Groundskeepers fashion canvas for national pastime
Artistic touches enhance experience for fans watching at home or the ballpark
By Thomas Harding
DENVER -- Rockies head groundskeeper Mark Razum and his crew worked well into the night and went back to work the next morning on a special field design for star first baseman Todd Helton's final homestand in September 2013. The centerpiece was a large-scale impression of Helton's No. 17 in center field.
Helton thanked Razum in his own wisecracking way.
"When he came out for batting practice, he saw it and he was like, 'Ah, you guys ruined a perfectly good field,'" Razum said with a chuckle.
A perfectly manicured field is always stunning. But Major League Baseball's groundskeepers -- who were at Coors Field recently for their annual conference -- don't mind adding their own artistic touches. Whether it's a pattern of starbursts or checkers, a club logo or a poignant design for a special occasion, the work of these behind-the-scenes professionals is part of the experience for fans in the park or watching on TV.
Most of the crew's time is spent on the mound, the home-plate area and the basepaths, so they make the most of their time on the grass. Of course, there is more to making greenery speak in shades and shapes than meets the excited eye.
"When we come into a homestand, we want to have the grass in prime condition for the safety of the players and the playability," Twins head groundskeeper Larry DiVito said. "Then, in terms of aesthetics, a lot of what we're trying to balance is quality aesthetics for the fans and ball-roll consistency for the players."
Barney Lopas, whose designs since the 1990s have made Angels games appointment television for younger groundskeepers, said he learned early about the importance of designing with gameplay in mind.
Designs are done by mowing and rolling the grass in different directions -- a practice that helps keep grass healthy when directions are regularly changed. But any move that causes the ball to bounce or roll funny is a no-no. Lopas pioneered a technique in which the "stripes" fans see are lined up in front of the outfielders, which means true rolls. The stripes cross only directly behind the second baseman and shortstop, where few balls sneak into the outfield.
"In the '97 season, Tim Salmon, our right fielder, was talking to me about the ball 'snaking,' so I was trying to come up with different ways to keep it from doing that," Lopas said.
Razum said his favorite designs at Coors were the logo for the 1998 All-Star Game -- which was brought to life during overhead TV shots during the Home Run Derby -- and the Helton game, but he prefers understated work. The same goes for the Padres' Luke Yoder, who works the logo into the grass for the opening series of the season but prefers crisp edges and a simple look.
"I don't think we're trying to outdo each other as groundskeepers as much as [we are appeasing] our fans and [making the field] look good on TV," Yoder said.
The Red Sox's Dave Mellor has brought creativity to the masses through his two books, "Picture Perfect: Mowing Techniques for Lawns, Landscapes, and Sports" (Wiley, 2001) and "The Lawn Bible: How to Keep it Green, Groomed, and Growing Every Season of the Year" (Hatchette Books, 2003). Mellor says sometimes the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has sparked lawn pattern back and forth -- like the fan on one team designing the other's logo with a slash through it.
After the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, 2013, Mellor and crew emblazoned the outfield with the famed "B Strong" slogan, which served as a rallying cry. Mellor's idea of putting the American flag in the outfield after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks touched the hearts of fans.
"I started receiving letters -- both at home and at work -- from homeowners, groundskeepers, landscapers, saying, 'Please look at the enclosed photos. Thank you for inspiring us,'" Mellor said. "People spelled 'U.S.A.' in their yards.