Every baseball fan remembers the moment. That time when they walked through the stadium gates for the first time, and as they emerged from the underbelly of the stadium and into the light, the smell of fresh cut grass hit them in the face just before they were stopped in their tracks at the sight of the greenest field they had ever seen.
Nashvillians don’t have to go far to find a similar experience. Despite ongoing debate about the future of the walls around it, the playing surface at the Nashville Sounds’ Herschel Greer Stadium is second to none. It was the inaugural winner of the Tennessee Turfgrass Associations’ Professional Field of the Year award in 2011, beating out eight other minor league ballparks across the state and the Tennessee Titans’ home, LP Field. Curious how the pristine field at Greer Stadium is prepared for each game, I spent a day with head groundskeeper Thomas Trotter. As the Sounds’ season is drawing to a close, we felt it important to stop a moment and reflect on the ones who make the game possible and all their hard work and effort to ensure that each and every game, the Sounds are ready to “Play ball!”
10:00 a.m. I arrived to meet Trotter, who is a graduate of the Clemson University turf management program and previously worked with the San Diego Padres and Triple-A Louisville Bats before coming to Nashville in 2009. When I met him, he was already checking the mowers used to cut the outfield and infield grass, making sure they were exactly at the right height. He explained, “the first thing we do every day is mow and then water the dirt, which is the most important thing in baseball.”
At this point in the day he had already checked the weather, which he says he does about every two hours each day, and had planned out how many times the infield would need to be watered on the summer’s first 90 degree day in order to be at its peak come first pitch at 7:05 p.m. He and his crew would also have to work around a team workout and batting practice, scheduled to start at 3 p.m.
“The weather really dictates everything we do on a daily basis. It determines when or if we are able to mow the field and how much time we’ll need to spend watering the infield to keep the clay moist.”
Compared to major league grounds crews that can be as large as 20 people, Trotter’s team is much more compact. Trotter is ably supported by Alex Norman, his lone full-time assistant since 2010, and two turfgrass and landscape management student interns from The University of Tennessee at Martin, both undergoing their first professional experience working in baseball. When rain comes into the picture, though, and the tarp has to be pulled onto the field, the front office staff is called into duty and drafted to help with that task.
After the mowers are checked and ready to go, Trotter gets one intern started on a riding mower cutting the outfield to 5/8 of an inch, in a rounded pattern matching the curve of the infield dirt, which will take nearly an hour. The crew is managing a transition from the cool season perennial ryegrass to the warm season hybrid Bermuda, which dictates how low they will cut the grass in order to encourage the Bermuda grass to grow more quickly and naturally push out the rye. At the same time, they remain conscious of the pattern they mow the grass in, looking to avoid what they call a “ball snake” – where a ball rolling through the grass can take an awkward hop and cause problems for an outfielder attempting to make a play. In the infield, Norman is working with the other intern showing him how to properly cut and stripe the infield grass with a walk behind mower.
11:20 a.m. With the mowing done, attention turns to the infield dirt and pitcher’s mound. Trotter does a quick test of the infield dirt moisture level by sticking a key that looks like a player’s cleat into the dirt. The depth he is able to stick the key in determines how much watering will need to be done later.
Trotter says of the infield that, “the key to watering the infield is that you want it to be moist enough for the player’s cleats to go in but not so wet that it sticks to their cleats.”
The first part of the infield that will be tended to is what Trotter considers the most important part – the pitcher’s mound. “Because it gets so much more use in the same spots every game, the dirt used on the mound has a lot higher clay content to help it compact more and survive longer.”
Trotter takes a bag of clay dirt and hand fills the landing area on the pitcher’s mound, before hand-smoothing it and compacting it with a tamping tool. The mound requires the most attention each day because it is dictated by rule to be a certain height, 10 inches higher than home plate, with appropriate downward slope towards the plate.
11:45 a.m. With the mound repairs completed, Norman and the interns begin to water the base paths, based on the results of Trotter’s earlier test. Trotter himself then moves to the home plate area where he begins filling in the spots in the batter’s box that were dug out the previous game. After sweeping away the softer top layer, he again hand fills the holes with clay and tamps them down to compact the dirt. In the batter’s box area, Trotter is consciously trying to produce three different consistencies of surfaces. In the box for batters, he wants if soft enough for them to dig into a little bit. Then behind the plate the dirt will need to be a bit more compacted for the catcher, while it needs to be more moist and softer in the “wedge” area in front of home plate to help soften ground balls.
12:00 p.m. Trotter and his team continue to water the entire infield dirt to a near point of saturation, so it has time to soak into the ground before batting practice. They also turn their attention to the bullpens, preparing the mounds in each bullpen.
2:00 p.m. After having a little time to cool off and have lunch, the setup for batting practice begins. The process of setting up the cage around the home plate area and putting down protective mats takes about 20 minutes. By 2:30, the infield dirt has dried to the ideal moisture level, and the field is ready for teams to start batting practice and workouts.
5:30 p.m. Batting practice and workouts are completed, and now the hitting cage and mats are removed from the field. The infield gets another dragging to smooth out the wear and tear from the afternoon workouts.
6:00 p.m. The gates open, and fans begin trickling into the stadium to find their seats. As they do, they see Trotter and two of his crew hand dragging the field while the fourth is back on the mound again, filling in holes created by pitchers during batting practice.
6:15 p.m. Trotter begins the process of watering the infield for the final time, a process that will take nearly 30 minutes. At the same time Norman and the interns are laying the guide strings down the baselines and around home plate that they will follow as they put down the white chalk lines.
6:40 p.m. The lines are in place just as the Sounds players begin their stretching in the left field area. Trotter takes a break from watering to give the pitcher’s mound one last drag and sweeps it with a broom to perfection before hitting it with one last splash of water.
6:45 p.m. Trotter walks the home plate area, reaching down to test the dirt with his hand in multiple areas before hitting the area one last time with some water. At the same time, the bases are being put into place. The crew finishes and clears the field by 6:52, just in time for the ceremonial first pitch at 6:54.
7:05 p.m. Nashville’s Johnny Hellweg delivers the first pitch of the game. At the same time, Trotter has his eyes focused on the infield. “For the first inning I’m usually watching the second baseman and shortstop’s cleats to see if they are clogging up with clay. If they are not, then I’m pretty well set. Same thing with the pitcher’s mound, I always like to watch and make sure they aren’t slipping,” said Trotter with a watchful eye on the infield.
It isn’t all rest during the game for Trotter and his crew, though. After the third and sixth innings, they are out dragging the infield to keep it smooth for play.
9:33 p.m. Omaha’s Brett Hayes strikes out swinging and the Sounds win 5-2. The night isn’t over for Trotter and his team – not by a long shot. They make their way to an access gate down left field line, and as soon as the last out is recorded, they are moving back out onto the field. As the crowd goes home celebrating a Sounds victory, Trotter and his crew have another hour ahead of them cleaning up the field and getting it ready to do all over again tomorrow.