Ed Mangan’s Obsessive Quest to Create a Real Field of Dreams
The head groundskeeper for the Braves babies ballfields, drives his staff, and makes opposing teams crazy (his infield is too hard, they say). But he merely wants perfection.
Around the lip of the warning track in Atlanta’s Turner Field, the Braves grounds crew chugs along on a Massey Ferguson garden tractor and flatbed trailer. As one guy drives at a rate of about five feet every sixty seconds, three others ride in the flatbed, showering the upper yellow line of the outfield wall with cleaning products like Grez-O, Zep, and Spray Nine. They wear plastic gloves and scrub with the same heavy-duty brushes used to wash the bases after game action. Trailing behind is a crewmember I will call Patterson, who douses the wall with water in their wake and has an uncanny ability to punctuate his thoughts with a lazy spray of the hose, attached to one of the nine spouts hidden in the outfield lawn.
Explaining this particular chore to me, Patterson, who is the type of molasses southerner who manages to always seem either tired or bored, says, “This is just some bullshit we have to do.”
It is a Tuesday in early April. The Braves are in Miami to open the 2015 season and won’t play their first home game until Friday, against the New York Mets. After letting the field lie dormant from December through February—occasionally covering the infield and the hips (i.e., the grass in foul territory) during that time with warming blankets, aka sweaters, when the temperature would drop below forty degrees to prevent winter kill—the grounds crew has been prepping the big-league field, getting ready for opening day. This year they have already replaced about six thousand square feet of sod (since certain areas of the field never get enough sun during the cold months), laser-graded and reworked the infield clay, and brought the pitching mound and home plate area back to spec. (The mound must be ten inches above home plate and slope down at a rate of one inch per foot.) This week they’re applying finishing touches. But while the grass and dirt are pretty much camera ready, the outfield wall is not.
New last season, the wall is already gross, streaked with black dirt and grime. Even with the cleaning products and elbow grease, the wall will never get clean clean. Still, the chore is required, exactly the sort of Sisyphean task with which one needs to make peace when battling nature for a living. “If we don’t,” drawls Patterson, “then they’ll show it on TV, and they’ll freak out, and we’ll be doing it that night. There’s always something.”
After another hour or so, Patterson is ready to surrender the hose. He has to go meet a prospective game-day staffer. Of the five crewmembers here today, two work year-round. The other three work full time from February through November. Once the season starts, a few others will join the full-time ranks as well. The rest of the grounds crew is hired on a part-time basis, just for home games. They are unofficially known as “part-time Douchers,” I’m told, and are a combination of college kids, genuine grounds crew aspirants, and Braves fans of all ages who want to catch some free baseball. The team always overhires the Douchers, since there is steady attrition over the course of the season. “Everyone thinks it’s a cool job till they’re here till two in the morning,” Patterson says, adding with a shrug that it’s minimum-wage work for the part-timers. “You get what you pay for.”
With Patterson back in the groundskeeper clubhouse beyond the right-field wall, I ask one of the other guys, who requests that I call him Virgil, how many crewmembers they will have to begin the year. This year? he says. Thirty-one. “Well, thirty-two, if you count Ed,” Virgil corrects himself. “But we don’t really count Ed.”
“Ed” would be Ed Mangan, head groundskeeper for the Atlanta Braves and the sole reason I have traveled to Georgia. He has agreed to let me trail him and his crew as they get ready for the season, and then again during the summer, when the games are in full swing. In addition to his role with the Braves—this will be his twenty-fifth season with the ball club—Mangan is also the NFL’s field director for the Super Bowl, the man in charge of making sure the grass for the big game is as pleasing as it is playable. With that kind of résumé, I figured: who better to teach me about the art of groundskeeping than this multisport master of the craft?
Only problem: Mangan isn’t here this morning. This doesn’t register as a surprise with his crewmembers, who adapt to the boss’s absence every year, when he heads south for spring training. Even upon his return, they tell me, his whereabouts are unpredictable from day to day, when he’s more likely to be tucked behind his desk, poring over some administrative task, down in the closet-like radar room, off the Braves’ dugout, checking weather patterns, or up in the front office for who knows what, than he is to be out on the field with the rest of the guys. As Patterson says drily (or perhaps just practically), “If he’s not here, we don’t care where he is.”
Today, I am told by the public relations staffer who has been my intermediary with Mangan, the boss is out in the suburbs, in Cobb County, at SunTrust Park, which will be the Braves’ new stadium starting in 2017. (This is the second-to-last season the team will play at Turner Field, which was originally known as Centennial Olympic Stadium and was constructed for the 1996 summer games.) The staffer instructs me to hang with the rest of the crew for now, but before leaving, she also warns me that Mangan is a bit uptight. No, wait, check that, she doesn’t want to say uptight. Regimented, she says. He runs a tight ship.
