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At annual conference, MLB groundskeepers talk tools and trade




Mike Boekholder, Head Groundskeeper for the Philadelphia Phillies, teaches a clinic on maintaining infield dirt.
Mike Boekholder, Head Groundskeeper for the Philadelphia Phillies, teaches a clinic on maintaining infield dirt.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC
Mike Boekholder, Head Groundskeeper for the Philadelphia Phillies, teaches a clinic on maintaining infield dirt.
Joi Grant and Reginald Briggs with the Los Angeles Parks Department sit in the Dodgers home dugout. Grant is the daughter of two-time all-star baseball player Mudcat Grant
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC
Mike Boekholder, Head Groundskeeper for the Philadelphia Phillies, teaches a clinic on maintaining infield dirt.
Mike Boekholder, Head Groundskeeper for the Philadelphia Phillies, teaches a clinic on maintaining infield dirt.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC


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Today marks the last day of the 18th annual Groundskeeper Conference — a trade show and networking event — and the Dodgers are hosting it for the first time. The head groundskeepers from nearly every MLB team are on the field taking turns at a clinic for baseball diamond maintenance.

Five kinds of rakes are laid out in the infield, lined up side by side. Some are big, some small, some with giant wide teeth.

"This rake is just designed for scraping the very top little bit — the conditioner on top," says Bill Deacon, head groundskeeper for the New York Mets. "You can see the way the teeth are designed, it just pulls just enough so that you’re not getting into the dirt underneath."

In the audience at the clinic are high school coaches and groundskeepers from local parks departments, along with a few Dodgers employees taking cell phone photos.

Mike Boekholder, groundskeeper for the Philadelphia Phillies, pulls a nail board around third base. It's what it sounds like: basically a bed of nails.

"We pull them by hand, the advantage we think to that is it gives us a real nice feel for what our infield’s doing, literally every square foot of that field. And, it’s a good calf workout!" he says. "I’ll tell you, if you don’t want to go to the gym in the morning, pull a nail board every day, all season long. You’ll be in good shape."

Dodgers employees, high school coaches and local parks groundskeepers learned ways to maintain everything: from outfield grass to pitcher's mounds.
Dodgers employees, high school coaches and local parks groundskeepers learned ways to maintain everything: from outfield grass to pitcher's mounds.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

In the background, milling around second, other head groundskeepers talk shop. It doesn’t take a lot of guesswork to figure out who’s who. Boekholder’s wearing a Phillies batting practice jacket, others are in team T-shirts, hats, hoodies. For most of them, this conference is the only time they meet — groundskeepers only work home games, after all. 

Back to the lesson at hand -  Boekholder asks Eric Hansen, head groundskeeper for the Dodgers, to take a spin on the nail dragger cart. It looks like a giant lawnmower carrying a giant grid behind it.

"Eric has a reputation of having one of the absolute best infields in all of Major League Baseball," Boekholder says, just before the cart takes off. 

And what makes the best infield in baseball? Just two ingredients: dirt and water.

We have to wait — usually wait until the sun comes up just a little bit, because the previous night, we've watered pretty good," says Hansen. "By noon, we have all of our maintenance done on the field, it’s ready to go. And then we put more water on it. Because water is the key to controlling ball bounce." 

As Angelenos, maybe you feel uneasy thinking about so much water getting used just on dirt, which is understandable.

Hansen says yeah, it’s true, but it's necessary.

"To get this field in the kind of condition we need to get for these players, and have it be safe, we have to use 'x' amount of water. We can't do our job unless we use water."

Hansen adds that his crew uses moisture sensors in the ground to avoid waste.

For groundskeepers, a drought is sort of mixed blessing. Dodger Stadium hasn’t had to lay out the tarp since the year 2000. You can’t say the same for a place like Detroit.

"It’s definitely stressful," says Heather Nabozny, head groundskeeper for the Tigers. "Especially out in the Midwest and, you know, the tarp, and games get delayed."

If the life of a major league groundskeeper is anything like like that of a player, the rainout is the clutch at-bat in a tie game. There’s no other time a grounds crew is more visible, and no other time they’re in more danger. Nabozny tore a tendon on the tarp in 2014.

"I had one foot on the tarp and mid-stride, the tarp blew up, I landed on my knee," she says. "I had to be taken off the field because I couldn’t... without your patellar tendon attached, you can’t walk."

Nabozny says you can suffocate underneath the tarp — she’s had to cut colleagues out to rescue them.

The rest of the time, groundskeepers sweat the small stuff: What sod to use, which synthetic dirt mixes work best, which lawnmower you bring on for which job.

The 18th Annual MLB Groundskeepers Conference reunited groundskeepers from all over the nation at Dodgers Stadium
The 18th Annual MLB Groundskeepers Conference reunited groundskeepers from all over the nation at Dodgers Stadium
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

Joi Grant came to hear just that. She’s with the L.A. Parks Department. She said yeah, it’s cool to walk the bases at Dodger Stadium and yeah, when Yasiel Puig started working out in left field that was neat, too. But this is her job.

"Coming out here, we get a better understanding of how to maintain the infield, the grass. How to repair when they’re kicking out on the pitcher's mound and everything," Grany says. "We don’t get that."

After the clinic wraps up there are a couple speeches — and applause when the Dodgers give $50,000 to Pasadena’s John Muir High School for a new baseball diamond. There’s a big group photo at second base, a box lunch behind the dugout, and then the groundskeepers head home, where the work for next season’s already begun.