INDIANAPOLIS — The lawn is everything.
This simple, four-word guiding principle is drilled into the minds and actions of every member of the grounds crew working for the Indianapolis Indians minor league baseball team.
At the start of every season, the two dozen crew members — anywhere from five to 12 work a game — are reminded to walk on the dirt track surrounding the field.
Don’t tread on the lawn.
When the crew waters the infield dirt before each game — to prevent dust from flying into players’ eyes — the hose is draped across shoulders so it doesn’t drag on the ground.
After each game, the crew rakes the edge of the grass to brush away dirt that has flipped from players’ cleats or flown from wild slides into bases.
Nothing — garden tools, bags of calcite, your feet — is to touch the grass except, of course, for the huge tarp that protects the grass from rain.
“There’s a saying that grass grows by the inch and dies by the foot,” said Joey Stevenson, head groundskeeper for the team.
Stevenson, 29, has been named two years in a row as Sports Turf Manager of the Year for Triple A fields by the Sports Turf Managers Association. Stevenson and assistant Joey Gerking teach interns and crew workers to respect the short, finely manicured Kentucky bluegrass.
Stevenson is married. He and his wife, Shelbi, have two dogs and live in Fishers.
At their wedding, guests were bemused to walk in and see a 4-foot wide strip of sod in the aisle. It had been freshly watered shortly before the wedding party proceeded to the front. Visitors were greeted at the door with a sign that read, “Keep off the grass.”
Stevenson first toured Victory Field as a student in turfgrass science at Purdue University. He gained a deeper philosophy about fields when interning with the Philadelphia Phillies. He has worked at Indianapolis’ scenic ballpark since 2007.
And he has been my boss since April.
Cool guy stuff
One of my neighbors, Paul Drew, has worked on the crew for 10 years. At 64 (only three guys are over 50) and a former pharmaceutical salesman, he now runs his own lawn care business, Ballpark Landscapes, an outgrowth of his Victory Field job.
Back in February, he asked if I wanted to help out on the crew. Workers were needed for day games because the younger crew guys wouldn’t be out of school when baseball started in April.
I knew it would be my only chance, at 58, to say I had ever worked in professional baseball, particularly for a team I had watched since being a kid. And, surely, my buddies would think it was a cool guy thing.
Drew has a homespun way of explaining the grounds crew directive.
“You always have to avoid the grass. If you have to, take wings and fly across it. Don’t cast a shadow longer than three seconds on the grass,” he said. “And on the skin, which is the dirt area, walk like denuded shorebirds — you know, the birds that barely leave an imprint.”
Landon Nail, a 31-year-old stay-at-home dad, also had a friend who recommended he join the crew.
“I love Victory Field. I think the ballpark is just gorgeous. ... Being just a small part of that is rewarding.”
This is his first year on the crew. The work has deepened his appreciation for baseball, and for current Indians players as well as those called up to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“It’s been years since I’ve been as interested in baseball as I am now,” he said.
“Now I’ve bought myself the MLB package on cable so I can watch the Pirates. You turn on the TV and you see Jordy Mercer, Brandon Inge and Gerrit Cole playing in a major league ballpark and I’ve been around those guys. It’s pretty neat.”
After my first game as a crew member, I was a mess. Legs were stiff and unworkable. I couldn’t force my hand into a grip. I was exhausted.
But I had not been so humbled by physical demands in decades. It felt rewarding.
As weeks went by, I still ached but began feeling comfortable with the job and witnessed some heartwarming moments.
— The team mascot, a human-in-a-red-dog-suit named Rowdie, was late to a day game. His home basement had flooded. But he rushed into the stadium for the fifth inning in time to throw T-shirts to his fans — young screaming kids.
— An opposing team’s pitcher was watching the game in the crew's garage. A mother and her young son were in the stands; the kid had a glove. Knowing it was unlikely for the boy to catch a foul ball, the pitcher asked the grounds crew if there was a ball he could sign. One was found and the pitcher handed the boy the ball.
— At each of the 72 home games, the crew quickly changes bases and rakes infield dirt after the third and sixth innings. Indians first baseman Matt Hague always thanks the crew for cleaning the space.