Point is, stay off his grass.
In this way, even with Ed out in Cobb County, Mangan’s meticulousness hovers over Turner Field as we walk the warning track. His present nonpresence is also tangible inside the groundskeeper clubhouse, which is basically a large warehouse where the team stores a variety of rakes, shovels, brooms, tampers, aerators, levels, watering cans, wheelbarrows, push mowers, riding mowers, rollers, fertilizer spreaders, and seemingly every other gardening gadget the guys and gals at companies like John Deere and Toro have dreamed up. If that sounds like a jumble of junk, fear not. Each instrument is carefully organized and put away in its proper place, as the boss demands.
There is no question we are in Mangan’s domain, and the Big Brother vibe makes more sense when I learn that he’s returned, now sitting in his large office, on the near side of the clubhouse. Next to his office is another, narrower office space, shared by the two year- round guys, the field manager and the grounds crew assistant, effectively Mangan’s number two and number three. Everyone else, the hoi polloi, sticks to the far side of the clubhouse, where there is a flatscreen TV mounted above a picnic table. This is where the crew sits during games, watching the broadcast to see if they’re needed.
I’m told that Mangan knows I’m here, but he doesn’t come out to greet me. After an hour, I finally knock on his door. He looks up, peering over a pair of reading glasses. Though forewarned, I’m still struck by the man’s unyielding gravitas, his seeming inability to smile. With a shaved head, a thick neck and forearms, and a walnut-crushing handshake, Mangan appears more Army general than farmer. As I introduce myself and remind him of my purpose, he looks at me skeptically, as though I’m trying to pass him a religious pamphlet on the sidewalk. He nods once or twice, says maybe a word, and then returns to his work. I retreat to the picnic table with the rest of the guys as they eat lunch, watching some reality show about knife forging. Hanging overhead, I notice, there is a sticky flytrap, a so-called “southern chandelier.”
Later that afternoon, a delivery arrives at the groundskeeping clubhouse and manages to accomplish what I cannot: lure Mangan from his hollow. It is the team’s new infield drags, which are pulled across the dirt for grooming purposes before the game and then every three innings. (The frequency of this task can vary by team and according to conditions, per Murray Cook, major-league baseball’s field consultant.) While it might be a stretch to say Mangan reacts to the delivery like a kid on Christmas morning, he does animate some as he inspects the new tools, then gathers his crew to demonstrate how to use the drags.
Mangan has a very specific way he wants his guys to pick them up, just as he has a very specific way he wants them to do everything around the field. Of his crew’s understanding of expectations, he says, “You’ll know. Or you will not know once.” For the drags, the move is a swift liquid action, involving both hands, no jerking motions, graceful. “See?” he says, showing them again. “It’s simple.”
Some of the guys get it right away. But one crewmember keeps trying to do it with one hand. He is struggling. He laughs at himself— Mangan is not amused. With no trace of affection, he says, “You’ve only been working here eight years. You’ll get it eventually.”
The next morning the guys are out behind home plate, painting a tomahawk into the grass. It is only 10 a.m., but the sun is beating down strong. The forecast says it will be in the high eighties today, midseason weather, and Patterson is already sweating buckets as he leans over a stencil of the logo, which allows him to connect the dots of the graphic with an industrial spray gun of turf paint. You don’t need to be Picasso. The key is to color inside the lines. Some of it Patterson does freehand, explaining he’s done it a thousand times, since they freshen the logo before every home stand and sometimes before every series, depending on rainfall and how much has been mowed off.
The stadium is busier today than it was yesterday, when it felt a bit like a ghost town, as if the team were already moving out. Between the mound and home plate, there is a two-man team from major league baseball setting up sensors for a new and improved K-Zone, a balls-and-strikes pitch tracker for TV broadcasts. Beyond them, the big video board in center field flickers a kaleidoscope of colors as the club identifies which panels need to be replaced.
Asked if the stencil makes the painting pretty idiot-proof, Virgil, who is holding a printout of the Braves logo to use as reference, shrugs. Says, “We manage to screw it up.” As evidence, he tells me about the time they painted the foul line on the wrong side, thus making the field just a few inches smaller than it should be. (To fix the error, they simply painted it green and redid the line.) On cue, Patterson steps in some paint and smears it across the grass. Another crewmember shouts, “Oh, shit!” He hustles to a bucket of water and wets a towel, blotting the paint off the grass before it can dry. It is important to blot, not rub, he says, because if you rub, the turf could develop holes.
