The 60’s was a great time for a young boy growing up in St. Louis. Sunday afternoons where filled with the voice of Harry Carey doing play-by-play of Cardinal baseball. I remember lying in bed at night as my brother and I would fall to sleep to a late night Cardinal broadcast and 1964 was no exception when Harry Carey went wild with, “The Cardinals won the pennant, the Cardinals won the pennant, Holy Cow, the Cardinals won the pennant!” Sportsman’s Park at Grand and Dodier and the smell of hot dogs, popcorn and cotton candy are still in my memory. We often took the Cherokee bus to Grand and with a transfer ticket for the Grand Avenue bus; we could be at Sportsman’s Park for $0.25. A few dollars could get you a great seat for any ballgame. In fact, a 1964 World Series ticket was only $8.00! We played baseball, we went to baseball games, we collected baseball cards and as all young boys dream – to play professional baseball. I wish I still had some of those Steve Carlton rookie cards we used in our bike spokes to make that loud fluttering sound.
My brother and I were a little more realistic. I did have a liking for hunting, fishing and the great outdoors so a career in wildlife management was my ticket away from home. However, my brother always talked about being a sports caster and he was the true baseball fanatic. As life went on, my brother became an accountant and I started with studying wildlife management but ended up with a career in Plant Sciences. Nowhere in my career trek did I ever expect to make it to the show in an unsuspecting way – through the education of Sports Field Managers.
In 1999, Jerad Minnick and Gabe Craighead went to Kansas City to intern with the Royals. Jerad Minnick then started working there full-time in 2002 becoming the first Mizzou grad to work for the Royals as an Assistant Groundskeeper. Who knew at the time that this relationship would continue to grow? Several students who began their sports field careers as interns for the University of Missouri Athletic Department, would also find their way to the Kansas City Royals - Justin Scott, Curt Mayes, Zane Patton, Casey Montgomery and most recently Craig Barry. Justin Scott moved on and started as the Head Groundskeeper for the Milwaukee Brewers this spring and Curt Mayes moved into a Co-Assistant position for the Royals. Trevor Vance, Head Groundskeeper for the Royals, seems to have provided an educational stepping stone for a number of our graduating students wishing to pursue a life-long career in sports field management. Trevor trains and teaches with loose reins and only steps in when necessary. The best way to learn is to do the work and perhaps by an occasional mistake that Trevor will point out in a teaching moment. It is obvious how much hard work and pride that goes into the maintenance of this ball field at Kauffman Stadium. You can see it as you walk this field. It is amazing!
This year’s MLB All-Star game was scheduled for Kansas City. Trevor Vance and Curt Mayes made a weekend trip to Columbia as Trevor’s Little League team was playing here. Trevor asked Josh McPherson for a tour of Faurot Field and small talk led to an invite to be on this year’s grounds crew for the All-Star game. Well I tell you, it did not take much thinking on this one! After pinching myself several times in disbelief, I even made a phone call to Curt Mayes to ask if Trevor was serious about the offer. I told Curt on that call, “Count me in.”
Most folks do not understand the ‘Art of Groundskeeping.’ It’s not the most glamorous job to many, but these guys do it because they love it. It is an art and a science combined. Fans see the infield being dragged, lines going down and water being applied; but it’s much, much more than that. For a three-day All-Star event, it’s organized chaos.
Over three days, there is a “Futures Game” between the USA and World teams and a celebrity softball game on Sunday. All-Star Monday is the Concert and Home Run Derby. Tuesday evening is finally the All-Star game. What you do not see are the countless rehearsals for the stage entering and exiting the field with setup, service men and women carrying and unfolding the flag in the outfield and countless media personnel moving equipment, tents, and stages throughout each day. All providing wear and tear to the grass before the main event even begins.
Many folks have commented how great to be right there, see all the stars, the derby, the game, etc. What many do not realize, our view was always from the right field bullpen; however we were right there when Cain was warming up pre game.
Our time on the field was to do a job and get off. We were not supposed to “hang-out” and gawk. So while you do your assigned job you could catch a glimpse of Mark McGuire, Ricky Henderson, The OZ, Jennie Finch, and even Mizzou’s own Ian Kinsler.
One example of our assigned jobs was the construction of an outfield fence for the celebrity softball game. Eight of us (2 groups of 4) were told to start laying down metal base plates to hold the fence (that had to have each panel setup in order) and then topped with the yellow foam pad. We had seven minutes to, “Get ‘er done.” This was completed immediately following the Futures Game. Everything was regimented by the clock to the minute.