Hague explained to me, “I figure I gotta be grateful to the grounds crew. ... I guess I think if you thank them for what they do for you, it’s karma.”
He may be right. At the end of June, Hague had a .292 batting average and led the team in runs batted in (51) and hits (92). At the time, the Indians topped the 14-team International League with 55 wins and 30 losses.
In 1999, Victory Field, then three years old, was named Best Minor League Ballpark in America by Baseball America. The Vic won a similar award in 2001 from Sports Illustrated and from minorleaguenews.com.
From any of the 12,230 seats, the Indianapolis skyline just beyond center-field is vibrant with city lights. But the manicured green lawn, mowed in a crisscross pattern before every home stand, lures spectators’ eyes back to the field.
The lawn is everything.
“The other thing they’re lucky with — they’ve got good sun and air movement,” said Cale Bigelow, associate professor of agronomy at Purdue University. “Some stadiums, they don’t have that luxury. They might have high walls or shade patterns but Joey’s got a nice environment to grow grass.”
Bigelow finds summer interns for the Indians. The interns, working though the university’s Department of Agronomy, are aiming for a bachelor’s degree from Purdue’s College of Agriculture where they take such classes as turf irrigation and weed science.
The number of students signing up for turf studies boomed in the affluent 1980s when more golf courses and city parks began cropping up. Back then, there were more than 80 in the Purdue program. Today's austere economy has halved enrollment. Most students grew up playing sports but they may not know, at 19 or 20, if the sacred fields of their youth will become their future office space.
Matt Dudley, 20, of Muncie, is Purdue’s intern this year at Victory Field. He played baseball for Wapahani High School in Selma, and worked at a golf course last summer but he isn’t sure he’ll seek a career in turf work.
He reports to work by 9 a.m. and stays after midnight when there are night games.
“When the team’s away it’s not a demanding job but when the team’s in town, it’s a lot busier,” he said. “Doing the long home stands, when you gotta go 11 straight games and you go on five hours of sleep, it gets a little rough after awhile but you kinda get used of it.”
Bigelow said, “I tell the interns there’s a good chance you may not want to do this the rest of your life but go do it for 12 weeks and start at 10 in the morning and stay there until 1 o’clock in the morning because the game doesn’t get over until then and understand that’s what these people do.”
As comparison, he offered, “But if you’re an accountant, there’s probably a period of three months in there where you’re burning the midnight oil taking care of people’s taxes.”
'A respect thing'
Some ballplayers espouse a Zen approach to baseball (be the bat, become the ball). Others have rigid rules (five swings in the on-deck circle, tie the right shoe first). Some prefer a stats game (haunted by RBIs, ERAs, etc.). All, however, believe a field should be pristine.
Grounds crew members don't keep individual stats or ritually clean the right field before going to left. But there is protocol for the crew to follow at Victory Field: tuck in your shirt; don't bend over with your rear facing the crowd; and do not, repeat, do not idly stand on the grass.
"We tell people don't run, don't point. If people see the grounds crew running or looking nervous, it might make the fans think there's something wrong or think rain's coming in. It's kinda out of sight, out of mind," said Stevenson. "For me the grounds crew should be a behind-the-scenes kind of thing."
He could have easily gone into another field, so to speak. In the past, he worked at a golf course which was a 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. job. “Unless you were working at a PGA tour event every year, it wasn't worth it for me. I like the stress of having some of the highest-paid best athletes in baseball playing on your field."
Now, he's on the same field with minor league's best players. In turn, he expects the best from his crew. The lawn is everything.
“It’s kind of a respect thing. I think the players worked hard and they deserve to be out there," he said. “You think of a baseball field and all the tradition. You should feel privileged and honored to walk out there.”
To contact Scott L. Miley, call 648-4230 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go What: Indianapolis Indians baseball Where: Victory Field, West and Maryland streets, Indianapolis When: For July, home games are July 13-14 and 26-31. The last home game is Aug. 31. For a schedule, go to www.indyindians.com Scott L. Miley is associate editor for features for The Herald Bulletin. This is his first year working part-time as a member of the Indianapolis Indians grounds crew.