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His dressing area in the clubhouse is much more than a locker with some clothes and personal items. It’s more like a miniature college dorm room that has morphed into two lockers over the last four years, complete with a small refrigerator, television, PlayStation 4, wall clock and a shrine to former New York Yankees 1980s star Don Mattingly, the current manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
You can’t miss the eye-catching nook in the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs clubhouse, in the first corner to the right upon entering the front entrance of the team’s sanctuary away from the field.
In many respects, the layout of the corner has reflected the personality and makeup of the Blue Crabs since Jim Ed Warden first took over that clubhouse turf in 2011. He moved to that side of the clubhouse his second year with the team in 2010.
In many ways, Warden’s corner has served as the playful gatekeeper to a clubhouse perennially regarded for its chemistry and comfortable atmosphere.
Everybody else on the team has the standard one-locker dressing area without all the amenities. Then again, nobody else quite epitomizes team spirit quite like Warden.
His selfless, team-first mentality is illustrated in his clubhouse corner, regularly serving teammates with beverages from his fridge like a party host while the signature-designed area over the years has revealed his steadfast commitment to the Blue Crabs.
“I’ve always called it an apartment, my bachelor pad. I have the kids at home, so this [clubhouse corner] is mine,” Warden said to describe his dressing area, where the victory music after each home win also originates from. “I play one song when we win; it’s been the same song the last two years. I usually turn it off after three or four songs.
“In 2011 is when it turned into kind of this [clubhouse corner for me] with the TV on the wall. Then the last couple years, this [area] has kind of grown [with amenities]. We got a fridge last year. Our TV has kind of grown over the years [into a nicer HD set sitting on the fridge]. We’ve always had video games.”
But the cornerstone of the Blue Crabs clubhouse is about to have a vacancy sign hanging over it as it relates to Warden occupying the sacred ground.
More importantly, the end of an era is about to be thrust upon the Blue Crabs.
Saturday, the 35-year-old Warden — who just became the Atlantic League’s all-time top closer May 29 with his 123rd career save, surpassing a standard that had been in existence since 2003 — will say goodbye to the Blue Crabs after a storied career in Southern Maryland.
Manager Lance Burkhart noted after Monday’s win that the team is planning an official farewell for Warden, most likely before his final contest Saturday.
Warden’s retirement from professional baseball would only be temporarily lifted should the Blue Crabs make the playoffs this season, which would most likely require them to win the second-half Freedom Division title.
Warden is in his 14th season professionally, drafted in the sixth round by the Cleveland Indians in 2001. He played within three major league organizations: the Indians, Washington Nationals and New York Mets. The 6-foot-7, lanky right-hander reached as high as the Triple-A level with each.
He’s been a fixture closing games for the Blue Crabs since 2009, racking up a league-record 134 career saves entering Tuesday’s action during his six seasons in Southern Maryland.
“Just to get the girls [prepared for school]. They’re moving to my hometown [in Murfreesboro, Tenn.], and we’ve got to get them settled and get them in school,” Warden said about why his decision to leave the game is coming midseason.
He and his wife, Samantha, were married two years ago. Warden has three step-daughters, ages 20, 15 and 12, who he loves and fathers as if they were always his own.
“They’re my daughters now,” he said, the oldest being a college student.
His wife and daughters are Southern Maryland natives.
“I’m not going to take [my family to my hometown] and turn around and come back [to play baseball here],” he added. “They’re leaving their lives [in Southern Maryland] for me so we’re going [to Tennessee to live as a family].
“I’m a baseball player but I’d rather be a good husband and a dad. I feel like I’m ready to walk away [from baseball]. I’ve done everything I possibly could. It’s just time.”
Warden owns a house in his hometown where his family will live. His occupation will shift from professional pitcher to inventory manager for an electrical supply company his mother owns.
“I’m happy, my wife’s happy, my daughters are happy,” he continued.
Goodbyes are never easy
Despite Warden’s contentment with his decision, there’s no mistaking how emotionally tough it will be on him when he departs the clubhouse following Saturday’s game.
The Blue Crabs bullpen anchor is slated to play in his final game before a home crowd that knows him well in Waldorf’s Regency Furniture Stadium to cap a three-game series against Sugar Land. The game is scheduled for a 6:35 p.m. start.
He is in the midst of a second straight stellar campaign, making him a repeat all-star selection this year.
Entering Tuesday, Warden was third in the league with 17 saves in 19 opportunities with a 1.82 ERA. He also owns a 3-0 record.
“It’s pretty much not doable to replace a guy like him, not only what he does on the field but what he brings to the clubhouse and the type of person he is,” Burkhart said. “We’re not looking to replace but we’ve got to find somebody to step into that role [as closer]. Right now, it will be a committee [effort] when he’s gone. I really honestly can’t say one name right now [who will close for us] because I just don’t know.”
Last year was Warden’s finest season professionally as he boasted career highs in saves (35), blowing just one opportunity, and games (61) with a 1.50 ERA, making him a postseason first-team selection by the league.
“It’s going to be hard to leave my teammates, not just this year’s teammates,” he said. “Just having teammates and having those built-in relationships, playing games with them every day and going the same direction as a team, just having that camaraderie every day … because normal people [outside the world of sports] don’t have that. They don’t have a place [like the clubhouse] where you can go and sit and play video games and all that stuff. That’s the stuff I’m going to miss.
“Obviously, I’m going to miss competing. But just knowing that I’ll never have this type of atmosphere with friends, that’s the hard part.”
Warden’s close friend and fellow Blue Crabs reliever Charlie Manning added, “It’s tough. You hate to see a good friend and somebody that’s been here for his team leave. But he’s moving on and that’s his choice. And I’m behind everything [he decides].”
The Blue Crabs begin a nine-game road trip Sunday in Somerset when the post-Warden era gets underway.
“It’s not going to be harder; it’s going to be hard enough,” Warden said about departing the team while it’s in the midst of a quality start to the second half. “The hard part is leaving the guys. We could’ve finished these last two weeks 0-14 or 14-0 [and it would be no different].
“I know that we’re playing good and there’s a chance that we could be in the playoffs, and I could be back here in September.”
The playoffs are scheduled to begin on Sept. 22. Warden is determined to stay as sharp as he can in Tennessee, throwing regularly at his home. Ideally if the Blue Crabs make the postseason, he would return to the team three or four days before the end of the regular season to shake any rust off.
“I told [Burkhart] I’m not coming back to be the closer,” Warden said. “I’m coming back to do whatever he needs me to do [should we make the playoffs]. If it’s closing, that’s great. If you need me to eat up three or four innings, I can do that. I just want to be here for all my teammates, the fans and everything that’s been done for me.
“My goal is to win a championship. If we get that opportunity, I want to be a part of it.”