Who has nicest lawn in the neighborhood? In Indy, it's groundskeeper for Victory Field
By TOM CAMPBELL
When Joey Stevenson, BS '06, goes to the ballpark to get ready for the game, he's thinking about one thing: a perfect game.
As head groundskeeper for the Indianapolis Indians, a perfect game doesn't necessarily involve no runs, hits or errors. For Stevenson and his crew, the perfect game occurs when no player complains of a bad hop, a slow infield or a soft pitcher's mound.
Photo by Tom Campbell
The downtown Indianapolis skyline provided a scenic backdrop as Joey Stevenson (left) and Tyler Macali prepared Victory Field for an Indianapolis Indians game earlier this summer.
He's had enough perfect games to be named the 2011 Triple-A Sports Turf Manager of the Year in a vote by league managers.
The 28-year-old Stevenson, a native of Dwight, Ill., got his start as a groundskeeper at the age of 15, driving tractors at his local country club before he even had a driver's license.
While at Purdue studying turf science, Stevenson worked for two summers for the Joliet JackHammers, an independent baseball team. That job steered him away from golf course management and toward his present career path, which he hopes will lead to groundskeeper for a major-league team. The Indians are at the Class-AAA level, the highest of baseball's minor-league system, and are affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Stevenson held internships with the Kansas City Royals and Philadelphia Phillies before landing a full-time job at Victory Field in Indianapolis in 2007. He became the head groundskeeper the following year.
The grounds crew prepares the field for 72 Indians games and a dozen or so high school and college games a year. Indians manager Dean Treanor said Stevenson takes care of the field as if it were his own backyard.
"When you go around the league, it's all about playing surface, and our playing surface is the best in the league," Treanor said.
Stevenson and his three-man crew let Connections follow them as they prepared Victory Field for a night home game during the last week of May.
Photo by Tom Campbell
For Stevenson, record–high temperatures can be neutralized by record amounts of water sprinkled on the Victory Field turf.
9:00 a.m. — The day starts clear and bright with the lowlight of the job for Stevenson: the hour spent cleaning up the residue of last night's game from the warning track and dugouts. The crew uses a leaf blower to clear away sunflower seeds and peanut shells left behind from players and fans.
"It's one of the most mind-numbing jobs but one of the most important," Stevenson says. "This is the first thing a visiting team will see when they arrive at Victory Field, and we want them to feel comfortable in the dugout."
9:10 a.m. — Stevenson works on the bullpen pitching mounds while his assistant, George Peters, reconditions the mound on the field.
Intern Dan Keene drags the infield dirt with a metal screen pulled behind a tractor while the other intern, Tyler Macali (pronounced ma-CALL-ee), a Purdue turf management senior, rides a Toro mower as he cuts the Kentucky bluegrass field to a length of just over 1 inch.
9:30 a.m. — The skin of the infield is nail-dragged with a tool that performs exactly as you might expect. Rows of nails exposed from a wooden bar knife through the top one-eighth inch of infield dirt.
"The nail drag opens up the infield dirt and levels cleat marks from the night before," Stevenson says. The crew does this again at 10:20 a.m.
9:40 a.m. — Macali is already on his second mowing pass. He goes back and forth from the first-base line to the outfield warning track until the entire field has been cut. Then he does the same from the third-base line to the wall.
"The field is mowed every day when the team is in town," Stevenson says. "The field is basically one big USGA golf green, and we treat it that way. And just like golf, ball roll is very important. We cut the grass to a 1-inch height so the ball rolls consistently for the players."
9:55 a.m. — Stevenson places six bags of calcined clay as a conditioner around the infield while Peters waters the infield grass. Calling it dirt is a misnomer. It's a mixture of sand and tiny clay pellets that retain moisture to help keep the field playable. Stevenson spreads the clay with a shovel, then evenly distributes it across the entire infield with a metal rake and a flat bar dragged behind a tractor to create a consistently smooth infield.
"We want the conditioner level to be the same depth everywhere," he says. "Players move from first base to second, or from third base to first base, so it is important that they get the same bounce at each position," Stevenson said. "It helps with player muscle memory, but it also builds confidence that a player is going to get the same bounce everywhere in the infield."
11:30 a.m. — The entire crew pitches in to water the infield, making sure the hose does not touch the ground. A wet hose dragged across the infield dirt could make the wet clay clump together.
Stevenson takes temperature readings of the turf to make sure it doesn't reach stress levels that would damage the grass.
"I'm always looking to see even the slightest discoloration that would indicate the grass is stressed."
Stevenson calls this watering session the most important of the day, especially since temperatures have been unseasonably high.