Greg Elliott, forward-thinking head groundskeeper for the San Francisco Giants, flies his drone over the pristine grass of Oracle Park five days a week. The device is equipped with an infrared camera to measure the stress level and overall health of your lawn. In his first two months of this season, Elliott has found a noticeable difference from his two years before him.
The shallow right field grass wasn’t as chopped or worn as it used to be. The same applies to the rounded edge of the outfield grass that meets the infield dirt behind the shortstop and second baseman, where the infielder’s spikes used to dig in while players waited for a grounder.
Improvements in these areas are perhaps the most surprising result of Major League Baseball’s sweeping rule changes this season. The ban on defensive shifts means that infielders are not allowed to stay in place, which, combined with the pitch clock, contributes to improved field conditions across baseball.
“They aren’t playing grass anymore,” Elliott said. “It’s really creating positive change.”
Long before the rules changed, Elliott and others have been working to improve the process of farming and maintaining MLB’s grounds. The effort has paid off at baseball’s 28 natural grass stadiums. The infield’s glowing emerald lawns and crushed brick toppings were always breathtaking, but advances in technology like Elliott’s drones have turned the park into a mecca for modern lawn and soil cultivation. I was.
Targeted fertilizers, designer dirt, organic pesticides, and more. A robotic lawnmower works in tandem with a seasoned groundskeeper. Fields look greener and stay that way longer, resulting in not only beauty, but fair play and uniformity from park to park.
“In the last 25 years, the materials, tools and equipment have all improved so much that we have a better field,” said Murray Cook, MLB’s field coordinator. “Now everybody has a really great field.”
Baseball fields are the most sensitive of all sports surfaces due to the variety of surfaces and dimensions. For decades, ground staff have customized the field to enhance home team attributes. If your club’s pitcher provokes a ground ball, you can consider raising the grass to slow the pitcher’s movement. The base path can be slanted towards the fair area if the team prefers to bunt, or vice versa if fielding is a problem. The pitching mound often changed based on the home team’s pitching tendencies that day.
Jim Palmer, a pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame from 1965 to 1984, still remembers playing on the mound at Detroit’s former Tiger Stadium. Palmer kicked and dug with spikes, but the dirt in front of the pitcher’s rubber resisted like concrete, at least for his first few innings.
“I wish I was still in the game by the fourth inning when the game loosened up,” Palmer said. “Some mounds were different slopes, some were too high, some were too low, some were too loose. I had to figure that out as I went along.”
Former head groundskeeper for the Cleveland and Texas Rangers, Tom Burns, has been in the industry since 1978. He recalled a time when the groundskeeper’s main tools were a wheelbarrow and a metal rake, and managers would sometimes ask the groundskeeper to adjust the field. one’s own preference. Perhaps the fix worked, but more often than not it was just gamesmanship.
Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry wanted an infield grass that was as good as corn. Burns, who won the coveted Harry C. Gill Award from the Sports Field Management Association in 2009, said the Cleveland grounds staff were Perry’s favorite due to his years of experience pitching there. said he knew So after he joined other teams, they used that knowledge to fine-tune their star player.
Perry likes to relax in the dugout hours before a pitch, and once sat in the visitor dugout early afternoon taking in the views before a game in Cleveland. Soon, the Cleveland groundskeepers rolled out their lawn mowers and shuttled them around the infield right in front of a grumbling Perry.
“What he didn’t know was that we were stopping the blade,” Barnes said. He is now a specialist at Duraedge Products, which manufactures dedicated infield soil for more than half of the 30 clubs.
Perry had some tricks of his own. If the opposing pitcher is doing well, Perry waits until his turn on the mound before digging up the opponent’s landing spot to cover it up or create a ridge, Barnes said. Few pitchers now worry about such tactics.
“There are nuances here and there,” said Baltimore Orioles head groundskeeper Nicole Shelley. “But when it comes to tricking the field into manipulating for the team, that’s a thing of the past. Everything is done for the safety and playability of the game. The aesthetics of the field come last.”
High tech grass lasers and remote lasers
Current grass height is usually determined by plant requirements and health, depending on whether it’s Kentucky Bluegrass or Bermuda. Shelly says Camden Yards bluegrass can grow to fingernail lengths overnight, so they cut it back to about 1 1/4 inches every day.
A graduate of the University of Delaware with a degree in Agriculture and a member of the Association of Sports Field Management, Sherry has been Chief Groundskeeper at Camden Yards since 2006 and began working on staff in 2001. During that time, she has made her remarkable achievements. Advances in cultivation methods. Fields are now paved with genetically modified grass, grown with improved fertilizers that target problem areas, and workers use sensors to measure moisture and other variables.
