June 28, 2012

 
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Who has the nicest lawn in Indy?
The groundskeeper at Victory Field!

By Tom Campbell

Victory Field, Indianapolis, IN

The view from Joey Stevenson’s workplace is stunning. Stevenson (left) and intern Tyler Macali prepare the home plate area of Victory Field beneath a backdrop of downtown Indianapolis.

Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell

 

 

 

 

When Joey Stevenson, BS '06, goes to the ballpark to get ready for the game, he’s thinking about one thing: a perfect game.

As head groundskeeper for the Indianapolis Indians, a perfect game doesn’t necessarily involve no runs, hits or errors. For Stevenson and his crew, the perfect game occurs when no player complains of a bad hop, a slow infield or a soft pitcher’s mound.

He’s had enough perfect games to be named the 2011 Triple-A Sports Turf Manager of the Year in a vote by league managers.

The 28-year-old Stevenson, a native of Dwight, Ill., got his start as a groundskeeper at the age of 15, driving tractors at his local country club before he even had a driver’s license.

While at Purdue studying turf science, Stevenson worked for two summers for the Joliet JackHammers, an independent baseball team. That job steered him away from golf course management and toward his present career path, which he hopes will lead to groundskeeper for a major-league team. The Indians are at the Class-AAA level, the highest of baseball’s minor-league system, and are affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Stevenson held internships with the Kansas City Royals and Philadelphia Phillies before landing a full-time job at Victory Field in Indianapolis in 2007. He became the head groundskeeper the following year.

Tyler Macali

Tyler Macali creates the striking patterns in the grass with the help of heavy rollers beneath the mowers that push the blades of grass in opposite directions with each pass.

Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell

Stevenson and his three-man crew let ConnectionsNOW follow them as they prepared Victory Field for a night home game during the last week of May.

9:00 a.m. – The day starts clear and bright with the lowlight of the job for Stevenson: the hour spent cleaning up the residue of last night’s game from the warning track and dugouts. The crew uses a leaf blower to clear away sunflower seeds and peanut shells left behind from players and fans.

“It’s one of the most mind-numbing jobs but one of the most important,” Stevenson says. This is the first thing a visiting team will see when they arrive at Victory Field, and we want them to feel comfortable in the dugout.”

Stevenson monitors rainouts on his office computer
The greatest enemy of baseball, at least in Stevenson’s eyes, is the weather. He regularly monitors potential rainouts on his office computer.

Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell

The days when rain is in the forecast are the worst.

“We never know what Mother Nature is going to give us,” Stevenson says. “If there is rain in the area, I may be watching the radar from 8 a.m. until the game is over that night.”

9:10 a.m. – Stevenson works on the bullpen pitching mounds while his assistant, George Peters, reconditions the mound on the field.

Intern Dan Keene drags the infield dirt with a metal screen pulled behind a tractor while the other intern, Tyler Macali (pronounced ma-CALL-ee), a Purdue turf management senior, rides a Toro mower as he cuts the Kentucky bluegrass field to a length of just over 1 inch.

9:30 a.m. – The skin of the infield is nail-dragged with a tool that performs exactly as you might expect. Rows of nails exposed from a wooden bar knife through the top one-eighth inch of infield dirt.

“The nail drag opens up the infield dirt and levels cleat marks from the night before,” Stevenson says. The crew does this again at 10:20 a.m.

9:40 a.m. – Macali is already on his second mowing pass. He goes back and forth from the first-base line to the outfield warning track until the entire field has been cut. Then he does the same from the third-base line to the wall.

Those light and dark stripes that would be the envy of any neighborhood grass cutter are made not by the cutter bars but by a heavy roller on the back of the mower that pushes the grass down in the direction of the mower, making the field look like a giant piece of Scottish plaid.

“The field is mowed every day when the team is in town,” Stevenson says. “The field is basically one big USGA golf green, and we treat it that way. And just like golf, ball roll is very important. We cut the grass to a 1-inch height so the ball rolls consistently for the players.”

Macali is good at keeping the lines straight. He’s had plenty of practice.

“All through high school, I had my own lawn-care business (in Warren, Ohio), taking care of several properties,” he says. “I’ve always liked being outside, even as a little kid. I guess this kind of business and the attention to details really appeal to me.”

9:55 a.m. – Stevenson places six bags of calcined clay as a conditioner around the infield while Peters waters the infield grass. Calling it dirt is a misnomer. It’s a mixture of sand and tiny clay pellets that retain moisture to help keep the field playable.

Stephenson spreads granular clay on the infield
The infield dirt is actually bags of granular clay that Stevenson spreads into a thin layer the old-fashioned way – with shovels and rakes.

Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell

Stevenson spreads the clay around the infield with a shovel, then evenly distributes it across the entire infield with a metal rake and a flat bar dragged behind a tractor to create a consistently smooth infield.

“We want the conditioner level to be the same depth everywhere,” he says. “Players move from first base to second, or from third base to first base, so it is important that they get the same bounce at each position,” Stevenson said. “It helps with player muscle memory, but it also builds confidence that a player is going to get the same bounce everywhere in the infield.”

Stevenson fertilizes the field every two weeks, using organic, granular chemicals, which he says greatly improve soil structure.

“You can’t have good turf without good soil,” he says.

But the Indians also use a liquid fertilizer program. Every two weeks Stevenson’s crew may spread a chemical cocktail consisting of nitrogen to promote growth and color, iron to give the field a dark green color, potassium for cell rigidity and disease relief, or chemical biostimulants– millions of bacterial cultures that stimulate activity of soil microorganisms. The applications are done only when the Indians are away from Victory Field on road trips.

11:30 a.m. – The entire crew pitches in to water the infield, making sure the hose does not touch the ground. A wet hose dragged across the infield dirt could make the wet clay clump together.

Stevenson is working with a new field this season, courtesy of the National Football League. During the week of Super Bowl XLVI at nearby Lucas Oil Stadium, Victory Field was used to host some events, including DirecTV’s sixth annual Beach Bowl. In return, DirectTV provided a sod makeover for Stevenson’s field, replacing the bluegrass and rye mixture with 100 percent bluegrass turf.

“The bluegrass does a little better in the heat, and it looks great,” Stevenson says.

But it doesn’t happen without meticulous attention to detail.

“This isn’t like a golf course, where you can tolerate a few weeds,” he says. “Everything here has to be perfect. It’s part of what I love about the job.”

Stevenson takes temperature readings of the turf to make sure it doesn’t reach stress levels that would damage the grass.

“I’m always looking to see even the slightest discoloration that would indicate the grass is stressed.”

Stevenson calls this watering session the most important of the day, especially since temperatures have been unseasonably high.

“We have to take into account temperature, humidity, dew point, wind speed and cloud cover,” he says. “Too much water with a high dew point and the skin stays sticky. Too little water on a windy day and the field will be chunky with inconsistent hops.”

Perfecting the skin is a work of art as much as it is a science. A good groundskeeper develops a feel for how much water his infield needs.

“Rarely will two watering sessions ever be the same,” Stevenson says. “It keeps us on our toes.”

Noon – The crew retreats to its break room for lunch. There are many downtown restaurants nearby, but the crew has time only for a brown bagger.

12:30 p.m. – As the batting cage is wheeled out from under the stands, Stevenson and Peters stake down thin, green, nylon tarps in front of the plate and behind the batting circle to protect areas of the field from the heavy traffic of batting practice.

1 p.m. – Hitting coach Jeff Branson and two players emerge from the clubhouse for some extra batting practice. In what is easily the greatest perk of the internship, Keene and Macali get to play the outfield. They have their own gloves. Keene collides with the scoreboard after misjudging one fly ball.

“Man, you realize how good these guys are,” Macali says. “These guys make everything look so easy. Believe me, it’s not.”

2:15 p.m. – Branson and the players help the interns pick up the balls they’ve scattered over the field, then thank the grounds crew for preparing the field for batting practice. Stevenson says high-priced, major-league coaches and players usually aren’t so courteous.

2:30 p.m. – Wearing gym shorts and T-shirts, the team trickles out from the clubhouse to begin pregame preparations.

Stephenson waters hot spots on the infield grass

Stevenson waters hot spots on the infield grass.

Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell

2:35 p.m. – While the players stretch in the left-field corner, Stevenson gives the infield another 20-minute shower, paying particular attention to where the grass meets the dirt.

 “Those are the areas that dry out first. The dirt just draws moisture out of the grass like a sponge,” he says.

3:05 p.m. – In a timeless tradition, half of the team toes the left-field foul line, and the other half faces them in the outfield for a game of catch to stretch their arms.
 
3:20 pm – The stadium is starting to come to life. One player runs wind sprints on the concourse while the ushers wipe down all of the 14,000 seats.

3:21 p.m. – Pitching coach Tom Filer works with Jeff Locke in the left-field bullpen. The difficulty for Stevenson is in making the twin mounds as close to the real mound as possible. Pitchers put a lot of wear and tear on a bullpen mound, too. They can throw an entire game’s worth of pitches in 20 minutes.

