Reporting Tracy Perlman
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It’s bright. It’s green. It’s a lot of work.
The lush green grass of the outfield is one of the first things you notice when walking into Target Field. It certainly doesn’t groom itself. It’s the labor of love that seven dedicated men call their office.
Less than 11 hours after the last pitch, the crew is back out on the field uncovering home plate.
“You can see Jim Thome played last night,” Nick Wilz said, peeling back the protective tarp. “He’s like a bull, digging his back foot into the batter’s box creating these huge divots.”
The field should look the same at the start of every game. So first things first: make the dirt flat and even.
There are two important steps to patching the batter’s box: scoring and tamping. The guys will draw hashmarks, or score, the clay to help it bond. Then they’ll pack it with what looks like a flat shovel to pound the ground, making it harder.
“They don’t have fixing home plate 101 in college,” Wilz said, pouring some clay onto the ground. “We’ve all just basically jumped into it learning as we go, though some of the guys do have a degree in turf management.”
“The things we replace the most are the batter’s box, where the umpires stand (behind short stop and second base) — they really beat it up just from standing in the same spot either behind second base or short stop for three hours — and right field, because it doesn’t get as much sun so it doesn’t grow as well,” Wilz said.
The grounds crew also has daunting task of keeping the grass in pristine condition. The emerald oasis doesn’t have a lot of dirt beneath it — it’s actually grown in sand. The rest of the field is half sand, half silt-clay. The warning track is crushed granite.
“The trick on a sunny day is to water it all day to keep the top few inches nice and moist,” Tyler Carter said. “We want a nice foundation throughout the day so we don’t have to keep watering it during the game or batting practice.”
As Carter explains the intricacies of watering the field, his boss, head groundskeeper Larry DiVito is standing on the sidelines spraying down the infield.
“Watching Larry with a hose is like a surgeon and his scalpel. It’s an art form,” Carter said.
But DiVito has a different way of looking at it.
“Taking care of the field is like baking a cake. Get it even, get it clean then soak it, let the sun set it, sort of bake it so it firms up for batting practice,” he said.
Something I was curious about was the striped pattern in the outfield. The shaded stripes come from the lawnmowers. They have a roller on the back which bends the grass to create the illusion of lines. While the sunburst or checkered pattern may be nicer to look at, it’s not as practical.
“The stripes go to the position spots, you’re going to get a better roll that way than if the field is checkered,” Nick Baker said. “That means there’s a better chance the ball will roll straight, versus hitting a corner of the checkered pattern and curving.”
Once the infield is patched and the grass is cut it’s time to start painting the foul lines — and it’s a nerve wracking task. The crew runs a string from the foul pole to the outside of the base to mark in and out of bounds.
“The trick to painting the lines is keeping the string side straight, so it’ll look straight,” Carter said, as he slowly pushes the machine towards the foul pole.
The Twins made some major improvements when they moved to their new home at Target Field last year. But the grounds-keeping duties haven’t changed since the days at the Metrodome. The only real transition is dealing with the weather.
“People think the Dome was maintenance free, but it was actually a lot of work,” Al Kuehner said, as he leans on his rake. “You still do the same preparation as you would for an outdoor field, minus cutting the grass. Instead, we had to groom, sweep and clean the turf.”
Kuehner should know. He’s been with the Twins for 37 seasons. In fact, he’s the only current groundskeeper who worked at Metropolitan Stadium, Metrodome and Target Field.
After all of his years with the team, there has been just one experience that nearly caught him off guard — the hail storm.
“The hail was too big to melt on its own and the Twins wanted to get the game in,” Kuehner said. “We had 30 minutes to pick the hail up like apples. We took the blower out and blew them into a pile then swept them up. You just do what you need to do.”
Around 2 p.m., the players arrive for batting practice. It’s now the home stretch for the grounds crew. Their final task of the day is putting out the batting cages, covering the infield to protect the grass and do any final watering on the field.
They also put out the bases for batting practice. Each base, even the ones used in games, are labeled. That way if a player reaches a milestone, they can have that base as a keepsake.
While I wasn’t allowed to hose down the field (you have to earn that right) I did get to do something pretty special. The guys let me put in the third base for batting practice. Let me tell you, it was exciting!
Once the game starts, different grounds crew takes over.
“Their biggest jobs are tearing down batting practice, drag the field, changing out bases during the games and hosing down everything at the end of the night so it’s set for the morning,” Carter said. “I think a lot of fans at the game think they do all the grounds keeping. I guess we’re just the behind the scenes guys.”
Wilz adds, “Sometimes when the tours come around they stare at us like zoo animals, they’re not quite sure what to do, or if they can talk to us.”
The good news is, you can actually talk to the grounds crew. They’re a close-knit group of guys who take a lot of pride in what they do. After all, everyone in Twins Territory gets to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
“Everyday people day people say ‘how’d you get your job? I want your job,’” Wilz smiles. “It’s awesome. I get to come to the ‘office’ — to the field — every day. Beats sitting at a cubicle.”
You can see what the crew is up to by following @TCGroundsCrew on Twitter.