The boys of summer are the ghosts of winter. Tracking down a Major League Baseball player, or a manager — or even a member of the grounds crew — during the offseason is like searching for a blade of crabgrass at Yankee Stadium. But I wanted to know what they know about growing, so I kept searching. When I finally connected with John Turnour, who has been the director of field operations for the Washington Nationals for more than a decade, I started with what seemed like the most obvious question: What does a professional groundskeeper’s lawn look like?
As it turns out, Turnour isn’t the type to take his work home with him. “I will fully admit that my yard is pretty disturbing,” he says. His lax attitude toward home maintenance is understandable, considering that during the season he works 15-hour days alongside a 38-person crew to keep the 2.2 acres of Kentucky bluegrass inside Nationals Park safe, consistent and a shade of green that will dazzle both the home crowd and TV viewers. No matter what his lawn looks like, he knows how to grow grass.
The fields are just as green across the country, where Tim Wilson has led field operations for the Seattle Mariners for a little more than a year, although he’s been part of the field crew since T-Mobile Park opened in 1999. Unlike his fellow grass whisperer, Wilson keeps his home lawn in smart shape. He even admits that he’s borrowed team equipment to produce the intricate mowing patterns sometimes featured on professional ball fields. “My kids think it’s cool,” he says. “My wife thinks it’s kinda silly.”
Silly at home; serious on the job, because the grounds crew can influence wins and losses. MLB has surprisingly few regulations about the field surface, allowing almost any type of grass and wide variation in mowing heights. Groundskeepers adjust — sometimes daily — to fit the team’s strategic needs, which could include anything from laying down thicker foul lines to leaving the grass a little longer so the ball rolls slower. “It’s fair for players or coaches to come to us with any recommendations or insight or input,” says Turnour. “And that’s what we’re here for. We want to make sure the players can rely on the field.”
Field heights typically range from a ½ inch to 1 ¾ inches, depending on the team’s choice and the grass type (compared to an average home lawn at 2 ½ to 3 ½ inches). Such stubby blades require more attention — and more technology. Teams utilize sophisticated in-ground sensors that monitor moisture and nutrient levels, which allow for fine-tuned care. That’s hard to replicate at home, but if it seems like an unfair advantage, keep in mind that groundskeepers also have to deal with plant-crushing concerts and other events. “It’s our job to plan them so they’re not going to be a safety issue or a liability issue, because they can be,” says Wilson. “You might see the game two days later, but we might’ve pulled an all-nighter getting all the flooring and cranes off the field. And then we gotta do everything we can so that when the teams come back, they can’t even tell that there was an event on the field.”
It’s unlikely you’ll have to deal with the kind of damage Wilson is talking about, but that sort of extreme triage mixed with the day-to-day needs of keeping the field looking its best, inform the advice he and Turnour have to share.
1. Let It Breathe
“Springtime is always a great time to do some form of aerification,” says Wilson. “Whether it’s just some time poking straight holes or pulling cores, any more air movement or oxygen flow you can create not only helps the surface for overall turf health, but it helps with root development and it releases compaction. If you could aerify a couple times a year, it’s gonna be beneficial.”
2. Just a Little off the Top
“For my home lawn it’s all about making sure you’ve got a decent mower with a nice sharp blade on it, so you get the right height of cut,” Turnour says. What is the right amount to trim? “As a general rule of thumb, you don’t want to get to the point where you’re cutting more than a third of the leaf blade from the grass,” Wilson adds.
3. Don’t Over-Serve the Customer
“I know a couple homeowners who have irrigation systems to provide supplemental water when Mother Nature doesn’t do it,” says Turnour. “And because they have an irrigation system, they think they should run it every single day. That’s probably one of the worst things you can do. It’s a waste of water. Irrigation should really be used as a tool, especially during the summer. If you get into high-heat dry periods, you can use the irrigation system to cool the plant down. Here at Nats Park, we may go a full week without ever running our irrigation system.”
4. Eye on the Sky
“I know if my lawn needs to be cut and rain’s coming the following day or night, I should go out and cut it,” Wilson says. “You don’t want to mow after a rain. It’s just not as clean of a cut. Even here at T-Mobile, if it’s during the summer and we had to give it a heavy water the night before or the morning of, I’ll usually wait until the grass is dried out before we cut the field. I apply the same thing at home.” Wilson even times his treatments to the forecast. Since watering should follow, he’ll “put it down before it rains, because you’re saving money on having to put a sprinkler down or run an irrigation system.”
5. About Those Cool Patterns…
“We use these special athletic-field mowers for that,” Turnour says of the criss-cross, striped and diamond patterns sometimes seen on MLB fields. “On the back of each cutting unit we have a roller. As you’re walking a straight line and cutting, that roller is pushing the grass blades in one direction. When you come back on your next pass in the opposite direction, you’re pushing those leaf blades in another direction. Then you’ve got alternating leaf blades, and then when the sun hits them, it’s reflecting the different sides of the grass blade — giving you that striking effect. So it’s not different heights of cut or paint. It’s really all right there in the roller.”
The look isn’t just for ball parks, though, because you can buy rollers or striping kits. For his part, Wilson has given up striping his yard. He deadpans: “I get enough practice with it at the stadium.”
Andrew Lawrence is a former staff writer at Sports Illustrated whose freelance work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, The Guardian and Men’s Health, among others.