Tuesday, March 25, 2003

This ballpark's his business


As Opening Day bears down, the man who keeps Great American running thrives under the pressure

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Declan Mullin, senior director of ballpark operations, at the Great American Ball Park.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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Deep within the confines of Great American Ball Park, Declan Mullin's windowless, concrete-block office might make a decent bunker if he ever decides to hide. Then again, why bother? It seems everybody knows how to reach the Reds' senior director of ballpark operations.

They phone him on his land line and speed-dial his Nextel and bombard him with e-mails, each arriving at his computer with a whoosh, like an arrow whizzing by. Sit in Mullin's office long enough and you feel a little like George Custer at Little Big Horn.

Whoosh. "Critical issue," the e-mail says. Something about a cable installation problem. When you're pushing toward a new baseball season in a new ballpark, almost everything's critical - turnstiles and street signs and parking for ballplayers' wives and Monday's Opening Day military flyover and ... whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

He doesn't market the team or manage players, but the multitasking Mullin oversees virtually everything else at the ballpark: engineering, maintenance, security, fire safety, the playing field, guest relations, shipping and receiving, plus more than 400 game-day staff, including grounds crew, suite attendants, medical personnel, janitors, police, ushers and ticket takers.

No wonder he's been working seven days a week and doesn't figure on taking a vacation until mid-2004. The pressure's on - enough to take the lilt right out of this 45-year-old Irishman's accent.

So why is Declan Mullin smiling?

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A recent Monday morning, 7:30 a.m. Mullin's been at work for an hour, which means he arrived a half-hour later than usual. Two large framed photos hang behind his desk. They show a monstrous wave crashing against a lighthouse in the English Channel. In one photo, the lighthouse keeper has stepped outside just as the wall of water appears ready to engulf him. But the keeper, one hand shoved in a pocket, is the essence of calm.

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Mullin at work in his windowless office deep in the bowels of the new park.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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"I love it," Mullin says, flashing that smile. "It's like, when everything's crashing around you, if you can just keep your head and come out and go, 'Hi!' He'll still keep the light burnin'. "

The guy who'll keep the lights burning at Great American Ball Park wears a red and black Reds jacket and takes an occasional swig of diet cola. He has short, gray hair and a mustache. He doesn't look particularly athletic, although he played a lot of rugby growing up. Rough game, rugby.

"I got my jaw wired. These teeth aren't mine," he says. Sometimes, for fun, he entertains construction crews by holding a stud finder to the metal plate in his neck. Beepbeepbeepbeep!

It helps to have a sense of humor when you carry big responsibilities. Unlike at Cinergy Field, where the Reds were simply tenants, the new ballpark will be run by the team. That's where Mullin, hired in July 2000, comes in. He has more than 20 years experience managing sports, convention and exhibition facilities.

Began in the boiler room

Just before 9 a.m., he heads for the boiler room, where engineers are checking out the system. It's hardly the most exciting part of a ballpark, but Mullin has a certain fondness for it. His first real job was as a boiler operator.

Many of Mullin's responsibilities deal with behind-the-scenes stuff that people don't think about - unless something goes wrong.

His reward, he says, "is if fans leave here safely after every game, and while they're here, they've enjoyed the game, had great service, great entertainment value, they've been well fed, had clean restrooms. Because then they'll come back."

In the final days before the ballpark opens, he's scrambling. He acknowledges feeling pressure. But he's not weighed down by it.

"Gotta remember, if you worry, you die. If you don't worry, you die. So why worry?"

He likens his job to an air traffic controller's. Instead of planes circling overhead, he spends most of his day juggling ballpark problems. He loves working weekends for the relative calm they bring. "When 5 o'clock comes, I can spend another couple of hours here, sit down, and really start working."

He emphasizes he's one of many people working hard to get the ballpark ready. But it's likely few, if any, approach their jobs - or approach life - with the same perspective as Mullin.

One of nine siblings

His father took him to a cemetery when he was a boy and told him to look at a headstone, told him to look between the year of birth and year of death at the dash that represents a person's lifetime. "It's not big, is it?" Francis Mullin told his son. "What are you going to do with your dash?"

