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    No time for dancing

    The death of his father has McArthur Church, Rays grounds crewman, quiet with grief. But he promises fans he'll put on his boogie shoes again soon.

    [Times file photo: James Borchuck]
    McArthur "Mac" Church, center, drags a sweeper across the infield dirt on opening day 2001 at Tropicana Field.

    By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 23, 2002


    ST. PETERSBURG -- Tampa Bay Devil Rays fans have noticed something important missing from the lineup this season.

    Yes, there's grim-faced Hal McRae frowning in the dugout just like last year. And there's the row of zeros marching across the scoreboard, same as always.

    photo
    Hiram Church Jr.
    But where's Mac? Where's the grounds crew guy with the show-stopping dance moves?

    Except for the first game, he has been O-for-April. So if you don't see him get up to perform his signature rump-shake after the sixth inning of tonight's game against the Twins, don't be surprised.

    McArthur "Mac" Church, 43, one of the Rays' original grounds crew members, the one who first taught the other guys on the crew to dance and gained fame for his solo "Mac Attacks," buried his father last month.

    Ever since then he really hasn't felt like dancing.

    During this season, which the Rays have billed as being about "Heart & Hustle," his heart just isn't in it.

    "It's just been a lot of a mental burden on me," he explained Monday. "I've just got to get over it."

    Hiram "Big Wine" Church Jr., 69, was a St. Petersburg native, an all-state football player at Gibbs High, a Korean War veteran and for years ran Church's Beer Garden. He was married to the same woman for 28 years and had five sons and three daughters, 15 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

    He died of cancer on March 14, and his son misses him terribly.

    "He taught me everything," Church said simply.

    As with any baseball fan, Church likes keepsakes. His Coquina Key home is filled with sports memorabilia -- a Fred McGriff bobblehead, baseballs signed by Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Around his neck hangs a personal memento of his father: a necklace adorned with a pair of praying hands.

    "My father was wearing it when he died," he said. "Now I wear it for him."

    After his father's death Church spent a few days in Colorado, where his mother now lives, helping her wind up his affairs. When Church returned it was almost time for the Rays' April 2 home opener.

    His emotions were in turmoil but his wife, Brenda, who works for the clerk of courts, convinced him he should dance that night. After all, she said, "People are going to expect you to do something."

    So he did what he always does: After he and the other grounds crew guys drop their rakes and brooms to perform a little fish-shtick to the tune of Jimmy Buffett's song Fins, the music shifts into overdrive as Church leaps in the air, puts one hand on his hip and the other behind his head and acts like he's riding a bucking bronco.

    The crowd invariably goes wild.

    Since the grounds crew stumbled through its steps after just an hour of practice on the first Opening Day in 1998, Church's "Mac Attack" has become a fan favorite, like a Florida cousin of the San Diego Chicken or a hip-hop variation on Harry Caray singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame. It may be the closest thing to a tradition the young team has (unless you count finishing below .500).

    "I go out there and try to pump up the crowd, give people something to get excited about," said the 6-foot-3 Church, who gets no extra pay for shaking his derriere. "I'm not trying to promote myself. I'm promoting the team and the fan-friendly atmosphere."

    Church is no stranger to entertaining fans. When he was a child he and his siblings tried to give the Jackson 5 some competition by performing as the World of Churches. They were good enough to open for B.B. King and Millie Jackson, he said, but somehow they never hit the bigtime.

    Yet these days Church, who has worked on the staff at St. Petersburg's stadium for a decade, may be the most widely known member of the Rays organization after owner Vince Naimoli. Clips of him dancing have gotten play on ESPN's Sports Center and Baseball Tonight shows. When he takes his wife out to eat, fans come over to shake his hand.

    But since the April 2 game, Church has benched himself. Even his three sons have begged him to get up and get down, but he just can't. Not yet. You have to feel like dancing to dance, he explained, and until he feels like dancing again he just can't bring himself to bust a move.

    He'll be back soon, he promises. He just doesn't know when. You can't put a timetable on grief. But don't worry, he said, smiling: "We're going to make it."

    -- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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