Chris "Butter" Ball has spent the past decade as the Myrtle Beach Pelicans' "Director of Sports Turf Management." He's a groundskeeper, in other words, and one of the best in Minor League Baseball. The North Carolina native and his crew are in the midst of an impressive run of success, with Myrtle Beach's BB&T Coastal Field having been named Carolina League Field of the Year for the past five seasons.
During Thursday's game between the Pelicans and visiting Wilmington Blue Rocks, I visited Ball within his private balcony left-field seating area (located adjacent to the home bullpen and in front of the groundskeeping equipment area). From this lofty perch, he took some time to pontificate on the specifics of his job.
MiLB.com: How did you become a groundskeeper? When you were growing up, did you ever think it was something you'd end up doing?
Ball: I got into this by accident. I went to school at UNC Greensboro and thought that I was going to play baseball. I didn't end up playing but wanted to stay around the team, so I became a student assistant. We played our games at War Memorial Stadium, which at that point was the oldest Minor League ballpark in the country. So I got to set up the field for batting practice and things like that, and really enjoyed it.
I finished school in '98, when they were in the process of building a new stadium on campus. I started grad school that fall, and before Christmas break saw that there was an opening for the position of facilities director. I was interested in that, because I could get six hours of school paid for and continue to work in baseball and be around the program.
Throughout the time I was tutored by a guy, the world famous Mel Lanford. I'm indebted to him for the time he spent with me, the beer we drank and the stories that I was told. I really fell in love with it. After Greensboro I went to Harrisburg for a couple years to work with the Senators. There's just a phenomenal group of people there, and I learned a lot about stadium operations. From there I ended up getting into the sales end of things and sold fertilizer and dirt and paint, all kinds of field supplies and chemicals.
One day I got a phone call from a friend of mine, to see if I knew who might be interested in the Myrtle Beach job. I called my buddy back a half hour later and said, "You know what? I'm real interested." That was 10 years ago.
MiLB.com: During the season, what's a typical day like for you?
Ball: We usually try to get here between 8:30 and 9, and to start things off we mow. We mow every single day. So you're mowing, you're fixing your bullpen mounds, you're watering your infield dirt. Early work [for players] starts at 2:30. They come out onto the field to stretch, and the pitchers come out and get loose. Batting practice starts at four, and the game runs from seven until whenever. This club likes to play extra-inning games -- we play forever it seems. After the game we fix the mound and the plate, drag the infield and water if we need to. All in all, you're looking at 14, 16, 18 hours a day. Every day's a new challenge, but I think that's what's so cool about it.
MiLB.com: What factors do you have to take into consideration when dealing with the parent club?
Ball: It wasn't a complaint, but [new affiliate] Texas doesn't like a lot of loose material on top of their infield dirt, so we ended up taking off a lot of material. We have a lot more clay on the surface than we typically would, but we've gotten accustomed to doing it that way for them. [The Pelicans] played well enough on it to win the first half, and that's what it all boils down to: wins and losses and health. Safety and playability.
MiLB.com: A lot of crazy stuff can happen on a baseball field, from a guy getting a pie in the face to postgame fireworks. Can that be hard to deal with, from your perspective?
Ball: Oh, yeah. We've had pies in the face, buckets of water getting tossed on people. And fireworks are not our best friend. We have 17 or 18 shows a year, quite a few. They shoot them right from behind the batter's eye, and the prevailing wind here is off the beach, which is in [toward home plate]. It's usually an ordeal to get the fireworks cleaned up.
The other thing is the sunflower seeds, they drive us crazy. It's like, instead of baseball players, there's just a bunch of squirrels out there. During the last homestand, we had a guy who must have gone through four bags of seeds every night out there in right field. It was unbelievable, it looked like a bird feeder out there. We had to go out there and blow it up, clean it up, get rid of it, make it look like it never happened.
MiLB.com: The Minor League season is a little more than five months, but this is a full-time job. What's the routine like in the offseason?
Ball: We actually play games here through the month of October and then start playing again in February with college baseball. We try to use stadium as a marketing piece year round, so we try to keep it just about game-ready.
This year was a little different; we had one of the coldest and wettest winters in quite some time. But we try to be always two or three days away from being ready to play at all times. The offseason is much more laid back, though. Extreme banker's hours, as I like to call it.
MiLB.com: If you were hired to oversee the construction of a professional ball field from start to finish, what materials would you use and why?
Ball: I'm accustomed to Bermuda grass, so 419 Bermuda would be my turf. It's great for the region that we're in. It's a warm season grass, runs very well, self-repairs, looks really pretty and feels nice underfoot. You can get a true roll on it, and you can cut it low, which I like. I like the field to play fast, and [previous affiliate] Atlanta liked the field to play fast, and Texas does, too. We cut it at about half an inch, and [Bermuda 419] can stand the heat and stress at half an inch. I wouldn't change a thing when it comes to grass.
The irrigation system would have to get every inch of grass wet. That's one thing that we fight now during a drought. With the heat and the wind and the beach, it can be tough to get the entire field watered.
MiLB.com: Would you consider moving to a new job, or is Myrtle Beach the ideal situation?
Ball: If the right situation in Minor League Baseball came along, I'd definitely consider it. It's a question of your livelihood and how heavy your pockets are going to be. But it's a really good situation here -- it really is.
MiLB.com: Finally, everyone seems to know you as "Butter." Is that a nickname you've had your whole life or something you picked up during your groundskeeping days?
Ball: I got that nickname when I was 4 or 5 years old, just playing football in the backyard with somebody. They started calling me 'Butter' because my last name's Ball. It wasn't because I dropped a ball in a game or anything like that. I've tried to lose it, but it's followed me all across the country. But that's all right.