A LABOR OF LOVE
By BRANDON HURLEY
They are the artists that keep the field green and perfect. Precision, patience, preparation and dedication are their paintbrushes.
The Principal Park grounds crew, or Iowa Curbs Sports Turf Management, which handled Greene County’s baseball field renovation in 2015, works tirelessly to keep the downtown Des Moines field in pristine condition, throughout a year-long schedule that entails 100 games over a five month span.
And their championship game or showcase, per say, is the entire week of the Iowa High Scholl baseball state tournament, being held now through Saturday, where 32 schools embark on the cathedral that has become Principal Park.
For the playing field to endure thousands of footsteps, slides, grounds and divots, it must undergo a vigorous training regime, months in advance.
The final product that players and fans see now takes months of preparation - constant tweaking, mowing, watering and analyzing engineered by head groundskeeper, Chris Schlosser.
“What we try to do is build up. This isn’t a normal week for us,” Schlosser said of the state tournament. “We pretty much call it a prep week. All turf related stuff is done months in advance, building it’s way up. We have already aerated the field six or seven times to keep the compaction out. Our fertilizing program, our disease control program, everything is leading up to this so it looks healthy and bounces back quick.”
For once late July rolls around, it’s show time.
BOUNCE BACK AND SURVIVE
Survive the heat, survive the rain and survive the foot traffic.
Field temperatures on Thursday, July 21 hovered around 125 degrees during the Iowa Cubs final game in an extended home stand.
The state tournament started the next evening, with a double header of Class 1A action. Two more games were played Saturday, July 23.
The heat is the grounds crew’s biggest enemy. Any watering they do evaporates quickly with temperatures hovering near the 90s. And any over night rain gets trapped in the top layer of the soil thanks to the high humidity.
It comes down to speed and relying on the work they’ve put in months ahead of time to help the field survive.
“You can only cool it down so much when you have a double header on Friday and Saturday,” Schlosser said. “Sunday was an off day and you have to protect the turf so I had to spray fungicide to protect to keep the plant healthy. We are in a disease prone situation right now until we hit a cold front in the low 80s and it’s fine.”
The field is constructed to bounce back quickly thanks to coddling from Schlosser and company. They use a detailed disease control and pesticide program to keep the grass healthy and strong. The infield clay, or dirt, is constantly shaped and watered. The field begins taking form once the snow melts in the spring.
“To keep it all together, you hope everything is done way in advance,” Schlosser said. “Most people aren’t going to see it but we are starting to have it get compacted around home plate and the coaches stand in the box. You have 28 games in one week and we have 72 Iowa Cubs games over the course of the season. So you are playing a quarter of the season in one week.”
Once the games are over for the day, the grounds crew has a little more time to rework the field, mixing the infield clay and dousing the field with water to soften it up and keep the grass healthy.
LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION
The state tournament is grounds crew’s annual art gallery extravaganza, if you will.
From now until Sunday morning, all the grounds crew can do is polish - now is the time for the Principal Park masterpiece to shine.
With four games a day, 20 minute windows in between games are all they have to keep the field in as good as shape as they can, watering, touching up and redrawing the baselines. It’s a job that takes about 10 people to get done efficiently in under 30 minutes.
“In 20 minutes, you are moving to get it done. You’d like longer, but it’s all on a schedule,” Schlosser said. “But on days like this (Monday temperatures were in the upper 80s), if we had another 10 minutes to water, it doesn’t matter because it’s all going to go.”
With the impending threat of rain storms on Thursday and Friday, the grounds crew isn’t worried - rain is no match for the Principal Park field.
The drainage system that’s installed is made to flush out water as quick as possible.
Underneath the grass lays 12 inches of sand, four inches of pea gravel and drainage tile every 15 feet.
“She sucks through (water) fast,” Schlosser said.
THE PERFECT PLAYING SURFACE
The length of the Principal Park grass and the firmness of the infield dirt makes for a fast playing surface, one that many high school players aren’t used to. Schlosser keeps the grass at a length of seven-eighths of an inch to allow the ball to scoot across with ease.
Most high school fields aren’t as pristine as Principal Park, and frankly, many high schools don’t have the resources or time to create such a smooth field.