Catastrophe averted, the guys move on to the hip on the first base side. Along both baselines, they must paint Opening Series logos, provided by major-league baseball (MLB), as the league celebrates its own return. Ed Mangan joins the crew at about half-past noon. He takes over painting duties from Patterson, while assessing his underling’s handiwork. He uses metal planks and tape measures to check the distances every which way. To my untrained eye, the lettering looks perfect, but Mangan seems displeased. He says, “That looks crooked, boys.”
Because the Opening Series logos are more intricate and complicated than the tomahawk, most of the other crewmembers are assisting now as well, holding the paint hose aloft, a reference sheet, or towels at the ready. There is a sphincter-tightening mood change with Mangan in the mix. Guys who were previously calm now bark at each other with directions. At times Mangan gives rapid-fire instructions of his own, but he doesn’t yell. In fact, he has a relatively soft speaking voice. When he speaks, everyone listens.
“Touch it up,” he says. “Stay straight.” “Now eyeball this.” “Use your damn eyes.” “Look at him. No, that’s going to be crooked.” “No, other side.”
“Straight. That’s not even close to straight.”
Mangan is on a roll, like a professor with a captive classroom. As he moves around the logo, he’s careful to step only on the already dry sections of paint, going from one letter to the next. He contorts and twists his body, vigilant with every movement. When painting around a curling design element, for example, he squats low and shifts his body weight from one side to the other, keeping his arm steady, as if it were on a camera dolly. Feeling a bit more expansive perhaps, he says to his crew, “It’s like a pool game, boys. What’s your next move?” As Mangan paints, a few social media gnats from the marketing department flit down to the field and take photos of the process. Mangan just shakes his head, but I don’t blame them. It’s fun watching this vast series of dots turn into an intricate design, like seeing a time-lapse video in real time. And then, all of a sudden, I realize Mangan is looking at me. We lock eyes. He says, “Towel? Where’s your towel? You should have a towel.”
I feel the full power of this man’s expectations. I find a towel lying on the turf, but it’s too late. I’ve let Mangan down, and he doesn’t look back my way. Perhaps sensing my panic, Patterson makes a face, which says: Don’t sweat it. “He doesn’t have a lot of patience,” another crewmember whispers. But it doesn’t help. I feel like a failure.
A few minutes later the Braves’ head groundskeeper stands up. He takes a step back, appraises the logo.
He doesn’t smile. He says, “Next side.”
I feel sorry for the children of Ed Mangan. Not for the piercing looks of disappointment he has no doubt cast their way, but because as much of a tyrant as he might be at the ballpark, he’s even more demanding of the TV remote at home.
“The Weather Channel is always on,” Mangan tells me, as we take a seat in the Braves dugout, when I finally wrangle a few minutes of his time. The rest of his crew is tending to the turf—mowing the outfield, sweeping the edges, watering the new grass on the hips. “They could be in the middle of a show, and I’ll just get that feeling. ‘Give me the remote.’ ‘Okay, go back to your show now.’”
In the middle of the night, he often wakes up in a cold sweat, knowing the tarp isn’t on the field, thinking he hears rain. “I just sit straight up. Holy crap! Go to the window. Go to the radar.” They aren’t dreams about the field, he says—they’re nightmares. “Anything that can go wrong. A water line blowout five minutes before first pitch. That has happened. You’ve got water gushing, hundreds of gallons a minute. You gotta fix that. You’ve got to adapt. The weather can turn on you. Change of plans.”
Now in his mid-fifties, Mangan came to the Braves in 1990 with plenty to prove. As a 30 year old, he was the youngest field director in the major leagues. Over the last quarter-century, his relationship to the turf hasn’t relaxed, not even as he’s developed a reputation for being one of the most vigilant groundskeepers in the game. Mangan knows that the best-case scenario is that his hard work goes unnoticed. He doesn’t mind. “If nobody is talking about me, that’s good. If nobody’s talking about the field, good,” he says. Because if anything does go wrong, even if the mistake isn’t his own, he’s exactly the person about whom folks will be talking. “Everything out here is my responsibility,” he says. This—Ed Mangan’s burden—is just an unforgiving fact of life for a groundskeeper: No matter how many years of good service you have logged, failure is always only a botched rain delay away.
As tightly wound as Mangan can be, there is still so much beyond his control. Maybe it’s the knowledge that anything can and will go wrong that has conditioned him to be overprepared—“I have a plan. Then I have a backup for that plan. And then for me, I want a backup for my backup,” he says—but Mangan doesn’t think so. It’s just his personality, how he was brought up, as the son of a carpenter in a small town on the Jersey shore.
