Groundskeepers are like offensive linemen: we often don’t notice them until they mess up. Without regular maintenance, your lovely baseball field can go from this:
(Let’s not forget that we’re less than a year removed from a Chicago Cubs flap that saw a game postponed reportedly because the Cubs were keeping an understaffed grounds crew).
With the right design and a well-trained staff, however, you might end up with this:
The Pensacola Blue Wahoos may not be a household name like the Durham Bulls, and they may not make any silliest name lists like the Hartford Yard Goats, but in just 4 seasons, they’ve made their mark on the AA Southern League by winning organization of the year twice as well as several individual awards. Their ballpark, Blue Wahoos Stadium, is a jewel of professional baseball, named top Ballpark of the Year by Baseballparks.com. The most decorated member of the organization, though, is the man who makes sure the field is ready to play every day: Ray Sayre. Sayre is the back-to-back-to-back groundskeeper of the year in the Southern League. A Kentuckian by birth, Sayre’s work has taken him from the athletic fields of the Univeristy of Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky University to the grounds of the Louisville Bats, Bowling Green Hot Rods, Greenville Drive and, since 2012, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. Sayre spoke to Banished to the Pen via email to graciously answer a variety questions about the how one becomes a groundskeeper, the art of field maintenance, and how players sometimes impact the pre-game setup.
BanishedToThePen: Can you give us an overview of how you started working in baseball groundskeeping? Was it a combination of love of the game and already working in a related field, or did you stumble on it through another method?
Ray Sayre: Growing up I can always remember going to Reds games in Cincinnati or even just to UK games and always being drawn to watching the grounds crew work either before or after the game. I remember thinking those guys have the best job, they get to watch the games and maybe even get to know the players. After graduating high school, I had no idea what i wanted to study in college. In fact I still find it difficult for an 18 year-old to decide what they want to do for the rest of their life. I began college undeclared but soon found my way into a summer job working for the University of Kentucky sports turf team. It was there I realized you could go to school for turf management and make it a career.
BttP: When did you start building the skills that you use in your job now? Everyone grows up learning how to mow the lawn or rake things but you actually have a degree in turf management and worked on the University of Kentucky athletic fields.
RS: Growing up playing baseball and knowing the rules of the game somewhat help in my job now. Simple things like knowing bases set at 90’ distances or the mound being 10” higher than home plate are easy when you played the game.
BttP: You grew up in Central Kentucky where Bluegrass and weeds grow freely and the ground can be hard as a rock due to the limestone not far underneath. Now, you work in the Florida Panhandle where I assume the soil is pretty sandy? Was there a big adjustment learning to work with baseball fields when you got to Florida? Is there any particular area you’ve worked where the soil seems naturally well-suited for building a baseball field?
RS: I have been lucky to work in situations where we have built new stadiums. The typical design for fields in these situation consist of excavation of 12-24” of the native soil and then the installation of drainage in a gravel sand based material with the turf laid on top to fill in that depth. Usually [the fields are] designed and built basically like a USGA golf green to allow us to get large amounts of water and still be able to have that water drain and be safe enough to play the game in a short amount of time after rain stops.
BttP: You’ve worked for the Louisville Bats, Bowling Green Hotrods, Greenville Drive and now Pensacola Blue Wahoos — all of whose stadiums were built after 2000. Were most of these stadiums fairly new when you started working there (obviously you’ve worked with the Blue Wahoos since inception)? Do you feel maybe just a little spoiled getting to work in some of the finest minor league stadiums in the country?
RS: Louisville Slugger Field was 2 years old when i began working there. All other stadiums (Greenville, Bowling Green and Pensacola) were being built when I took the job so I experienced the construction process for each. I feel very privileged and lucky to have worked in 3 brand new stadiums, some groundskeeper never experience and new stadium and I have been in 3 I do not take that lightly.
