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.

Click to view a slide show.

My first solo job as a member of the grounds crew for the Washington Nationals baseball team was to drive around the periphery of Nationals Park on a Toro Sand Pro 3040, smoothing the warning track. Attached to the back of the Sand Pro by ropes was a drag mat—a metal device that looks like a sidewalk grate. I own no yard equipment bigger than a push mower, and I am frightened of heavy machinery, so I started at a crawl. But by the time I was rounding right field, I was feeling cocky enough to get up to about 5 mph. I don't know what happened next—in these situations you never know what happened next—but instead of making the turn, I impaled the Sand Pro on one of the vinyl pads that line the stadium wall. The pad, there to protect outfielders from injury, was now listing at a 45 degree angle. Each time I tried to drive forward or backward to extricate myself, the gash I had made in the pad grew longer and wider, like a nylon stocking being ripped ankle to thigh.

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

Soon, from the hangarlike area that houses the grounds-crew offices and their maintenance equipment, came John Royse, the unflappable head groundskeeper. Just a few minutes earlier, Royse had sent me off to prepare the track for that night's game. He surveyed my work and said, "Wow." He got on the Sand Pro and detached it from the wall. Then he and assistant John Burton wrestled the pad off to take it back for repairs. Royse must have felt sorry for me as I stood there mortified and bedraggled in the rain, because he called over his shoulder, "Ah, OK, you can keep going. Just try to stay in the middle." I got back on the Sand Pro and continued dragging the track, saying this mantra, "Don't fall in the dugout. Don't fall in the dugout." As I made repeated circuits, the men in the stadium cleaning crew paused in their labors to give me a thumbs up, then fell all over one another crying with laughter.

Advertisement

I didn't know whether I should stop or even how to stop—the Sand Pro had no brake, and my only experience stopping was driving into a solid object—so I kept going and going, worrying that I might be wearing a trench in the stadium. Finally, Royse and Burton came out, Royse cradling the pad they had recovered with fresh vinyl, and inserted it into the wall. Looking at their handiwork, I realized they were the grounds crew, and I was simply the ground screw.

Often for Human Guinea Pig, I take on humiliating jobs just to see how low I can go. But this assignment would be a privilege for anyone: Who wouldn't want to spend the day behind the scenes getting the ballpark ready for the big game? Yet I managed to disgrace myself right off the bat.

At least I wasn't the only one having an embarrassing time at Nationals Park. The Nationals are the worst team in baseball. The Washington Post's Tom Boswell observed that the Nationals brought baseball back to Washington, "just not major league baseball." Even President Obama got in on the Nationals-bashing when he said during the all-star game, "[E]verybody around the country has a little bit of hope for their team. … Maybe the exception might be the Nationals. …"

At 27, Royse is the youngest grounds-crew head in the major leagues. He was a college athlete who played football at Penn State, but he says that, from the time he was a kid, he was always as interested in the field as in the game. "Even at wiffle ball games, my field looked the best." Both he and grounds-crew supervisor Ryan Rowland, 32, majored in turf-grass science—Rowland at Iowa State. (And if organic chemistry is the Waterloo of the pre-med student, I assume crabgrass is the equivalent for the turf-grass major.)

For a game that begins at 7 p.m., the grounds crew usually starts work around 9 a.m. They don't leave until a final cleanup after the game. During home-game series, the crew members barely see their own homes. The start of the day feels like trying to erase the evidence of a frat party the night before. I squatted next to crew member John Burton, 51, grabbed a brush and a spray bottle of cleaning liquid, and scrubbed the bases. I was proud when I got them gleaming, which only reminded me how long I've been putting off scrubbing the disgusting grout in my shower.

Normally the work goes at an even pace throughout the day. There are five people on the regular crew and three interns during the summer. Every evening, about nine extra workers show up ready to spring into action and roll out the tarp in case of rain. Football players may slop around in the mud like hogs, but baseball players are more refined creatures. The major league wants to keep them from hurting themselves while sliding into a base or running on wet grass.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Gaming
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.