As a boy, Mangan used to join his father on job sites, picking up nails. That’s where he learned his ruthless work ethic. “We’d get more credit for working than we did for sports,” he says of his dad, who taught young Ed to never turn down responsibility and never be afraid to work hard. These are the same lessons he tries to impress upon his crew. “There’s never a time you should be standing there, just dead meat, never,” he says, explaining how he trains his guys to think ahead, to consider all the angles, when havoc is as unpredictable as weather patterns out of the tropics. He resuscitates his pool game analogy. “When you’re shooting pool, what’s your next shot? I want to leave the ball where? You don’t just slam it and take your shot. That’s not a pool player. That’s just having fun.”
As a modern-day fan, it’s easy to take field conditions for granted. But groundskeepers weren’t always invisible wizards behind a perfect playing surface. On the contrary, when the game of baseball was first forming in the mid 19th century, taming the undulating earth of the American East Coast was top of mind, even if the idea of professionalizing the craft came as a bit of an afterthought. (It is only within the last twenty years or so that sports turf management has blossomed as an academic major at land grant universities.)
As Peter Morris writes in Level Playing Fields, early groundskeepers would tend to the turf as part of a bevy of responsibilities, including fire safety, crowd control, and janitorial work. It really wasn’t possible to maintain perfect conditions, as teams were frequently evicted from their grounds and had to share homes with other sports and amusements, like ice skating rinks, polo matches, and horse racing tracks. Fields were so regularly chewed up and unpredictable that for many years baseball had a “bound rule,” which stated that a hitter would be called out so long as a defensive player caught the ball before it hit the ground twice.
Provided minuscule budgets, early groundskeepers, who were typically seasonal employees, ran makeshift operations, spreading sawdust and igniting gasoline to dry the fields after rainstorms (drainage was a major issue) and constructing dikes with ingredients like rye bread and cheese. As for crews, groundskeepers would take what they could get: at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, for example, a goat helped trim the grass, according to Michael Benson’s Ballparks of North America.
Not everything was so primitive. In fact, a variety of features of modern ballfields owe a debt to groundskeeper ingenuity, such as the pitching mound, which began as a buildup of sawdust; the warning track, which replaced small hills before outfield walls that told defenders the end was near; and even basic terms like infield and outfield, which were adopted from Scottish farming and allowed for the section of the field farther from home plate to be less carefully manicured than the nearer section, per Morris. Though they weren’t always effective, these crude attempts at lawn and order also helped establish the concept of home-field advantage. Baseball crowds were initially nonpartisan, but a team’s familiarity with the eccentricities of its home turf provided an inherent edge, such as where to position elders and how to avoid endemic obstacles like trees.
Before long, a more creative brand of groundskeeping emerged. The pioneers in this area, according to Morris, were two brothers, Tom and John Murphy. Like most early groundskeepers, each man was a “rugged individualist,” never staying with one team for too long, always storming off or patching up a feud. Despite their caustic personalities—and the occasional incident involving physical violence, such as when Tom allegedly assaulted longtime baseball man Connie Mack’s brother with a bat, nearly killing the guy—the brothers’ superior skills kept them in high demand.
Working for the Orioles in the 1890s, Tom Murphy tailored the field to his team’s strengths, tilting the baselines inward so bunts wouldn’t roll foul, and hardening the dirt around home plate so batters could slap the ball straight down for a sky-high bounce and then leg out a hit. (This became known as a “Baltimore chop.”) Around the mound, Tom would scatter soap flakes to mess up the opposing pitcher’s grip when he reached down to rub dirt on the ball. Meanwhile, in right field, the creative keeper designed a purposefully ragged and sloped patch of grass that featured a maze of “runways” that only the Baltimore defenders knew how to navigate. His contributions weren’t limited to the field, either. Once an opposing player made an errant throw that rolled into the Orioles clubhouse through an open door, which Tom quickly shut and locked until the Orioles scored.
It was a swashbuckling period, when anything not specifically against the rules was considered fair game. It gave rise to a storied baseball tradition of stacking the deck in the home team’s favor. Legendary Kansas City groundskeeper—and Ed Mangan’s mentor— George Toma (at 86, he’s long retired) tells me these sorts of dark arts are known as “groundskeeping by deceit.” I meet him on a trip to the Midwest, when he invites me to his home, not far from the original Oklahoma Joe’s. When I arrive, Toma is in the front yard, watering the lawn without a shirt on.