A high school infield will often have a “lip” where the grass meets the infield dirt, which causes the ball to bounce on occasion. Not at Principal Park.
“It’s fast,” Schlosser said of the Principal Park infield. “It’s not as fast as southern fields on the Bermuda grass where they cut it even shorter, but it’s pretty quick. It moves. That’s the thing that catches teams that haven’t been here, the speed.
It comes off the bat, at their fields, it might slow down as it comes across the grass where this is really fast. It’s like a clay court tennis surface in how quick it plays. You’ll see some (high school players) a little hesitant, they are expecting a hop. It just goes through a lot faster. It’s just getting used to it. Those first few ground balls come at you fast.”
Schlosser noted how the quick infield is something the professional players love. He and his crew members mow the field every game day and every other day during a road trip.
The early year preparation is something that helps the grass as well. Schlosser “trains” the grass to stay strong and healthy at less than an inch of length.
“It’s got to survive in this heat,” he said. “We aren’t mowing our lawns at this length, we are letting it get to three inches to get through this heat. You have to train it and train it right.”
Foot traffic does more damage to the grass then anything else.
The high school tournament provides a different type of wear on the field. The young athletes roam more of the field than professionals, especially in the infield. They glide, dive, run and leap all across the dirt, whereas professional players pick a location and rarely move from where they are comfortable.
Professionals are spot players and are only in about four similar areas.
“You’ll never see any of the clay in the middle of the infield disrupted because they play in their position spots,” Schlosser said. “(The high school kids) move a lot and use the whole infield. That’s part of the game, moving around.”
FINDING HIS ESCAPE
Schlosser has spent the last 17 summers with the Iowa Cubs organization and has overseen each state tournament played at Principal Park.
The Iowa High School Athletic Association moved the baseball state tourney to Des Moines in 2005.
The head grounds keeper finds solace in his work, his art. He and his colleagues create a masterpiece everyday, whether in the outfield grass design or the sleek, smooth infield dirt and the perfectly straight baselines.
“For me, there’s peace in it. You’re out on the outfield mower for an hour and a half, and you’ve got some headphones in listening to music. And you’re just designing,” he said. “We put a big checkerboard (pattern) in the outfield for this state tournament to look a little different. We can create all different kinds of things and that’s the fun part.
It is a labor of love. If you have your field looking good, the fans notice it and the players comment on how well the infield dirt is. It’s that overall satisfaction.”
The heads groundskeeper pulls all the right strings, barks out the right orders and takes the time to invest in his product that is seen and played on by thousands of people each night. He creates the masterpiece with a strong dedication and passion for detail.
“Getting the clay right is how you make your money as a good groundskeeper,” Schlosser said. “You want to get the mound, infield and plate (dirt) perfect at this level (at Triple A) because a lot of these guys have been up there (in the Majors).”
When the state tournament concludes on Saturday, the grounds crew will completely strip the top layers of the dirt. Then begins the hydration process in which they will flood the field in order to get the “moisture lock” back in play. They will then wait a few days to aerate the field to let it breathe. The constant foot traffic from the dozens of players each day causes the field to compact.
“The (high school players) are literally on the field for 12 hours a day, stretching at 10 a.m. and playing until 10 p.m.,” Schlosser said.
The Iowa Cubs grounds crew isn’t a one park show either, as they take on several field makeovers each year in addition to Greene County’s renovation last year. The team has completed dozens of renovations and new constructions of fields across the state, including baseball and soccer fields. They have redesigned fields for Saydel, Winterset, Pella, Tri-Center, Van Meter and ADM in recent years and have renovated fields for Wartburg and Grinnell Colleges as well as Drake University. The grounds crew has completed eight different projects so far this year.
Schlosser hopes the weather begins to cooperate a bit more as the state tourney comes to a close and the Iowa Cubs near the tail end of their season. Lately, the conditions have been a little too warm for everyone.
“You always hope to have mother nature help out. If we can get the rest of the humidity to get out of here and it’s a beautiful 80 degrees, it will help quite a bit,” the groundskeeper said. “And it’s hard on the players too. Even the fans, sitting in the bowl area, feel it too, there’s no escape from (the heat). Out in the outfield, the players get the breeze.