an escort to a general, I was on ships.’ How do you convey that?”

She took a resume writing class. One of her assignments was to write a letter to a prospective employer. Knowing Ryan-Sanders Baseball was bringing a club to Corpus Christi, Athans wrote a letter to its principal owner, Nolan Ryan.

“The first thing they asked me was, ‘Do you think you can fire somebody?’ I said, ‘If you set standards, and they don’t meet the standards, then it’s easy to fire someone.’ They put me in charge of game day staff.” — Tina Athans, Corpus Christi director of stadium operations

“I got an A on the project, but didn’t think anything of it,” she says.

That is, until she heard J.J. Gottsch, now the executive vice president of the company, talk at her son, Shane’s, Calallen High School baseball banquet. Since the team was relocating from Round Rock, Texas, she asked if they would bring that staff to Corpus Christi. Gottsch said no and gave her his card. That week, she emailed him her resume.

“The first thing they asked me was, ‘Do you think you can fire somebody?’” Athans says. “I said, ‘If you set standards, and they don’t meet the standards, then it’s easy to fire someone.’ They put me in charge of game day staff.”

Athans was hired before the team opened that first season to run and train game day employees. They were also looking for a receptionist during business hours, so they brought her on full time to answer the phones during the day and manage by night.

The next year, her get-it-done attitude helped lead to her promotion to director of stadium operations. Now she’s in charge of the game day staff, the cleaning staff, the grounds crew and the maintenance crew – in all, about 120 people.

When fans are upset, Athans is the complaint department. When railing paint chips away, Athans schedules the new coats to be painted. And almost every year, something new is being added to the stadium – and to the responsibilities of Athans and her team.

Beyond the outfield, is a Where’s-Waldo-type scene with party decks, a climbing wall, a basketball court, a little league field, inflatables and a swimming pool. Off the property but in sight of the stands is the Harbor Bridge, which lights up at night, and Hurricane Alley Waterpark, which has created a new partnership with the team.

Athans compares the stadium to a ship. It’s on the water; it’s sensitive to wind and sea salt, but she knows how to keep it working, moving, looking great, and she knows how to encourage her staff to do their jobs and to do them well – two things she picked up in the Navy.

After she’s finished with her walkthrough of the stadium, about two hours before the game starts, Athans sits her game day staff in the stands and goes over some basics. She ends it with a chant that’s also an order: “Say it loud. Say it proud. 1-2-3, go Hooks!”

Time for minor league trivia. The Hooks have to fend off what type of animal more often than any other from dropping by and leaving a mess on the field? (Keep reading for the answer.)

A seventh-inning solo homer by Hooks designated hitter Kody Hinze was the deciding run in a 5-4 win for the team over the Midland RockHounds. Hinze had two RBIs in the game, also hitting a double in the fifth that scored Jonathan Singleton. The Hooks scored three runs in the first two innings before Midland came back to score four runs over the third and fourth innings. Hooks relievers Kevin Chapman, who earned the win, and Jason Stoffel, who picked up the save, combined to allow one hit and while striking out four over 2 2-3 innings to allow the team a chance to rally.

Whataburger Field is located in a warehouse district just north of downtown Corpus Christi. It sits just off Corpus Christi Bay with the Harbor Bridge and U.S.S Lexington in sight past the outfield. The Hooks embraced the location’s history as an old cotton warehouse and built their scoreboard, party decks and kids’ activity areas around two cotton presses that they left in their original spots. Today, the presses have rusted tin roofs and broken glass windows -- some from home run balls -- but they’re great pieces of history. “The farmers would come with their cotton, bail it up and then push it out to the ships that were in the port area and export it,” Athans says.

Want the answer? For nine consecutive years, Corpus Christi has been named the “Birdiest City” in the nation, with more individual species counted than any other city. Not sure who has bestowed that title, but the city claims it. Birds, salt air and wind are the biggest problems the Hooks maintenance and grounds staffs face when it comes to maintaining the stadium’s appearance.

And in random statistical news, the first pitch was a strike, the first batter popped out to short and the “Star-Spangled Banner” was sung in 1 minute and 8.1 seconds. Unfortunately, we can’t remember who sang it. Instead of hot dogs, we ate hamburgers – after eating Whataburger for lunch. We thought it was tasty. Our stomachs thought it was a terrible idea.

Carolyn@AMinorLeagueSeason.com ♦ @CarolynLaWell ♦ @AMinorLgSeason

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