The sun is certainly shining in Wrigleyville. After all, the Chicago Cubs have the best record in baseball.
For Chicago Cubs Head Groundskeeper Justin Spillman, he’s not only excited about the fast start for the home team, but also the home field. With a mild winter in Chicago this year, the turf woke up nicely. Two years ago they had to remove 5,000 cubic yards of snow before they could even get to work. This year, a mild winter meant no Bobcats loading snow into dump trucks, and no permafrost in the ground.
Spillman has built baseball fields all over the country, from Washington to Texas, Arizona to Massachusetts. He estimates he’s built between 50 to 75 fields around the country, minor league and major league. And that includes when Wrigley Field was renovated in 2007.
“I never thought in a million years I’d be back here as head groundskeeper someday,” Spillman says. “I don’t take it for granted coming here everyday. I step back and look at it, it’s a pretty prestigious job.”
Spillman was born in a small town in southern Illinois called Dupo, population 3,933. He went to school at Lewis and Clark in Godfrey, Ill. From there, he interned at the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis. After the internship he traveled to Jupiter, Fla., to build a 13-field baseball complex. It was there that the sports field construction bug bit him.
Spillman took the job of head groundskeeper for the Cubs in 2013. All that experience building ball fields will come in handy at Wrigley, as the stadium will undergo more renovations in the upcoming offseason, meaning the field will turn into a construction site once the Cubs’ season ends.
“We’ll lose the whole field due to renovation of the stands, for renovation for the stadium, the dugouts. They’ve got to get dump trucks in here and there’s only one entrance to the field,” Spillman says. “They’ll come to the field with heavy equipment, they’ll put the road grade material down and do their thing. We’ll pull it off in the spring and hopefully they give us a good six weeks to get it back into play.”
The old field — perhaps a World Series winning field? — will be at the mercy of the construction equipment.
“We don’t want to take the grass out initially because there will be some contamination — rocks and stuff — we want to get that all out, we don’t want it in our root zone mix,” he says. “Once they’re done, we’ll peel the grass off and layer new grass after grading.”
Spillman says the team and Manager Joe Maddon are good guys who don’t ask for anything out of the ordinary for the field.
“Our main concern is the clay — we spend 70 to 80 percent of the time on the clay,” Spillman says. “At any time you can have upward of 10 guys on the clay surface and only three guys on the grass.”
The famous ivy is one of the things he’s most often asked about. Fans grow concerned when the ivy doesn’t green up right away early in the season. But Spillman puts them at ease. It’s a hearty plant, he says, and just needs consistent warm weather to green up.
When Athletic Turf visited Spillman and his team in early May, the crew was tining the field with a Toro ProCore. They also have an Air2G2 that Spillman says he uses regularly in heavily trafficked areas.
Spillman jokes that with so many fans touring the stadium daily, he can’t do anything too out of the ordinary or he’ll stress out those fans who have such a passion for Wrigley Field.
“I enjoy a good challenge,” he says. “I enjoy a challenge, and it’s my job, and my crew, to get it back into play.”