BttP: Blue Wahoos Stadium is considered one of the, if not the, premier stadiums in Minor League Baseball (it’s probably nicer than several Major League stadiums I won’t mention). Is there a little added pressure keeping up with the turf at the stadium because of all the awards and attention it gets?
RS: Most of the pressure I feel here is self inflicted. That being said, the pressure from my bosses is usually due to us having sell out crowds and possible storms that could delay or postpone a game which could cause us to lose out on the money we would make from the game. We are the smallest capacity Double-A stadium in MiLB so, when we rain out, we can lose money and it can cause a ripple effect in terms of the budgets we have set to maintain not only the field, but the entire facility. We do all we can to play each and every game. That goes back to our field design allowing us to get large rain amounts and play soon after it stops. [Writer’s note, 2014 ticket sales stats indicate the Blue Wahoos ranked second in Southern League ticket sales behind only the Birmingham Barons whose stadium is over one and a half times larger.]
BttP: Since the field is only 4 seasons old, does it feel like they’re still pulling the plastic off, so to speak, or is it starting to get a little bit of a lived-in feel? Do brand new stadiums have unique challenges when it comes to the turf?
RS: 4 years in, its more of a lived-in feel but honestly I’ve never worked in one stadium longer than I have this one so, for me, it feels as though I have been here for a while. New stadiums do have unique challenges or unknown challenges, at least at first. There could be shade issues due to a tall concourse or roofs, or a lack of air movement to areas of a field due to a tall stadium that blocks wind. These all create challenges to grow grass. Also, new stadiums means new fields, obviously, and there is always a learning curve with new fields. You need to learn how the turf and clay will react to its environment and constantly change and adapt to provide the best possible surface you can for the games.
BttP: Did you get any say in the turf-building at Blue Wahoos Stadium or did you work with what you inherited? Has it changed much in the 4 years since it opened?
RS: I inherited the basic field design but was lucky to begin work as the field was being built, so I was able to see some of the process and layout of drainage and irrigation. I had the ability to make subtle changes to things that most people would never notice but would make my life easier in dealing with the field after construction.
Not a ton has changed up to this point for us in Pensacola but we are planning to permanently relocate our left field fence to allow easier conversion to football once the University of West Florida begins playing their home football games here in the fall of 2016. This change will require us to remove the existing warning track in left field, and add 17 feet of new turf, and relocate the warning track so that we can keep a consistent track width all the way around the outfield.
BttP: Technology has come a long way when it comes to dealing with athletic surfaces. Is there any specific technology people might be surprised to hear about that are used these days to help keep up with or improve fields?
RS: The one interesting bit of technology that we have at Blue Wahoo Stadium is our irrigation system that can be operated from an app on my phone so, no matter where I am, as long as I have the app I can change settings to control our watering. Our system also has flow sensors that can help us monitor how much water we are using or even let us know of potential leaks or breaks in the line if we have them.
BttP: Can you take us through a day in the life of a groundskeeper? What time do you need to be at the field? How long before first pitch does the field need to be game-ready? Do groundskeepers have to compete for field space with players who are warming up, or is it a fairly fixed schedule, or is it somewhat of an organic process?
RS: For a 6:30 P.M. first pitch i am usually at the ballpark by 8:30 P.M. to begin preparing the field for the day’s activities which typically include early batting practice for the home team at 2:30 P.M. From there, we would have to be ready for any sort of fundamental activity planned by the coaching staff, which can be as simple as an infield/outfield routine, pitchers fielding practice, base running, cut-offs and rundowns, etc…. Batting practice for the home team begins at 4 pm and then visitors at 4:45 – 5:30 P.M. and, at that point, the visitors have the option to take infield/outfield. At 5:45 P.M., the grounds crew gets the field to prepare the field for the game which includes dragging and watering the clay areas, marking foul lines and batters boxes and prepping all pitchers mounds. Typically we try to have this work completed by 6:20 P.M. to allow time for any pregame activities that can include special guest first pitches or any number of things. We drag the infield twice during the game including the dance drag in the 6th inning. Once the game ends, we will work for another hour to hour and a half to prep the field for the next day. This includes packing new clay into the mounds and batters boxes to make them level and smooth again, dragging the clay and cleaning turf edges of any debris from the game. If rain is possible we will put the tarp on overnight and be back bright and early to remove the tarp, and start all over again for the next day’s game
BttP: What’s the hardest part of setting the field up? I think most amateurs have issues just walking a straight line to get the foul lines down. Is there a part of groundskeeping that just never seems to get easier no matter how many times you do it?