3:45 p.m. – As a TV crew installs a camera at the end of the Indians’ dugout, Peters and Keene go to work on the mounds in the Indians’ bullpen, packing the dirt into place with a 6-inch square metal plate attached to the end of a wooden handle. Macali uses a paintbrush to clean the dirt off the pitching rubber, then sprays the 24-inch slab with a fresh coat of white paint.

Stevenson's crew "penomenal" says Indians manager, Dean Treanor
Indians manager Dean Treanor calls Stevenson and his crew “phenomenal. I can’t think of a better word.”

Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell

Standing at the edge of the dugout, Stevenson chats with Filer. He has already had discussions today with manager Dean Treanor and hitting coach Jeff Branson to make sure everything is as they like it.

With Filer, the discussion centers on golf.

“You ought to go up and play the Purdue course on your next off day,” Stevenson says. “You know I can get you on up there.”

“I can’t get anyone to go with me,” Filer laments. “I think I’m the only one on the team that plays golf.”

3:58 p.m. – The Indians take the field for batting practice.

A coach positioned on the left side of the batting cage hits ground balls to the shortstop and third baseman. Another coach, positioned on the opposite side of the cage, hits grounders to the first and second basemen.

In between ground balls, a third coach pitches batting practice from an artificial mound positioned halfway between home plate and the real mound. The shortened distance increases accuracy and decreases the distance the pitch travels to the plate, making it appear faster than it really is. Pitchers are scattered throughout the outfield, shagging fly balls.

And where are the groundskeepers? With all of the balls flying about, they are smart enough to keep out of harm’s way, either staying behind the screen in the dugout or going to in the shop area behind the right-field corner.

4:31 p.m. – Keene goes to the shop area to get the wooden batter’s box form that holds the chalk. He places it against the wall behind home plate. Peters puts the rubber cleat cleaner on the back slope of the mound. Pitchers use it to clean the bottom of their shoes.

Repetition is a big part of the success of this crew, which prepares the field for 72 Indians games and a dozen or so high school and college games a year.

“At the start of the season, we have a printout that tells everyone what should be done and when it has to be done,” Stevenson says. “We need that because we have new interns every year. But at this point in the season, I rarely have to say much to our crew. They are really good at what they do.”

4:35 p.m. – Stevenson’s group has game uniforms, too. They retreat to their shop area to put on their black shoes, khaki shorts, black shirts and hats, each emblazoned with an Adidas logo. Stevenson negotiated the deal with Adidas himself. “There’s a lot to this job that has nothing to do with taking care of the field,” he says.

4:39 p.m. – Umbrellas have been opened in the Coors Light Corner in right field, but they are for protection from the sun, not rain. Stevenson has checked the radar on the computer in his office for the last time. It’s all quiet on the western front.

When it does rain, Stevenson pulls interns from the team office to help roll the tarp onto the field, a job that can require as many as 20 people.

“Last year, one of the guys fell under the tarp near second base,” Stevenson said. “You could see this little bubble moving around as he crawled out. He stood up and waved, and the crowd went crazy.”

For his own safety, Stevenson said that worker was soon “promoted” to the usher crew for the remainder of the season.

raking the infield of Vctory Field
Stevenson’s crew takes center stage to rake the infield before the start of the sixth inning.

Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell

4:55 p.m. – Indians batting practice concludes, and the players leave the field. But before the visiting team, the Louisville Bats, can migrate to the infield, Stevenson and his crew spring into action. Macali removes the bases to clear the way for the others to drag the infield dirt.

5:05 p.m. – Indians play-by-play announcer Howard Kellman interviews Stevenson, calling him “one of the unsung heroes of Victory Field.”

“Yeah, well I don’t know about that,” says the unassuming Stevenson. The spot will run on the stadium’s big screen television just before the start of the game.

5:10 p.m. – There is always something to do, but, occasionally, the crew will sit in the dugout and watch a little batting practice. “We basically do the same thing a major-league team does but with half the staff,” says Stevenson. On game nights, a crew of four part-timers, the night shift, arrives at the ballpark about two hours before game time.

5:15 p.m. – While the Bats get their swings, Keene and Macali take a chalk box and draw the foul lines on the warning tracks in left and right fields.

“Since the foul lines on the grass are painted, we only need to repaint those every three days,” Stevenson says.

5:20 p.m. – The Bats finish their bullpen work, and Keene and Macali go to work reshaping the mounds.

5:25 p.m. – The scoreboards have been on for some time, cycling through the graphics that will be displayed during the game. The public address system is clicked on, and the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” fills the ballpark. What could be better than this?

