His first game with the Marlins was nearly his last.
It was March 5, 1993, an hour or so before the Marlins were to play their first spring training game in Cocoa, that Rock Hughes feared for his job.
He had been ordered to make a burger run for hungry players and coaches, and as he was threading his way through heavy game traffic, he spotted something in the back seat of his car that brought him panic.
There sat the game balls, which were in his care.
“My heart sunk,” Hughes said. “I was sweating bullets.”
This was no nondescript spring training game we were talking about. This was Marlins baseball history. Owner Wayne Huizenga had flown in 150 VIPs on a chartered jet. All 6,696 seats were sold. Groundskeepers raked the infield wearing tuxedos.
With time growing short, Hughes made an immediate U-turn, weaving around traffic by driving onto the shoulder, pulling into the parking lot as the final chords to the national anthem were being sung, and racing onto the diamond with baseballs in hand. Just in time.
“I could have had the shortest Marlins career ever,” Hughes said, laughing.
Instead, Hughes — the visiting clubhouse manager, a wide-encompassing position that entails taking care of the needs of players and coaches — has had the longest.
As the Marlins prepare for their 25th anniversary season, Hughes, 49, remains the team’s only full-time employee who has been with them throughout. He has worked under four owners and outlasted 15 managers, 537 Marlins players, and thousands of others in an ever-changing cast of minor-league players, coaches and on-field and office staff.
Current third base coach Fredi Gonzalez pre-dates Hughes, managing the Marlins’ first minor-league team in 1992. But twice he left to go manage and coach the Atlanta Braves.
Until this year, Hughes was one of three employees to have worked continuously for the Marlins from the start. But one, an executive secretary in the front office, resigned in October. And the other, a West Coast-based scout, became a special assignment employee — a part-time designation — in January.
“It makes me proud, that’s for sure,” Hughes said.
Hughes said he wasn’t much of a ballplayer growing up.
“I couldn’t hit the ball out of the infield,” he said.
But his involvement with the sport traces back to his childhood when Hughes and his siblings tagged along with their father, Gary Hughes, on scouting missions to small-town minor league outposts.
“My Dad would take myself and my brothers and sisters on these scouting trips in his old Cutlass Supreme,” Hughes said. “We’d hold the JUGS [radar] gun for him. I held it from an early age — when I could barely hold the gun up — for 50 cents a game.”
When Hughes became the Marlins’ first scouting director, he helped his son land a job with the team, performing odd jobs as a visiting clubhouse assistant and umpire’s room attendant.
Hughes has kept a photo of himself from that first year, wearing the old teal Marlins colors while applying rubbing mud to new baseballs, a pre-game ritual.
“I was green to this business,” Hughes said.
No task was ever too small, both then and now.
“My duties that first spring training were everything,” he said. “I was taxiing people to and from the game. Players. We were feeding them. We were cleaning up after them. Just long, long days, as it is in the clubhouse. It was a busy time in my life. But, as I look back, they were some of my fondest memories.”
Hughes remembers the excitement he felt when Orestes Destrade, the Marlins’ first first baseman, handed him the keys to his Mercedes-Benz and asked him to drive it down to Fort Lauderdale from the team’s spring training camp in Viera.
“He told me to enjoy myself, and I was too nervous to actually enjoy it,” he said.
Hughes was there for the Marlins’ inaugural game, watching from the dugout when Charlie Hough whiffed the Dodgers’ Jose Offerman on a called third-strike with a pitch that was a foot outside.
“Frank Pulli was the umpire,” Hughes said. “He called it a strike right out of the gate. The crowd went nuts, and I think I continued going on with my busy day. I was able to appreciate that pitch.”
Hughes was on hand for both of the Marlins’ World Series title wins, leaping from his seat inside the dugout when Craig Counsell scored the game-winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning in Game 7 of the 1997 Series. Years later, he ended up marrying Counsell’s sister.
When Josh Beckett tagged out the Yankees’ Jorge Posada to end the 2003 Series, the pitcher handed his glove to Hughes for safekeeping during the ensuing celebration.
“I remember Beckett giving me the mitt with the ball still inside it and saying, ‘Do me a favor and do not let this ball out of this glove,’” Hughes said. “He was very adamant that he did not want that ball to leave that glove.”
Hughes did as told and, at last report, the ball has remained in Beckett’s glove ever since. After both Series wins, it was Hughes who popped the champagne corks during the clubhouse celebrations before handing out the bottles to players, consuming none of it for himself.
“I’ve got a job to do and you can’t really do it [if you’re drinking with them],” he said. “That’s for the players.”
It hasn’t always been fun and games.
The days might be long, but the years are short. I’ve always enjoyed my job. Everyday I come to work, I love it. Baseball’s been my life. It really beats working for a living.
Rock Hughes, the Marlins visiting clubhouse manager
Hughes, by working behind the scenes, sees a side of players that fans don’t. As such, Hughes has witnessed both joy and sadness.
He remembers seeing pitcher Alex Fernandez standing alone, slumped against a hallway wall after injuring his shoulder during the 1997 National League Championship Series against the Braves.
“And just to watch how sad that he was, that really got to me,” Hughes said. “That was a tearjerker for me because of how much he had put into it to get there. That was a tough moment.
“There’s a lot of pressure on these guys. They’re human. It’s stress for them, and you’ve got to take that into consideration.”
These days, Hughes continues to go about a daily routine that involves long hours but, for him, immense satisfaction. He is often the first to show up at spring training, arriving at 5:45 a.m. most days to set up equipment, and one of the last to leave, turning out the lights at 7 or 8 p.m.
“You just keep your head down and work hard,” Hughes said. “No job is too big and no job’s too small.”
There isn’t anything else he would rather be doing.
“The days might be long, but the years are short,” Hughes said. “I’ve always enjoyed my job. Everyday I come to work, I love it. Baseball’s been my life. It really beats working for a living.”
Looking back, Hughes can even smile about that frightening first spring game, when he became caught in traffic with the game balls sitting in the back seat of his car, a quarter-century of Marlins baseball about to begin and awaiting his arrival.
“I’m the longest-tenured (Marlins employee) and it could have been the shortest,” he said with a laugh. “Everything’s funny after a while. It’s been a great ride for 25 years.”