Over the upcoming weeks baseball groundskeepers will go through one of the greatest traditions – Baseball Opening Day. The start of each new baseball season finds every team even in the standings and full of optimism. For the groundskeeper, it’s the start of another long season but just like everyone else, the groundskeeper is equally excited to get the season underway.
I remember my days in Major League Baseball back in the late 80s & 90s in Baltimore, we would typically shut down the grounds operation around Thanksgivin gafter the long baseball season. At that point I was usually pretty burned out from the season and ready for some extended time off to recharge the old batteries. Once the Christmas and New Year’s holidays passed and winter was in full swing, I would start looking forward to working on the field again. Finally, around March 1st, we would move from inside work to the ballfield – it was like being let out of the insane asylum.
Groundskeepers just aren’t mentally cut out to being cooped up indoors for long periods of time. It was such a free feeling getting outside, working under the sunshine and breathing the fresh, cool Spring air. But the best was the smell of the first mowing around the 2nd or 3rd week of March. Our senses are so heightened for that first mowing. By June we rarely even notice that aroma. As we would work on the mound and plate areas we would begin to start talking about how quiet the stadium was. We were beginning to count the days before the bowl would be full of fans again gazing at our meticulous and artful groundskeeping. Our canvas, the field, as our rake strokes and mowing patterns created crisp sharp edges and geometric shapes and lines with a colorful palate of various shades of green, red, tan, brown and white.
As the sun would rise on the morning of Opening Day the ballpark would quickly come to life with media beginning their wall-to-wall coverage leading up to the first pitch. The ground crew would work quickly to get the final mowings in and all other work before the surging media would become too big of a hurdle. Meanwhile the aroma of ballpark concessions would begin to waft through the air. By now, all of our senses were working in overdrive signaling the beginning of the baseball season. Music would be blaring from the ballpark sound system as the batting practice screens are set up. A final coat of water would be applied to the infield skin, the water always so cold at this time in early spring that any kind of a breeze would send those cold droplets of water flowing from your hose nozzle right onto you and your face sending a shiver up your spine.
Players make their way out of the home dugout for the first batting practice (BP) of the regular season while the fans stream into the seating bowl jockeying for position for an opportunity to catch a well hit BP ball. Kids and adults alike begin to holler and beg to the players to throw them up a baseball for a souvenir. And then you hear it… The crack of the bat echoing in the ballpark. Everything is falling into place.
As batting practice ends, the groundcrew scatters to gather up the batting practice screens and scamper on to their pregame field duties, dragging the field, chalking the boxes and lines, tidying up the mound and plate areas and one final shot of water on the skin. Let the pregame festivities begin! Dignitaries are introduced, followed by both teams as they line up on the foul lines. The anthem is sung by what is now just about a full house in the seating bowl. A military “fly over” ends the anthem and whips the anticipating crowd into a frenzy. The honorary first pitch is thrown and the home plate umpire yells “PLAY BALL!” as the fans roar with approval. And with those two words, the season is underway. The groundcrew looks upon their field with pride as the game commences, checks the appearance on the television monitors and can finally relax and enjoy the fruits of their preseason labor.
Here is to all of the baseball and softball ground crews at all levels who, through back aches, sweat and long hours, pave the way for “America’s Pastime” while painting the equivalent of a Van Gogh each day on their field. These are some of the hardest working men and women during the dog days of summer often logging 60 hours or more a week to maintain their ballfields.
Good luck to all of you this season and may the rains of summer fall only at night after your games.