HIGH MAINTENANCE It's about 4 a.m. You're at home in bed, enjoying some REMs and dreaming. For Steve Horne, Memphis Redbirds director of field operations, this is one of his favorite times. "I have dreams," he says, "and when I wake up, I put field patterns on paper and then talk to the guys on the grounds crew. After the pattern is mowed on the field, we get satisfaction from fans' feedback."
The three-man full-time crew works long hours through the Mid-South summer heat and winter cold all year round. "In July and August, it's pretty hot," says grounds crew worker Ed Collins. Just as the Redbirds have a strategy to win baseball games, the grounds crew has its own system to work through the extremes of Mother Nature. "You gotta come out in 20-minute shifts and drink a lot of water," says Jeff Vincent, another crew member.
Despite an ever-changing and sometimes unpredictable schedule due to rain, the grounds-crew staff is passionate about the results of their collective work. "It's a lot harder than I thought. It all pays off when you see how good the field looks at the end of the day," says Vincent.
The normal routine for the crew includes pre-game field preparation mowing, applying fresh chalk lines and post-game care, such as raking and filling holes. Some people compare grounds-crew work to gardening, but that's like comparing redbirds to bluejays. "The difference between gardening and yard-building is I have about 25 guys who come out and attempt to tear everything up that I do," Horne says. "They're out there to play a game. That's their business. It's our job to make it where they're as comfortable as possible doing that."
Most of the grounds work at AutoZone Park is unglamorous, to say the least. There are no fans in the stands, no hot dogs, no apple pies, and no excitement in the air. This ballpark scene is all about preparing the field of dreams.
Redbirds catcher Alex Andreopoulos says he admires and respects the job the grounds crew does. Andreopoulos also understands how hard work behind the scenes can often be overlooked. "The fans don't see what they're doing before the game, what they do after the game especially, and then in between innings," says Andreopoulos. "You don't see the guys doing their job, but it makes it easier for us to go out there and play."
The grounds work is not just for show. Maintaining a quality playing surface can help prevent injuries. The coaching staff and players can tell a good field from a bad one. "Say the field is too soft," says Redbirds manager Gaylen Pitts. "You're gonna have guys slipping and sliding out there. They'll have a tendency to pull a muscle or whatever. If it's too hard when they slide, they can hurt themselves. Or if the grass has some bad spots, if it's loose, they can catch their spikes. A good playing surface is worth its weight in gold."
Or diamonds. n