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A weeknight with the Whitecaps

July 19, 2019  - By

For many, nothing says summer quite like a trip to the ballpark to eat a hot dog, drink a beer and cheer on the local baseball team. 

Photo: Athletic Turf Staff

Recently, I had the opportunity to help out Mitch Hooten and his crew on the field at Fifth Third Ballpark during a West Michigan Whitecaps game. I’m second from the left. Photo: Athletic Turf Staff

While they enjoy their hot dogs and sip their brews, many fans may not realize that a major part of the baseball experience is a well-maintained playing surface. Recently, I had the opportunity to join Mitch Hooten and his crew at Fifth Third Ballpark, home of the West Michigan Whitecaps, to see firsthand what it takes to maintain a ball field. I also participated in a few of the tasks the crew undertakes, and gained a few new skills in the process. 

Hooten is head groundskeeper for the ballpark. A graduate of Mississippi State University, he has been in the sports turf industry for 11 years and has spent the last three at Fifth Third. 

“Mitch only has one rule,” I was warned beforehand. “No walking on the turf.” No less than 10 minutes later a local high school band tramped over the field to play the national anthem.

It’s understandable why he doesn’t want anyone messing with the turf. When he started, the field was about 40 percent poa annua, but now he proudly points out that there are only three small spots in the entire ballpark.  

Hooten and his crew were happy to let me join them while they went about their pre-game duties. They even gave me a Fifth Third Ballpark Grounds Crew shirt so I wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb. After hanging back for a few minutes to get the lay of the land, I was asked to join Hooten and his team as they watered down the clay before the game. 

Photo: Athletic Turf Staff

I was given the chance to drag the infield after the sixth inning and even though I was fairly nervous, I still think I did a pretty good job. Photo: Athletic Turf Staff

Though holding a portion of a hose probably isn’t the most interesting job associated with sports turf, I have to admit I found it pretty thrilling. I grew up going to Whitecaps games and my seven-year-old self never would have imagined I would one day be standing in the infield, getting the field ready for a game.

During play, the crew either hung out next to the visiting team’s dugout, or dispersed to do odd jobs in the shop. But everyone was back in time for the end of the third inning, when the infield is dragged. Hooten asked me if I wanted to try it, and told me if I didn’t I would have another chance after the sixth inning.

I have always liked to watch and learn, so I decided to observe how it was done before committing to going out in front of thousands and potentially making a fool of myself. But after the sixth inning, it was my time to shine. Or something along those lines.

Hooten and the other crew members gave me a few pointers beforehand. “Make sure the bolts are facing up. When you lift it, make sure you drag as you lift so you don’t get a giant pile of clay in one spot. And whatever you do, don’t drag over the foul line,” I was instructed. The pressure was on.

Photo: Athletic Turf Staff

After the game the real work begins. Mitch Hooten, left, and his crew clean dugouts and repair the pitcher’s mound and batter’s box. That green handle in the lower left is the tamp. My favorite (and least favorite) tool of the trade. Photo: Athletic Turf Staff

I’d like to say I was very cool and casual about the whole thing, but I was pretty nervous, though I tried not to show it. Overall, I think I managed to do a pretty good job, or at least not embarrass myself and the rest of the crew. Reflecting on the experience, I’d say dragging the clay was akin to walking a very stubborn, very heavy, slightly tipsy dog.

Immediately after the game the crew got to work cleaning the dugouts, tending to turf and repairing the pitcher’s mound and batter’s box. I was once again encouraged to join in the action.

I learned two things: Baseball players are very messy (seriously, I think their mothers would be appalled to see the state of the dugouts after a game) and I do not have the upper-body strength required for effective tamping, though I tried anyway and the crew very politely told me I did a great job before going back over what I had done.

Though it wasn’t my strong suit, I did like tamping. It’s a great stress reliever and one of those jobs — much like maintaining the playing surface overall — that leaves you feeling very satisfied with your work (even if, as in my case, it’s a little sub-par).

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