5:30 p.m. – People would make it better. The gates open as dads with kids and kids with gloves spread out along the Ivy Tech Lawn beyond the left-field fence. The occasional home run triggers a finders-keepers free-for-all among the fans. Others press their way to the sides of the dugout, hoping to get a glimpse of a player who may be just a phone call away from making it to the big leagues.

5:48 p.m. – The Bats leave the field. Now, for the second time today, Stevenson and his crew will make the field game-ready. But this time, it’s an eight-man crew manicuring the field. They hurriedly remove the turf-protecting nets, the player-protecting screens, the temporary mound and the large batting cage, which is pushed back underneath the bleachers.

6:08 p.m. – Stevenson is on the business end of a 50-foot hose plugged into a faucet buried just behind the pitcher’s mound. The hose is heavier than it looks. A crew of four supports the hose for Stevenson.

During the game, a small, round piece of artificial turf covers the faucet and a series of outfield drains. The match is so perfect the interns occasionally have difficulty finding them.

“You’d be surprised how many people ask me if our turf is real or artificial,” Stevenson says. And on the occasion when high school teams play on his field, Stevenson says the reaction is almost always the same.

“It’s really funny. Almost every team comes out onto the field and they just stand on the dirt with their toes up against the edge of the grass and just look at the field, almost like they’re afraid to step on it with their cleats.”

Indians manager Dean Treanor said Stevenson takes care of the field as if it were his own backyard.

"When you go around the league, it's all about playing surface, and our playing surface is the best in the league,” Treanor said. “Everybody is complimentary about it. If you just look at the field, it's always in great shape."

6:15 p.m. – Using wooden forms with screens on the bottom, the crew chalks the baselines and batter’s boxes, and paints home plate. Once the forms are in place, lined up with a string pulled tight between first and third bases and the plate, Stevenson taps the tray with a hammer made of a baseball and a sawed-off bat handle to remove just the right amount of chalk.

6:23 p.m. – There are no bases on the field. They are in the Indians’ dugout while a fresh coat of white paint dries on each of the six white squares they will use tonight. At the end of the third and sixth innings, the bases are switched and cleaned while the crew drags the infield.

Stevenson grew up on a 3,000-acre farm. While the Victory Field turf is about about two acres, Stevenson can’t help but see the similarities.

“Taking care of this field is just like farming, except here we’re farming grass.”

6:30 p.m. – The Stevenson interview plays on the big screen in right field, and all work by the ground crew stops. Embarrassed by the attention, Stevenson has difficulty watching. But for the rest of the crew, it’s a good-natured laugh.

6:35 p.m. – The infield gets one more drink of water.

Stevenson completes a last visual inspection of the field to make sure it is just as flat and slightly greener than a pool table. If it is, he will never hear the two words a groundskeeper dreads most: “Bad hop.”

6:42 p.m. – Towne Meadow Musical Arts school students move onto the field next to the Indians’ dugout to perform the national anthem.

6:44 p.m. – With a simple “Let’s go,” Stevenson’s team knows it’s time to head to the shop area, where there is still work to do.

Nick Averitt, BS ’08, and Macali hose down the team’s Toyota Tundra truck so it sparkles in the fifth inning when Stevenson drives Rowdie, the Indians mascot, along the outfield warning track so Rowdie can throw T-shirts to the crowd.

6:56 p.m. – The umpires emerge from their dressing room next to the shop area and head to the field. Umpire Toby Basner stops to talk to Stevenson. The umpires get to know the groundskeeper fairly well during the season. They consult with each other when the question of calling a game on account of rain arises.

“Hey, Joey, congratulations on winning the groundskeeper-of-the-year award. That’s pretty neat,” says Basner, proving that umpires do have hearts.

7:05 p.m. – Time for the first pitch. The crew has crowded into their break room to eat dinners warmed in a microwave oven. Their services will not be required again until the end of the third inning, when they will have two minutes to drag the infield and switch the bases. They will repeat the procedure at the end of the sixth inning.

11:38 p.m. Alex Presley trots home with the winning run when Matt Hague singles to left, and the Indians defeat the Bats 2–1 in 15 innings. The game lasts four hours and 33 minutes.

As soon as the game concludes, the field and the dugouts once again belong to Stevenson’s crew. That means someone has to clean nearly five hours’ worth of sunflower seeds and tobacco from the dugout floors.

“Yeah, that’s not one of the fun parts of the job,” Stevenson admits, “but it’s gotta be done.”

Peters works on the mound, Keene and Macali recondition the plate area, and Stevenson handles the bullpen mounds.

For the next hour, Stevenson’s crew gets the field as close to game-ready as possible.

“The more we do now,” Stevenson says, “the less we have to do in the morning.”

And 9 a.m, when they get do it all over again, comes pretty early.

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