All of that, combined with years of expertise and an understanding of the climate around each park, helps produce the luscious carpet of bright green grass found throughout baseball.
But Baltimore’s lawn, a shining gem in the middle of Charm City, has one persistent pollutant. It’s the sunflower seeds and gum that players and referees vomit in large quantities during games. In some parks such trash is vacuumed after games. In Baltimore, Sherry’s crew picks up pounds of it by hand, and a dozen crew members in rubber gloves scour the field for an hour or more after every game.
“If you leave all the sunflower seeds out there, the ground will look like it’s covered in snow,” she said, flicking the lawn behind first base, after several injustices were kicked out by the umpire the night before. uncovered seashells.
There are other criminals. Many groundskeepers resent the recent trend of visiting coaches walking the outfield grass with rangefinders before games. This device is used to help outfielders position themselves, and coaches sometimes scrape marks on the turf with their heels, damaging near-perfect turf.
But it’s not just grass. The ground staff are equally meticulous about the maintenance of the infield soil. Shelley said the infield should be watered to near saturation before the game and covered with just the right amount of top dressing. He also noted that moisture is lost quickly, especially during day games as the clay hardens in the summer sun.
“The ball is coming off the bat a lot faster than it was in 2001,” she said. “Infielders want to get muddy in the first inning, so when the ball comes out of the plate at 160 miles an hour, they feel safe on the field.”
The amount of water poured in the dirt area, especially in front of home plate, is one tool that grounds staff can still use to create an advantageous playing surface. In theory, soaking the area in front of the plate slows the pace of the ball on the first bounce. Many years ago, some crews watered the area, creating a marshy bayou. However, most of the differences that exist today are negligible in comparison.
Orioles outfielder Anthony Santander said, “A lot of fields have small differences and sometimes you don’t know until you see the ball going there.” “But the home team knows.”
Shelley said the pitching mound needs the most attention and the most scrutiny of any field. MLB measures every mound in baseball, including the bullpen, using his laser technology called LIDAR, an acronym for light detection and ranging. Before the season, all fields are laser mapped, and that information is used for a variety of purposes, including pitch tracking, home run distances, and park physical dimensions.
MLB, from its Colorado field office, can detect if the mound is 0.5 inches higher or lower than the rulebook mandated 10 inches.
“We want teams going on the road to feel confident that their game environment is being evaluated,” said MLB baseball scientist Clay Nunnally. “What we’ve learned from very sophisticated measurements is that the groundskeepers are very good at laying out the field.”
More events, more stress
The positioning rules, combined with the faster pitch clock, had a positive impact on the field.
“Shorter games mean less wear and tear on the field, so from an operational perspective, that’s a plus,” Cook said.
But some of that advantage is negated by teams looking for more profit, using the field on off days to host concerts, monster truck displays, or soccer games. (MLS team New York City FC will split its home games this year between Yankee Stadium and Citi Field.)
All of this means more work for ground staff. A typical soccer match requires players to slide, lunge, and kick divots. The mound must be removed and reassembled. And the lawn must be placed over the soil area. For concerts, boards are set up on the lawn for hours at a time.
Bad Bunny concert at Yankee Stadium one day, Bad Hop the next.
And groundskeepers shudder when they think of motocross.
“This field used to be a sacred place,” Burns said. “Now it’s a new product for sale and a new source of income.”
But groundskeepers are learning how to handle multiple events, and field maintenance innovations can help combat stress.
In San Francisco, Elliott is at the forefront of baseball’s agritech boom. In addition to drones, he uses a robotic lawn mower and the Artificial Athlete, a device developed by Raw Stadia, a British company that specializes in turf management for English football teams. Elliott placed his hand tools at 15 locations on the field and fired Creg his impact his hammer to test various properties of the surface such as density, shock absorption, spring rate and recovery time. increase. Combining the data with information about individual athletes can improve performance and health.
Elliott also brews his own microbial slurry and injects it into his irrigation system to spray the grass. Certain microorganisms, including nitrogen-fixing agents, promote plant growth and health.
“This is preventive medicine,” he said. “It’s the same as eating vegetables.”
Elliott shares all the information with his colleagues across the league, who meet once a year to share notes and compare best practices. Where once there was gamesmanship, today there is common knowledge that helps ensure that every MLB field is the right arena for the game.
“The players are the best athletes in the world, and we are all the best groundskeepers in the world,” Shelley said.