Polishing the diamond

The art of the Major League Baseball field

Created date

March 25th, 2019

The baseball field at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.

Anyone who’s walked through a Major League Baseball (MLB) stadium tunnel remembers the feeling the first time they did it. 

At the end of that dark cement enclosure was a rectangle of light. On the other side, you met with the most exquisite vision: A diamond and field the likes of which you had never seen.

The image seems as though it shot from a wand—pure magic—but it didn’t get that way by itself. And, no, they didn’t remove a protective cover two weeks before Opening Day.

A great piece of ground

These fields are the product of year-round diligence and upkeep. Recently, the Tribune spoke with John Turnour, director of field operations at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., about one of the most important parts of the baseball experience: a great piece of ground.

Tribune: Many people assume that the care of an MLB field is a seasonal thing, but this seems to be a year-round process. What’s involved in making the field look that good?

Turnour: We’re asked this question quite a bit. Our preparations for the upcoming season begin immediately after the conclusion of the previous season.

We’ll take advantage of the few remaining weeks of the growing season in the fall to rehab the field but also prepare it for the upcoming winter months.

This type of work generally consists of a series of aerifications, seedings, topdressings, mowings, timely irrigations, and resodding small isolated areas of the field that have thinned out.

The winter and early spring months are unpredictable and a bit challenging, so it’s important for us to be prepared by the end of fall so we can be ready in the spring for Opening Day.

Throughout the baseball season, we ultimately rely on Mother Nature. Weather plays a factor in just about every aspect of field management; as a result, we closely monitor current and future weather conditions, so we’re prepared for our management approach.

We have a dedicated group of professionals on our staff that monitors soil temperatures, soil moisture, soil nutrient levels, and overall turf health. Ultimately, we want to ensure that we’re providing the greatest baseball players in the world the best possible playing field so they can perform at their highest level.

Tribune: Tell us about your team.

Turnour: Our staff consists of some 40 people. It’s broken down into a few different categories.

Our game staff comprises the majority, which consists of 30 part-time employees who work on game days and a few other select nongame days when their assistance is needed.

We also have six part-time employees—interns—who work throughout the week as well as some weekends. These employees are generally local residents or students studying turfgrass management, horticulture, or another related field.

Our four full-time employees round out the staff. These individuals specialize in sportsfield management as well as horticulture and turfgrass management.

Tribune: What is the toughest time of year for the field, besides the playing season?

Turnour: The grass that we manage at Nationals Park is a four-way blend of Kentucky Bluegrass. It thrives in the spring and fall months.

Given our location, the spring and fall months can sometimes be rather short lived. When you factor that into a baseball season, it often feels like the window is even smaller for ideal growing conditions.

The summer months in Washington, D.C., can lead to an extended period of hot, humid days. That’s when it’s most difficult.

Tribune: What is the biggest challenge in keeping the field looking perfect?

Turnour: We face many challenges throughout the year, and working around Mother Nature is the biggest. Weather plays a huge role in everything we do in managing the playing surface while the team is in town, but also when they’re on the road.

Our best time to work is when the team leaves town, so we can be assured that the quality of the field lasts throughout the year.

Tribune: Does player safety factor into maintaining the field?

Turnour: Player safety has everything to do with the way we maintain the field. This is our number one objective as we prepare for every game.

And I’m not only speaking for us at Nationals Park—this is the same mind-set and goal for all sportsfield managers, amongst whom you’ll often hear the words: safety, consistency, and high quality.

We are a passionate group of professionals with the same goals for player safety.