He grew up with nine siblings in the rowhouses of Derry, a seaport in northwest Northern Ireland. It's where, on a January day in 1972, British soldiers shot and killed 13 Catholic protesters. The day became known as Bloody Sunday, and intensified the civil conflict between pro-independence Catholics and pro-British Protestants.

Mullin, who was 14 when Bloody Sunday occurred, doesn't like to talk about the "troubles," as he calls them. But he'll say this:

"Growing up, it was all around us. From the minute you walk out your front door, you're affected by those troubles. Walking down the street going to school, you'd see military on the streets and tanks and soldiers carrying rifles.

"I have seen the bombs ... a building just blowing up in your face. The injuries, the blood. That's what we were living with. Not knowing when you walk down the street and you hear the gunshots, the sniper fire - am I going to get home today?"

He could divulge more, but chooses not to.

"I have a great life today, and sometimes I figure, just shut the door (on the past)." But he keeps that door open just enough to provide perspective.

The violence drove many young people out of Northern Ireland, including Mullin. He left for England, where he got a job as a boiler operator at a sports facility. Eventually he returned to school and earned a degree in recreation and business management from the University of St. Helen's.

He worked in some grand venues, such as London's legendary Wembley Stadium, and Oval Sports Centre, a training site for English Olympians.

Meanwhile, his siblings also sought opportunities elsewhere. Five eventually came to the United States, including an older brother, Michael, who settled in Cincinnati. In 1988, Declan Mullin came to visit.

"Right away I fell in love with America," he says. "Drive-through banks, pizza delivered to your door, more than two TV stations, stores open 24 hours a day."

And no tanks or armed soldiers.

That in itself is enough to make a man smile. But there's more. In July of that year he attended his first baseball game, Reds vs. Padres. He sat in the red seats above first base, marveling at what was then called Riverfront Stadium.

"Everybody had a seat! That was amazing!" he says. He was accustomed to soccer stadiums where fans in the cheap seats cheered from behind iron railings while standing on concrete terraces.

Awed by the Reds' big bowl, he told himself, "I'd like to work here."

He was far more uncertain about what was unfolding on the field. He turned to the stranger sitting next to him, Stacy Cole, and asked: "Can you explain this game?"

There was a fireworks show at Riverfront Stadium that night. A much smaller, less conspicuous version occurred between two people in the red seats above first base. Six months later, Cole and Mullin were married.

He joined Spectacor Management Group, a Philadelphia-based company that manages arenas, stadiums and convention and exhibition centers. The work took him to the Louisiana Superdome, Memphis Cook Convention Center, Pittsburgh Civic Center, Tampa Bay Ice Palace Arena and Jacksonville Stadium. Along the way, in 1992, Mullin became a U.S. citizen.

He and Stacy returned to Cincinnati in 1996 when he became operations director at Cincinnati Museum Center. In 2000 he worked briefly at Firstar Center (now U.S. Bank Arena), until the Reds hired him that July.

Since then, Mullin has overseen the move from Cinergy, kept close tabs on construction of the new ballpark, and attended to the myriad details of readying it to open.

"He always looks to me like he's in that 'show no fear' mode," says John Allen, the Reds chief operating officer, "because he certainly seems fairly calm when all those around him are losing their heads."

When he hired Mullin, Allen told him: "You've got to know (the ballpark) from the ground up, know where every nook and cranny is."

Mullin does. And how appropriate that the place should have the name Great American.

"He's made me see America in a different light," says Stacy, his wife, who grew up in Cincinnati. "He's made me see from an immigrant's point of view how great this country is. ... He doesn't talk about it all the time, he just lives it. He appreciates every moment here."

Pizza delivery right to his door. Wednesday evenings spent with his brother Michael, who lives on the same Norwood street. A city he loves. The warmth of family.

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Gone less than an hour, Mullin returns to his office and finds another two dozen e-mails. More critical issues. He'll attend to them while juggling meetings and phone calls - and the everyday surprises that might cause a lesser person to whither under the workload.

He began the morning the way he always does: with a walk through Great American Ball Park. While troubleshooting, he pauses on the ballpark's terrace level and notices mist rising off the Ohio River.

"Wow," he thinks to himself. "Is this really my job?"

E-mail jjohnston@enquirer.com




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