Field maintenance was throughout the day. Working the dirt, watering, raking, dragging, mowing and lines were the routine chores. Set up for batting practice (BP) and most other chores took little time and then the waiting game sets in. Everyone hangs out until the next change out on the field – breakdown of BP to game prep, etc.
Watering the dirt as most of you know is important for traction and playability. However, during the course of a three day event such as this, grass on the aprons take a huge beating and require additional care, which includes watering and raking of the grass blades to try and keep them standing. Grass savers and traffic would mat the grass blades and it’s amazing how well the grass held up throughout the event. Most groundskeepers would say it looked terrible. To the average fan in the seats, such details go un-noticed.
The most extensive work was always at the end of the day. When the day’s events were over, field repairs to the mound and batter’s boxes were first on the list. Brooming all edges and sifting field conditioner for buckshot clay and trash were done simultaneously. The infield was dragged with the infield pro and then hand dragged several times in different directions. It was easy to understand why and how the details of this field were sharp and crisp. Leaf rakes were used again to stand grass blades up along both aprons. Everything was watered again and covers were put in place on the mound and home plate dish. When all was done, it was time to go home for the start of another day. Twelve to 14 hour days was the norm for most, while some folks had even longer days.
Scott Parker, with the St. Louis Rams, painted the All-Star logos on the field as well as logos around the Kansas City area. After the derby Scott started his touch up painting and made these logos jump out of the field. The man is the “Picasso” of field painting. It was pure pleasure to watch Scott’s steady hand and talent.
His crew would stay ahead of him with edging boards for the straight lines of the logo and wipe boards clean as they go. It was; however the curved edges that really showed that steady and gifted hand.
When The St. Louis Cardinals hosted the 2009 All-Star game, I remember Bill Findley commenting about the installation of field cameras. Well, this year was no different. Directly in front of the home plate dish, on the edge of the grass, a camera and transmitter needed to be buried with the camera eye fractionally above the dirt. The sod needed to be cut and laid back, root-zone removed, and the camera installed. Sand was packed back around the transmitter and the sod was laid back over the top. Findley was given the shovel on this one as the experienced man on this job. At the end of this night, the only thing remaining was the game itself – All-Star Tuesday.
Tuesday morning started as the previous two mornings. The early crew was there by 6 am to get the mowing completed as well as touching up the mowing pattern of the Royal crown in center field and running irrigation.
Throughout Tuesday, rehearsals for the National Anthem and God Bless America were heard several times. As you looked over the field, it was just time for things to happen. The only things remaining were lines, dirt work on the infield, watering, and setup/breakdown for BP. The stage was basically set for Tuesday night’s big event.
The game itself was no one of the most exciting games with the National League breaking out on top 5-0 in the first inning. I couldn’t be too celebratory in an American League stadium; you know, growing up in St. Louis and all, but I was pleased with the outcome. Our view of the game was from that right field bullpen. Several benches were set along the fence and since there were so many on the grounds crew, we had to rotate time spent in the bullpen watching the game. Regardless, the experience was still unbelievable.
Following the All-Star game, the grounds crew went into action again with no breaks in sight. The field was be used for a “Fantasy” baseball game to start at 8:30 am on Wednesday morning. So field repairs were made and new lines went down that night in preparation for that game. Thursday would be a day off as far as activities on the field; however, the grounds crew was preparing for a 10 game home stand following the All-Star break. You can see it never ends.
On the final day, All-Star Tuesday, it became known to all why this white panel was painted on the wall of the Maintenance area. This became a signature board for all who worked on the field to sign their name. By the end of the day, it was filled with signatures - of course all know the man in the photo, George Toma. George had been the groundskeeper for the Royals and is a member of the NFL Hall-of-Fame. It was announced prior to the Home Run Derby that he is being inducted into the KC Royals Hall-of-Fame.
It was amazing how well the field held up over Sunday and Monday. On the day of the game, trained eyes could see the effects; however to most fans, it would look great. While there was a need for extra people to be on board for the ground crew, it did become apparent that you were one of many and the extended invitation to participate was truly an honor. On the night of the derby, there were 62 people on the crew – approximately 3 times more than a regular season game. Trevor, Rob and Curt had each one of these folks providing the detail needed to shine and it did shine. What a great experience this was and probably one of the most memorable work experiences for me. The ‘Art of Groundskeeping’ is often overlooked and seldom rewarded, but these guys do it because they love it, they have a passion for it. Don’t let anyone of them tell you differently. This is the job that allows those very familiar words to be said countless times in a season, “Play Ball!”
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REVISED: September 29, 2015