RS: Weather by far makes the job [the most] difficult. Weather dictates everything we can and can not do. Dealing with the weather never gets easier, mostly because the weather is always changing.
BttP: Wade Boggs ate a whole chicken before games while other players keep to specific nap schedules… are there any great groundskeeper pre-game rituals?
RS: None that I do, other than watching the weather radar, but that is a common all-day ritual.
BttP: Where do groundskeepers spend their off-field time during Blue Wahoos games? Do you all watch most of the games or do you get some down-time to catch your breath? Do you ever get notes from players or coaches during games on issues that have to be corrected right away or can most things wait until the 6th inning?
RS: Once the games start, we will load up the tools we will need after the game to do our repair work. Then, we can usually have a bite to eat and watch the game. I like watching a few innings each night just to gauge how the field is playing, then I will listen to the game on the radio and close circuit TV in our office. We will drag the field after the 3rd and 6th inning but usually between that we can relax.
BttP: Do you ever run into players or coaches who are particularly picky (you don’t have to mention any names….) or do they usually just let you do your job?
RS: I am always available typically on the field during batting practice, not for soliciting feedback but the players know if there are questions or concerns they have about the field, or what I am doing to it, then they can talk to me about it. My goal is to keep [the field] consistent from day-to-day the best I can and I think that helps keep the players from having too many issues. I think, when things change from day-to-day, that’s when a player can seem picky and ask for things a specific way or to their liking. I welcome that feedback. Without feedback, I just assume it is good and they are happy.
BttP: Whether it’s the ivy at Wrigley or the dirt warning track that has been passed from one Yankee Stadium to the next, there is a certain reverence given to baseball fields. In your experience, do groundskeepers generally buy into the semi-religious status fans assign to their favorite fields?
RS: I think some groundskeepers might, especially the ones who are lucky enough to maybe work on a field and for a team they grew up watching and loving as a kid. A lot of us, I feel, have moved from place to place and maybe don’t always feel that lifelong closeness to a particular place or team to have that experience.
BttP: Do groundskeepers think about the legacies they leave behind them at baseball fields when they leave or is it all about getting things ready for the next game, next series, next season?
RS: I think about my legacy from time to time. Not so much as I come and go from one particular job to another but, once I leave groundskeeping, I hope to leave a legacy: a legacy of someone who worked hard, loved his job, helped some people along the way find their way into groundskeeping and I certainly hope people remember me as someone who did a good job.
BttP: Last year, a high school baseball team in Ohio showed up to play a double-header only to find a tree had been planted about half-way between the pitcher’s mound and home plate. Have you ever run into situations where someone has left you a strange “present” on or in the turf?
RS: Nothing like a tree but, here in Pensacola, I came in one day to find that 5 chairs from our party deck areas had been placed, one at each base and one on the pitcher’s mound. No harm done, but I was interested to know what kind of game was played with the chairs.
A few other BttP contributors submitted questions for Sayre:
Mark Sands: “How do you get the outfield to make that criss cross pattern and how could I do it on my lawn?”
RS: Always a typical question with a very simple answer. Our mowers have rollers on the cutting units that will simply bend the grass blade over in one direction or the other and the reflection of light off the bent grass blade creates the light and dark stripes. Light stripes are bent away from you and dark stripes toward you.
