In the fourth inning of last night’s Bulls’ 12-7 loss to the Charlotte Knights, I sat down near the right field foul pole with the DBAP’s head groundskeeper, Scott Strickland, to ask him some questions about preparations for Hurricane Irene. Strickland is only twenty-eight years old but he’s already been with the Bulls for eight years. I’ve noticed that the Bulls’ bullpen pitchers often chant “Scot-tee” when they see him walking through the seating concourse near the bullpen at the beginning of a game. After questioning Strickland about the hurricane and preparing for heavy rain I asked him about his background and aspirations.

What will you do to prepare for the storm?

Scott Strickland: The only thing we can control right now is our irrigation plan. We’ve planned our irrigation cycle for the expected rain. We won’t water the field on Friday in expectation of rains on Saturday.

Obviously we’ll tarp the field after the game Friday night and another thing we’ll do post-game Friday night is fire up our Aerifyer and punch some holes in shallow right field. The water that accumulates on top of the tarp has got to go somewhere and that’s where we’ll dump rain that accumulates on the tarp. The Aerifyer punches holes in the soil about half an inch in diameter and three inches deep, so the water will drain faster than normal. It speeds up the drying process. The hole punching allows the water to get through the sand zone faster and get to the drain lines that are eleven or twelve inches below the surface.

No matter how much it rains, we can pretty much play a game within an hour after the rain stops. The field is designed to handle a huge amount of water.

The field has the turf on top. Then there’s ten inches of sand underneath that, then there is four inches of gravel below that and that’s where the drain lines sit. It’s a matter of getting the water into the gravel layer so it can drain out. Our field was designed in 2003, so it’s got some age to it. But it’s generally in good shape. The drainage system is in good shape. There are a couple of low spots so it’s a matter of getting the water out of those areas.

A hurricane isn’t as hard on a baseball field as three or four consecutive nights of rain.A hurricane can put a tremendous amount of rain on a field in one day, but we can handle that. The hurricane passes and it’s usually clear afterwards. If you have three or four nights of rain in a row, it’s a grind on yourself and it’s a grind on the field, taking the tarp on and off and if the sun comes out in between storms it can fry the turf if we aren’t careful.

Sam Stephenson, white shirt holding recorder, talking with Scott Strickland

  • Photo by Kate Joyce
  • Sam Stephenson, white shirt holding recorder, talking with Scott Strickland

Are groundskeepers required to become experts in weather forecasting?We all joke around, who knows what they did in baseball before there were weather radars? We check a good bit and Weather Tap, which is a paid surface we subscribe to, and we also have backdoor access to WRAL’s weather information, so we can get all of WRAL’s radars on one page with the Central N.C. radar, the Durham radar, and the Wake County radar on one page, so we don’t have to click back and forth. Over the years we get used to the travel patterns and we usually know how much time we have for storms to pass from Point A and Point B. We give the umpire crew chief a heads up on what’s coming.

Tell me about your routine for a rain-delayed game?

First of all, the tarp is on the field, obviously. Generally we don’t start a game more than two hours past a scheduled first pitch time. So if it’s a 7 o’clock game we generally won’t start a rain-delayed game after 9 o’clock. When it stops raining we’ve timed our preparations for the field to require basically the same amount of time that it takes for a new pitcher to get ready. We can get the tarp off, water drained, and field ready in thirty minutes, which is about the same time it takes a pitcher to get ready from the first warm-up toss in the bullpen to first pitch in the game.

DBAP outfield turf

What size staff do you maintain?

We have a staff of twelve. On general game nights we have six people working including myself. I don’t have a year-round full-time assistant, but I do have two seasonal full-time assistants, which means that from February until September I have two full-time assistants. We do a lot, but it’s fun work. A lot of times it doesn’t feel like actual work. The nights that it rains are when it feels more like work.

Where are you from and how did you become a AAA head groundskeeper at such a young age?

I’m from Winston-Salem, went to Mount Tabor High School there. I had two older brothers and my family was heavily involved in sports. I played high school baseball and we had a nice field that was pretty well taken care of, so that was my first exposure to maintaining a baseball field. My brother was a PA announcer and ran the video board at the Warthogs games, which was high Single-A team for the White Sox at the time. Basically, the third week of August, all the guys up in the press box were college age kids who were going off to school. So I went in there and ran the scoreboard as a sixteen year old. The following year I met the groundskeeper and expressed an interest in working with him and for three years I was his assistant. That third and final year I was over at N.C. State in Turf Grass Management. 90% of the people in that program go into golf course maintenance, and the other 10% are sports turf related.

Did you consider golf course work?

I had no interest in golf course maintenance. I wanted to stick to baseball because of my passion for baseball, because of the climate that is baseball. I love the schedule of baseball, the rhythms of baseball, and the camaraderie of the guys. It’s just a way of life that is intriguing. It’s pretty fun to go to a ballpark to work. The oddities of minor league baseball and professional baseball are appealing to me.

What oddities?

Being a part of the clubhouse, the players and the grounds crew are in this together. They can’t do what they want to do as well as they want to do it without our help. We can’t do what we want to do as well as we want to do it without their help. The joking going on between guys is like being in one big fraternity, if you will. Being at the AAA level, you still have the more intimate relationship with both the players and the fans that I’m not sure you have in the 40,000-seat major league stadium. I like the size of our front office, eighteen to twenty-four staffers. You become a family more than anything else, or extended family.

Where do you go from here?

Hopefully, the big leagues. There haven’t been any real openings the last two seasons on that level. Our national association — the Sport Turf Managers Association — is a very good association. Every job that comes open in our industry is posted on that site, and the big league jobs are posted on their team link webpage, from concession vendors to GM. For the most part, all of us baseball guys are part of one big family. We all know each other and talk to each other. There hasn’t been any turnover at the big league level in the past two years. Everybody is sticking with what they have. Right before the Twins new facility opened, Target Field, I applied to be an assistant there under Larry DeVito and I was in the final eight of sixty candidates but didn’t get the job. Obviously, it would be nice for the Rays to get an outdoor stadium in the near future. I would love to stick in the Rays organization. The neat thing about working for the Rays organization is you look at their big league roster and ninety percent of them have rolled through Durham. On top of that, all of those guys are great guys. It would be nice to stick around with the Rays.