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Neither rain, nor snow, nor ... flies
Elements produce regional headaches for grounds crews
02/26/2010 10:00 AM ET
Snow-covered FirstEnergy Stadium, as seen from the Chick-Fil-A Fowl Porch.
Snow-covered FirstEnergy Stadium, as seen from the Chick-Fil-A Fowl Porch. (Reading Phillies)
"God put it there, God will take it away."

That's how Reading Phillies head groundskeeper Dan Douglas describes his attitude toward snow, a substance that has blanketed playing fields up and down the East Coast and throughout the Midwest. Douglas certainly has earned the right to approach snow removal in such a zen-like fashion -- he's entering his 20th season as head caretaker of Reading's FirstEnergy Stadium and readily answers to the self-explanatory nickname of "Dirt."

"Ice and snow aren't a big deal, at least not at this time of year," he said. "In fact, snow can be good for turf because it protects it from cold winds."

But in many cases, groundskeepers don't have the luxury of waiting for nature to take its course. The myriad challenges these often overlooked individuals face are as varied as the Minor Leagues themselves and depend on a wide range of site-specific factors.

With Opening Day fast approaching, now is a good time to take a look at what these turf-tenders are doing to prepare. And once that first cry of "Play Ball!" is heard throughout the land, well, that's often when the challenges really begin.

Dealing with the elements

Stephen Wiseman, sports turf manager for the Binghamton Mets, is thinking of spring.

"Pitchers and catchers have reported, so you know the season is going to be here soon," said Wiseman, who joined the B-Mets in 1999. "But I'm looking out at the field and can't even see a blade of grass -- it's all covered in snow."

As "Dirt" Douglas made clear, this might not be a problem. But within the upstate New York environs of Binghamton, wintry weather can continue all the way up to, and often past, Opening Day. And that is a problem. The region was hit with a particularly severe April snowstorm in 2007, one that happened to coincide with a B-Mets homestand.

"We got right to work shoveling snow off the tarp, loading it into [John Deere] Gators and dumping it outside the stadium," Wiseman recalled. "I had one of my guys take a hose and spray warm water all over the outfield and we got the snow removed that way."

A large element of improvisation also was involved.

"We took a PVC pipe, put a steel beam in it to weigh it down and dragged it over the field," said Wiseman. "This compressed the snow, squeezed the water out of it, and helped it to melt."

While that particular innovation was homegrown, help is often just a phone call away.

"We're all friends and there's always somebody out there with an idea," Wiseman said. "If I have a question, there are so many people who can give me an answer."

Perhaps Wiseman's snow removal expertise could benefit Bowie Baysox director of field operations Matt Parrott. The Bowie area was besieged by a record-breaking snowfall this winter, burying the playing field at Prince George's Stadium.

"Right now, we've got close to two feet on the field and some of the drifts surrounding the field are four to five feet high," said Parrott, who joined the Baysox in 2002. "In the long run, I don't think this is going to be a factor, but where this really affects us is from a facilities standpoint. Now is usually when we start power washing [the stadium], but we can't do anything about that.

"This is also the time of year when we start having our supplies delivered, things we need for the season, but we can't get the trucks in."

As a result, Parrott finds himself wishing for rain to help melt the snow. But once the season rolls around, he wants nothing to do with that particular form of precipitation.

"The biggest challenge I face is a wet field, particularly because this is an old field and there are drainage issues," he said, noting that a full field renovation is scheduled for next season. "Last season was just unbelievably wet. It seemed like the only time I got to talk to anybody was when we were all out there pulling tarp.

"And that's the thing with Minor League baseball. Rain affects the entire staff, not just the groundskeepers. We don't have the luxury of a full-time tarp crew; the guys selling tickets are the same ones out there pulling the tarp out on the field."

Welcome to the neighborhood

For Quad Cities River Bandits director of stadium operations/head groundskeeper Ben Kratz, his first season on the job could best be described as a "trial by water." Kratz joined the club in 2008, just in time for one of the worst floods the midwest had ever experienced.

It occurred in June, after months of heavy rain. The River Bandits' Modern Woodmen Stadium is located on the banks of the Mississippi River in Davenport, Iowa, and the ballpark was surrounded by water on all sides. Kratz had to deal with a litany of flood-related problems, including water-logged offices, an equipment shed that was nearly completely submerged, and, eventually, a time-consuming and potentially hazardous cleanup process.

As for the field itself? Kratz had to run the sprinklers, making him perhaps the only man in the midwest to employ them at that time. Modern Woodmen Park was remodeled prior to the 2005 season and a key aspect of the project was construction of a nine-foot berm that acts as a natural floodwall. Therefore, the field stayed dry.

"The problem was that there was so much water surrounding the field and the water was radiating heat. This made the field dry far more quickly than usual," Kratz said. "One of the local papers ran an aerial shot of the sprinklers and a lot of people noticed them as they drove on [Centennial Bridge] right past the stadium. I think people were wondering what was going on. They thought the field should have been wet because everything else was wet."

Because of it was so well fortified, Modern Woodmen Park was ready to host baseball even when much of the region remained submerged. The team erected a makeshift bridge that provided access to the stadium and once inside, the region's beleaguered fans were able to momentarily forget their troubles.

"We were a refuge for people who were able to get the flood out of their minds and enjoy some family entertainment," Kratz said. "It was gratifying to be part of something positive in the midst of a tragedy."

Hopefully, the midwest stays dry this year and beyond, which would leave Kratz and the River Bandits free to deal with their second-most pressing natural concern.

"From May through July, we are infested with mayflies; I've just never seen so many bugs in one place," Kratz said. "Every day, everyone in the front office, from the vice president to the interns, is scooping them off the field and from the stands. It's almost funny, having to run Gator loads of dead bugs out to the Dumpster."

Dealing with the hand you're dealt

Located in central California, the Fresno Grizzlies do not have to deal with any of the problems that have affected the Phillies, Mets, Baysox or River Bandits.

"The last time we pulled tarp was in 2007," remarked senior vice president of marketing Scott Carter, uttering a sentence that would cause most groundskeepers to feel pangs of intense jealousy.

But the grass isn't necessarily greener in Fresno -- and that can be taken literally. The Grizzlies share Chukchansi Park with the Fresno Fuego of the United Soccer Leagues. During the baseball offseason, turf is laid down over the infield dirt and remains there until early next month, when groundskeeping staff will pull it up and begin the laborious task of rebuilding the infield, pitcher's mound, and bullpens.

Chukchansi Park will continue to host soccer games once the Grizzlies' season starts, with the field encompassing the outfield from foul pole to foul pole.

"For most groundskeepers, the outfield takes care of itself, outside of the three spots where guys stand chewing sunflower seeds," Carter said. "But ours takes a beating, especially in the middle of the summer when the temperatures get up to 115. Our crew does an incredible job maintaining the integrity of the field under those circumstances."

What it comes down to is each region of the country comes with its own unique set of problems.

"Every team has distinct obstacles with their field, climate and market," Carter said. "What makes Minor League baseball so great is that each team has to do the best they can under the circumstances, and often on a shoestring budget."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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