Scott Kramer: “Is there a rule that the grass needs to be green? Could you use colored varieties to create designs? What are some of the ways you’ve seen teams use designs or materials to make their fields unique?”
RS: The Daytona Motor Speedway does something really cool to create the design you see on the front stretch. They use two varieties of Ryegrass that have two distinctly different colors of green to create the design you see on TV. They simply layout the design and seed the areas based on what colors they want in particular areas and as it grows the design is made.
Brandon Lee: “Who decides the height of the grass? Does the team say [what height it should be] on the infield for ground balls? Is it at the groundskeeper’s discretion?”
RS: For me, in my career, it has always been my decision and it is usually whatever [is needed] to keep the grass plant the healthiest. That being said, I do know of situations at the big league level where front office personnel has dictated grass heights based on what they think is best for the team.
Tom Oltarzewski: “Does somebody have to weed the fields? Or do they use some kind of special grass or sod that keeps things especially uniform?”
RS: The easiest way to keep weeds at bay is to keep your desired turf healthy and dense. Dense turf does not allow much room for weed seeds to germinate and grow. That being said, it’s hard to keep all weeds out so you can use a pre-emergence herbicide to help prevent or a post-emergence to help kill what you have.
Scott Kushner: Are there alternatives to the standard grass/clay/crushed brick that currently comprise the field/base paths/warning track? Would grass base paths be easier or harder to maintain over the course of a season?
RS: There are advantages and disadvantages of both grass and dirt base paths. Grass can get worn easily in those areas due to constant foot traffic but dirt can be muddy after rain if not tarped. In my situation, I would not want grass base paths because of the foot traffic issue and the fact that we have a field tarp to control moisture on the dirt areas if it rains.
Several contributors asked questions about the extent to which home teams can or will manipulate the surface. Some highlights are below:
To what degree can the field be home field advantaged? Longer grass on the infield for bunts, shorter grass in the outfield for triples and doubles, for instance. Could teams soften up the infield in some places to make plays easier on fielders with poor range?
Along those lines, what about customizing the pitch of the lines to make bunts stay fair or go foul? How quickly and subtly could one adjust that to account for opposing personnel?
Are there ways a grounds crew might (intentionally or otherwise) affect the play of the game outside of grass length and moisture on the grass or dirt?
RS: [I know] lots of stories of how fields can be manipulated to affect play and, hopefully, to help the home team have an advantage. Most of these are of days gone by. Today’s groundskeepers tend to focus on a consistently fair field for both teams to play on. That being said, we can do things with the grass to create a fast or slow playing surface based on height of cut. The easiest to manipulate day-in or day-out would be the moisture in the clay areas of the infield. We can keep the first base lead-off areas firm or soft based on the base-stealing speed of either our home team or visiting team. In 2012 we were lucky enough to witness Billy Hamilton break the single season stolen base record. I take no credit for his stealing bases but it did become a common practice for us to keep that lead-off area firm for his initial takeoff for stealing. We have also had our share of sinker ball pitchers that create lots of ground balls so we consistently water down the dirt in front of home plate almost to the point of standing water to keep any grounds balls down and a little slower to help infielders make plays.
Banished To the Pen thanks Ray Sayre from taking time away from his long work days to answer our questions and thanks all who submitted questions for Sayre. The Blue Wahoos’ season opens April 7th at the Mississippi Braves but their home opener will take place on Tuesday, April 12th, against the Jacksonville Generals (Tickets). The Blue Wahoos could open the season with several of the Reds’ top prospects on their roster. RosterResource.com projects that starting pitchers Amir Garrett (BP #4, BA #3), Keury Mella (BP #7, BA #10), Nick Travieso (BP #8, BA #10) and shortstop Alex Blandino will be assigned to the Blue Wahoos (these are projections and are not official assignments).Next post: BttP Podcast 48: Nats, SABR Conference, and LaRoche
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