Texas heat challenges Arlington's grounds crew
Field care reaches new heights under a punishing summer sun
ARLINGTON -- For baseball fans, one of the first and most enjoyable things about going to the ballpark is the initial sight of a large swath of manicured green grass.
Don't be fooled. While it is only on display for a few hours every night, maintaining the grass is a full-time job. Just ask Rangers grounds director Dennis Klein or assistant director of complex grounds Stephen Lord. Their jobs have not been made any easier by the summer-long heatwave in Texas. Klein estimates that the surface of the field has reached 130 degrees in the afternoon heat.
"At those temperatures, nothing really likes to grow," Klein said. "We can maintain with what we have. With Bermuda grass, we can maintain."
Bermuda grass was specially picked for the Ballpark because of its ability to grow in the heat, but with ground temperatures routinely at 98 degrees, the environment can still be too hot for the surface.
"Every summer's hot," Klein said. "Once it gets above 95 [Bermuda grass' maximum ideal temperature], that's just the way it rolls. It's not like we do anything really different than we normally would, with the exception of running those [irrigation] zones a little bit longer."
An irrigation system underneath the grass isn't the only tool the grounds crew uses to maintain the field. The crew also relies on eight underground sensors that send data on moisture levels and the temperature of the ground to a computer that is housed in the grounds crew's area underneath the left-field seats."A lot of them are three inches below the ground," Lord said. "The sensor probes that come out of them are two to four inches underground." "There's two on the infield, two on the sidelines and four in the outfield. [There's also] one in deep right and one in short left," he continued. The grounds crew chiefs can also connect with the data from home, allowing the pair to check on the grounds before they show up at the ballpark at 9 a.m. CT to mow the grass, paint the foul lines and water the infield dirt. In the Texas climate, it is important to water the grass earlier in the day, as lower winds and temperatures make it more likely for the grass to absorb the water that it needs to live. Later in the afternoon, the crew gives it more water, but only to lower the temperature of the ground. "[You water the grass] more frequently," Lord said. "Instead of watering once a day, we'll come back and cool it off during the day to try to drop the temperature. We come out here at noon every day, and we get the water running to try to cool the place off." A more complex issue in the heat, however, is the infield dirt. That dries out faster than the grass, and it requires more frequent attention. "It's just a learned thing," Klein said. "You know when you walk on it, you feel it. We don't have anything that really measures the moisture levels in dirt." More than any other area, the heat affects the players' pregame routines. It can be tough to have the field set up to the exact specifications of the players in such oppressive conditions. "We know what they want and what they like by now," Klein said. "With the heat and everything, setting it up perfectly is tough sometimes -- putting the right amount of material on top." Rangers fans may remember in June, when the team talked about the infield grass being replaced while the team was away, and how that produced some interesting infield hops. Klein said that the reason the grass was changed was because in the winter, the Bermuda grass also struggles when the temperature is below its ideal range. To combat that, the grounds crew uses ryegrass, which is suitable in lower climates until June. "In spring, we'll reseed it with some ryegrass," Klein said. "It plays real well when it's cooler out here, but in June, the ryegrass can't hang around anymore, so you scrap it." In June, the crew replaces the grass with the Bermuda variety that stays in for the rest of the season. Klein estimated that it takes about a month for the Bermuda to set into place and eliminate any of the funny hops that come with new fields. "The swapout gets us to a field that we know we can play with into October, if they're going to play that far," Lord said. "It gives you a product that the coaching staff is happy with, especially in the back end of the season."
Louie Horvath is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.