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.
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.