PHOENIX — About 13 years ago, Debbie Dunlavey worked her first day as a receptionist at Maryvale Baseball Park. She wasn’t familiar with anyone but still laughs when recalling one of the first guests she ever encountered.
“That first day, a guy walked into the door,” Dunlavey said. “I said, ‘Hi, I’m Debbie Dunlavey. And you are?’
“He goes, ‘Doug Melvin.’
“And I said, ‘Hi, Doug Melvin. What do you do for the Milwaukee Brewers?’
“He says, ‘I’m the (now former) general manager.’
“And I went, ‘Oh, I guess you can go back there then!’”
Dunlavey has come a long way since.
“My first day, I knew nobody,” she said, laughing. “I mean absolutely no one. … After a few years, there’s been a few faces that have changed, but for the most part I’ve learned who everybody is and which way they go.”
If you sat and observed Dunlavey court guests now, you would assume she knew everyone who ever entered the building. The plethora of visitors ranges from Brewers players and coaches, front office members, security, media, maintenance staff and wandering fans, among others.
Dunlavey has served as a familiar face for frequent guests over the years, but next February, there will be someone new. Sunday will mark Dunlavey’s final day at the facility, which is undergoing renovations, after 13 years. It will mark the end of an era for both.
Dunlavey simply decided it was time. During the middle of her final week, the thought of moving on had occasionally come to mind, she admitted.
“You know,” Dunlavey said, holding back tears, “with some of the people I’ve had to say goodbye with, it makes me want to cry. Because I’ll miss them.”
In the entryway of the facility office is a large banner of Brewers legend Robin Yount being lifted in the air by teammates celebrating his 3,000th career hit. It’s tagged with a green-dotted sticker, indicating its designation for return once renovations are complete.
The banner is eye-catching. However, upon entering the office, the first thing one will likely notice won’t be that. For years, it’s been the woman sitting in front of it and the warm welcome she provides, regardless of stature. And if it’s not her, then it’s the glass bowl on her desk often filled with colored M&M’s.
Dunlavey has kept the jar out for visitors to help themselves for a while. The inspiration for it is her father. “My dad, when he worked, he always had a desk with a drawer full of candy,” she said. “People would just come up and take candy.”
A couple of longtime reporters prefer Peanut M&M’s, so she usually buys them. “It’s a little investment,” she said, “but they enjoy it.” This week, the bowl has been filled with egg-shaped chocolates wrapped in Easter-colored foil. On Wednesday, it was almost completely hidden from view because of two flower bouquets — homage to her role and presence being so cherished.
“She’s the gatekeeper of the whole place,” said Carlos Brizuela, the Brewers media relations assistant who doubles as the team’s Spanish translator.
“Deb is fun and outgoing,” added Blake Schilly, Milwaukee’s spring training operations manager who’s worked with Dunlavey for 10 years. “Just a very pleasant person to be around.”
How Dunlavey came about to earning the title is owed to her oldest daughter, Tricia, who formerly was a part of the game day operations staff. She went home and asked her mother if she’d be interested in “a job sitting at a desk.” Debbie was a self-described stay-at-home mother, and her other two kids, Kelly and Colin, were by her own estimation pretty much on their own.
“I thought, ‘OK, that shouldn’t be too hard,’ “ Debbie said.
Baseball and softball has always held significance in Dunlavey’s household. Debbie’s husband, Thom, who owned a landscaping company, coaches the junior varsity baseball team at Scottsdale Saguaro High School. All three of their kids grew up in the sport. Kelly and Colin even played junior college ball.
Still, although a baseball fan, Dunleavy wouldn’t describe herself as being a die-hard. It’s something she felt enabled her to do her job without getting starstruck when, for example, Ryan Braun, Zack Greinke or Bud Selig perused the facility. But at the same time, she said, “It was just kind of on-the-job learning is what it was. If I would’ve had the media guide that has everybody’s picture and everything, that would’ve been easy, but I didn’t even have one of those. It was kind of like who goes where and who does what.”
For 13 years, she has made the drive from South Scottsdale to Maryvale. She wakes up 6 a.m., leaves after 8 a.m., and depending on traffic, arrives at the complex around a quarter to 9 a.m. She works until 5 p.m., then makes the 50-minute drive back.
The job came naturally to Dunleavy. “I have the gift of gab,” she said. “I can talk to just about anybody. That’s one thing I am good at.” By the second year, she was familiar with the regular visitors. During the downtime of her job, she’s read books, including titles by Dean Kuntz and Lee Childs, has completed numerous crossword puzzles, and used to be an avid Words with Friends player.
The people she’s befriended over the years, however, has been the most rewarding. It’s also the aspect she’s going to miss the most. Conversations with Butch and Vivian in security, and housing the team’s famed spring training dog, Hank, a few years ago for a couple days are some of her most notable memories.
Dunleavy came to terms with leaving, deciding that it’s in her best interest. And while she’s leaving friends behind, she’s looking forward to spending quality time with her grandchildren.
“I’ll miss them,” Debbie said, “but I’ll be keeping track of them.”
Additionally, she said she’ll also be keeping track of the Brewers, who’ve become an adopted home team after working with the organization for so long.
“If they win the World Series, I want to get a ring,” Dunleavy said behind a laugh. “I would hope that they remember me.”
Perhaps when players, coaches and others enter the facility next spring and don’t see the glass candy bowl and the kindly greeting that’s acknowledged them for 13 years, they will.