Big League field maintenance tips from “The Sod Father”

Mariners Head Groundskeeper Bob Christofferson shares his field maintenance knowledge with youth baseball/softball representatives.

Mariners Head Groundskeeper Bob Christofferson shares his field maintenance knowledge with youth baseball/softball representatives.

Representatives from youth baseball and softball organizations from around the greater Seattle area got some “inside baseball” tips on how to keep their fields in Major League condition from one of the best grounds crews in MLB.

Mariners head groundskeeper Bob Christofferson and his crew led participants in a field maintenance clinic put on by Baseball Tomorrow Fund, an organization that provides grants to support youth baseball and softball programs.

Some 60 youth baseball/softball organization representatives started their afternoon at Safeco Field with a slide show, narrated by Christofferson, that gave insight into what it takes to keep a ballpark Major League-ready, followed by break-out groups to focus on such things as fertilizing, equipment and the pitcher’s mound.

Major League Baseball inspects to every field every-other-year, but Christofferson says he and his crew start every spring with a high-tech survey of Safeco Field. They laser-level home plate, measure the mound to make sure it’s regulation height and check to make sure the pitcher’s slab is 60-feet-six-inches from home, and that all the bases are the requisite 90-feet apart.

The mound, which is made of packed “Gator Gumbo” clay from the Mississippi River, is the purview of assistant groundskeeper Tim Wilson. Each spring, Wilson sets a new slab in the mound, burying it six-inches deep, and “packs the clay like asphalt” on the front slope of the mound. All season, Wilson works with the pitchers to make sure the mound is to his liking for every start.

Assistant Groundskeeper Tim Wilson, who is the mound pro, offers tips on how to build and maintain a pitcher’s mound.

Assistant Groundskeeper Tim Wilson, who is the mound pro, offers tips on how to build and maintain a pitcher’s mound.

To keep the field looking and playing its best, the crew will aerate twice a season (putting down some 15 tons of sand after each treatment), fertilize regularly, water and mow. In the middle of the season, when the team is home, the infield grass will be watered four times a day, and mowed twice on game days.

When the team is on the road, they “give the grass a break.” Crews will do what they call a “neutral mow” once a day without regard for the pattern in the grass. A few days before the start of a homestand, they’ll cut those precise patterns in the grass.

As for how the pattern appears, it’s all in the direction of the mower’s blades. Mowing in one direction will push the blades of grass down so they look lighter, and turning in the other direction makes it look darker.

Safeco Field’s infield grass was replaced a few years ago, but Christofferson notes that 80-percent of the sod is original from 1999, making it the oldest field in MLB. That’s testament to the expertise of Christofferson and his crew. A couple of years ago, they got a big assist with the arrival of some grow-lights from The Netherlands. From mid-February until April the lights are deployed daily, getting the grass in mid-season form by Opening Day. “We’re playing on June 1 grass on April 1,” says Christofferson.

One look at the lush, impossibly green grass of Safeco Field is evidence that Christofferson has earned his nickname, “The Sod Father.”

Assistant Groundskeeper Leo Liebert explains the different equipment needed to keep a field in top condition.

Assistant Groundskeeper Leo Liebert explains the different equipment needed to keep a field in top condition.

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