Spotlight on: Angel Stadium’s Barney Lopas

May 23, 2013

Angel Stadium Head Groundskeeper Barney Lopas uses creativity and a lot of elbow grease to present a world-class playing surface. 

As the home ballpark of Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Angel Stadium is one of the most storied and beloved sports venues in America.

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Barney Lopas, Head Groundskeeper for the Anaheim Angels.

Famous milestones attained at the park include Mickey Mantle’s last game-winning home run, Nolan Ryan’s nine straight strikeouts against the Boston Red Sox and Reggie Jackson’s 500th career home run. The ballpark has also served as the backdrop for several motion pictures including The Naked Gun, Angels in the Outfield and The Fan.

Today, Angel Stadium continues its historic lineage as the home field for baseball superstar Albert Pujols, who is starting his second season with the Angels as first baseman. Upon his arrival in Anaheim, Pujols asked Head Groundskeeper Barney Lopas to remove some turf in front of first base.

“He prefers to have more dirt in front of him so throws from third base get a hard bounce off dirt instead of grass,” said Lopas. “It wasn’t really a big deal and I enjoyed doing it for him because he’s such a nice guy.”

Lopas is quite the baseball veteran himself, currently in his 16th season at Angel Stadium. He followed in his brother’s footsteps through turfgrass management, starting in Wisconsin, then working for the Houston Astros training facility in Florida, the Florida Marlins, and Richmond Braves before starting with the Angels in 1996.

Lopas’ famous field of Tifway 419 bermudagrass has the unfortunate distinction of being the only major professional sports field – baseball, football and soccer included – that sits on native soil without any drainage.

When Albert Pujols arrived in Anaheim last year, his one request of Lopas was to remove some grass in front of first base so that throws from the third baseman would bounce on dirt instead of grass. Lopas was happy to oblige the superstar, who he calls a “really nice guy.”

When Albert Pujols arrived in Anaheim last year, his one request of Lopas was to remove some grass in front of first base so that throws from the third baseman would bounce on dirt instead of grass. Lopas was happy to oblige the superstar, who he calls a “really nice guy.”

“It makes it really hard for us, but we deal with it,” said Lopas. “We have to be careful not to overwater. Because the water has nowhere to go, we can easily get root rot and black layer. So we do quite a bit of hand watering. We also aerify twice a month to get the water and nutrients down into the soil.”

Lopas will aerate before every home stand, and occasionally uses deep tines, going deeper as the season progresses. His infield mix comes from Stabilizer in Phoenix and is approximately 50% silt clay and 50% sand. He’ll nail drag 100 bags of calcite clay into the top ½” of mix before the season starts. Lopas will also steamroll before every home stand and roll first base every day with a 2.5 ton roller.

“After 16 years, I pretty much have it down to a science. In fact, my buddies tell me I’d screw up a sand-based field. They’re probably right,” says Lopas with a laugh.

In addition to a very comprehensive soil management strategy, Lopas has also developed some very innovative mowing patterns over the years. After 9/11, Lopas mowed a giant “USA” pattern into the outfield, using Jacobsen riding mowers and brooms to push the grass away from home plate inside the letters and his Jacobsen walk mowers going the other way for the outline.

“We’ve been using Jacobsen equipment for almost a decade,” said Lopas. “They’re the best machines I’ve ever used and the service we get from Jacobsen West is top notch. If we give them a call, they’re out here the same day.”

Barry Lopas operating a Jacobsen ECLIPSE 322 riding mower in the outfield. The Angels have been Jacobsen customers for almost a decade.

Barry Lopas operating a Jacobsen ECLIPSE 322 riding mower in the outfield. The Angels have been Jacobsen customers for almost a decade.

Lopas also uses his Jacobsen machines for some very strategic outfield mowing patterns. “To reduce lateral movement of balls moving through the grass [known as snaking], I only cross-cut behind the short stop and second baseman, leaving the areas in front of our outfielders with grass going in just two directions rather than four [see photo]. This gives the outfielders confidence knowing that bouncing balls coming their way will not snake.”

The strategy has been such a success that several other Major League teams have started using the same pattern.

Angels Owner Arte Moreno has also taken notice of of Lopas’ work and occasionally stops by to chat with the maintenance crew. During a post-game visit a few years ago, Moreno asked to use the non-existent restroom. One of the maintenance crew members replied that not only was there no bathroom, the crew didn’t even have a sink. Moreno was incredulous.

“Arte is a great, great owner and a wonderful guy,” said Lopas. “He took me aside and said ‘blow this place up and make it how you want it.’”

And that’s exactly what Lopas did.

A few years ago, Lopas created a mowing pattern that reduces ball snaking in the outfield. By cross-cutting the only areas behind the short stop and second baseman (where very few balls sneak through), it allows him to mow the outfielder areas in just two directions – thus reducing the chance a bouncing ball will move laterally on its way to an outfielder.

Half sports bar and half clubhouse, Lopas’ maintenance office is an incredibly unique space. The main room is lined with authentic clubhouse lockers, complete with nameplate and number (year started) for each crew member. When the game is on, the guys watch the action from leather recliners perched in front of a huge flat-screen television.

But the creature comforts of home are important for Lopas because time off at this level just isn’t an option. “I typically get here about 9am and leave around 11pm. My next day off will be in October. When you’re grilling dogs on the Fourth of July or sleeping late on a Sunday morning, I’ll be here,” he says.

The grind of 81 home games provides all kinds of challenges for Lopas and his team. But like so many other turfgrass managers around the country, it’s a vocation that’s in his blood. Each day is another opportunity to prepare a world-class playing surface for the Angels.

A small red and dusty iron sign that hangs in the maintenance office sums it all up in just five words: Rake like a champion today.

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