How I humiliated myself working on the Washington Nationals grounds crew.

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
Sept. 24 2009 7:01 AM

I Got To Roll Out the Tarp, but …

How I humiliated myself working on the Washington Nationals grounds crew.

(Continued from Page 1)

It was raining on the morning of my crew day, which means the tarp was on the field and the normal preparations were delayed until the weather broke. Both Royse and Rowland constantly checked the Doppler radar map on their iPhones.  After my unfortunate Sand Pro incident, we went to lunch at 11:30 at the buffet in the press box, and by the time we came out at noon the sun was breaking through, and the crew was under pressure: The field had to be ready for batting practice at 3 p.m.

First the tarp had to be taken off. Royse got on his walkie-talkie and called for nine members of the stadium cleaning crew to come down and help. The tarp is 170 feet by 170 feet and weighs about 1,500 pounds even before it's covered with pools of rainwater. It sits there white and impassive, a leviathan, a great white shark, a Moby Dick. The tarp is known for swallowing grounds-crew members who lose their footing (watch Robin Habisch of the Cincinnati Reds body surf), and this infamy ends up on SportsCenter. Sometimes the tarp turns malicious. St. Louis Cardinal Vince Coleman was attacked by a tarp, and his resulting leg injury caused him to miss the postseason.

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With this in mind, I gingerly took my place on top of the tarp near the edge as each of us grabbed one of the loops sewn into the hem. We all lifted our arms, and the tarp rose behind us like a sail as we ran toward the opposite end, the accumulated rainwater making it heavier and heavier. We pulled until the tarp was turned over, the water drained off. We picked it up again and ran across it to make the first fold. Now the gray underside billowed in front of me ominously, like a storm-tossed wave. We ran and folded, ran and folded, then crew members brought out a long plastic tube. We started rolling the tarp around it, a process that seemed like rerolling toilet paper. The rolled-up tarp was then pushed against the stadium wall. It all took only 15 minutes.

The tarp done, the crew was in perpetual motion preparing the field. In grounds-crew vernacular, dirt is called "skin," and the idea is to make a seamless transition between "skin" and grass. Rowland was on the Toro Reelmaster mowing stripes into the outfield. John Burton was mowing the infield, and crew member Phil Gordon, 59, was raking the first baseline. Royse let me help him prepare the pitcher's mound. As we walked out with the wheelbarrow full of equipment, he admonished me that I had put my foot on the outfield grass. "You cut a corner. If everyone did that, it would be worn out." I raked the chunks of debris churned up by yesterday's game, then shoveled them into a wheelbarrow. I thought that if only the Nationals had some legendary pitcher or were headed to the World Series, I could gather up little vials of the clay and sell them the way souvenir-hawkers sell dirt from the Holy Land. 

The debris picked up, Royse opened a bag of Hilltopper Mound and Homeplate Clay, which the bag says is "a polymer coated stabilized ballyard product." He turned on a hose and watered, then raked, then pounded the clay. "This is where I'm sort of a sculptor," he says. "You want consistency throughout so players can dig in anywhere and you can't tell there was a game here the night before." Then he let me take the wheelbarrow full of old clay off the mound. It was heavy, and I wobbled, and I could see panic flashing across his face before he had to put his hand over his mouth to hide his laughter.

In the quiet of the early afternoon, as all of us were working the earth, I was reminded of Millet's painting The Gleaners. But soon the imperatives of big baseball were starting to impinge on our bucolic reverie. Teams of television reporters, corporate people in suits, officials with measuring tape were roaming the periphery. Although I understood the whole point of our ministrations was to get the field ready for an actual game, the prospect of an actual game felt like a violation of the pristine beauty we had created. Batting practice seemed like an outrage. Here we were raking, pounding, shoveling, smoothing—and now the players wanted to mess it up with a rehearsal!

In order to protect the field for the evening's game, the crew has to haul out all sorts of protective devices. So out came a fake pitcher's mound covered in artificial turf to go over the real mound. There were special batting-practice bases so the game bases stayed pristine. I got to drop in third base and was told to knee it into place so I didn't leave fingerprints. All this reminded me of my great-grandmother's living room, in which every piece of furniture was sealed in a plastic slipcover so guests didn't ruin the furniture for the guests.

Finally it was time for the giant batting cage, which Rowland let me assemble with him. It required us to stand on either side of the cage and lift a series of bars and lock them into place, unfurling the netting. It felt like putting together a colossal purchase from Ikea—and I'm at the point in life in which I pay other people to assemble my Ikea purchases. I achieved my goal of getting my side up without crushing my fingers or tipping over the cage and maiming a player.

It was time for batting practice. I felt how relentless, demanding, repetitive, yet exhilarating this job was. It has far greater appeal than cubicle land. Groundskeepers often appear in popular culture as obsessed figures of fun. But who wouldn't be a little obsessed if you spend your life making grass and dirt perfect so other people can mess it up?