Known by a variety of nicknames—Sod God, Sultan of Sod, Nitty Gritty Dirt Man—Toma refuses to sit still even in retirement. Having begun his career as a 13-year-old minor-league grounds crewmember in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, he’s never missed a Super Bowl—working the majority as the NFL’s field director before turning over the reins to his protégé, Mangan, in 2000—and he still flies to Florida every year to assist at the Minnesota Twins’ spring training facility. For decades, big-league teams have turned to Toma as a consultant to fix their fields when problems arise. In 2012, he was inducted into both the Royals Hall of Fame and the Major League Baseball Groundskeeper Hall of Fame, after receiving the Pioneer Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame a decade earlier.
“When I see a bad playing field, it hurts me,” Toma says, kicking his grass-stained white sneakers up onto a leather ottoman, settling into his tchotchke-filled living room. Toma tells me he learned his trade from Emil Bossard, who he calls “the greatest groundskeeper that ever lived.” Toma isn’t alone in this opinion. Bossard was the patriarch of baseball’s most renowned groundskeeping dynasty. (His grandson Roger is field director for the Chicago White Sox, having taken over for his father, Gene.) Emil has been referred to as an “evil genius” for his ability to doctor fields to his team’s advantage, like the Murphy brothers before him.
Toma carried on this tradition, even as baseball started cracking down on most groundskeeping tricks, like altering the height of visiting bullpen mounds and tossing pebbles in the base paths to discourage sliding. For years, he tells me, the Kansas City Athletics sent a spy into the scoreboard to relay signs to home team hitters.
Though accusations still occasionally fly for transgressions like sign stealing and other manipulations (the Braves came under scrutiny for allegedly widening the catcher’s box in 2000, to give the impression to umpires that off-the-plate pitches were still strikes), the field of play is much more tightly regulated than it was fifty years ago. Groundskeepers can still tweak the turf to benefit their teams. Kansas City Royals field director Trevor Vance, for example, keeps his infield playing fast for 2015, when the Royals win the World Series, because the team is stacked with young and athletic infielders, Vance tells me. But the simplest way to provide a home-field advantage is the same as it ever was, according to Toma: deliver a consistent surface, day after day.
It is a privilege to sit and talk with Toma, who has the scaly arms of a lifetime in the sun and a seemingly bottomless trove of war stories, featuring the likes of Mickey Mantle (who thought Toma’s outfield was too hard), Ted Williams (who couldn’t get a toehold in Toma’s batter’s box), and Alex Rodriguez (who offered to hire Toma as his personal groundskeeper when he signed with the Texas Rangers). My favorite is from a recent Super Bowl in Tampa, when he says the NFL got a little lax with security and a couple kids from the University of South Florida sneaked in and painted, in Toma’s words, “a big penis and two balls” on the field. (The grounds crew painted over the genitalia before kickoff.)
Toma has some good Ed Mangan stories, too, like the time Mangan had a fellow groundskeeper by the neck (“I thought he was going to kill him”), after the guy doused a Super Bowl field in chemicals without approval. Or the time he threw Diana Ross off the field when her Super Bowl halftime rehearsals ran long. Or the time he used a pair of bolt cutters to snip a TV wire into three-foot strips when the network left the heavy cable lying on his outfield grass overnight after a play-off game. “Eddie isn’t afraid.” [I could not get comment from Mangan on these incidents, because the Braves did not respond to requests for follow-up questioning.]
But I sense some tension in their relationship. Though he claims he doesn’t care, Toma was clearly hurt when Mangan neglected to call and congratulate him on his Hall of Fame inductions. And even though he admits Mangan was the best young groundskeeper he’d ever seen, Toma—who has a habit of prefacing all criticism by saying, “I’m not ripping, but …”—takes a couple of potshots at the man’s abilities. “The ballplayers all bitch about Atlanta,” he says, explaining that Mangan isn’t what he would consider a “complete groundskeeper,” because his infield is always too hard, like concrete. “His infield dirt is the worst in baseball. The players say they can’t wait to get out of Eddie’s park.” Toma has told Mangan this before, but his mentee is too stubborn to do anything about it. “Eddie’s Eddie. He ain’t going to change,” he says.
Toma’s reproach of modern-day groundskeeping isn’t limited to Ed Mangan. “I’m not ripping groundskeepers today,” he says, “but the art of groundskeeping is being lost.” When I ask what he means, he answers by listing some of his old responsibilities, when he was in charge of the fields both for the Royals and for the Chiefs. (In 2015, Oakland’s Clay Wood is the only remaining groundskeeper who tends to the needs of both a football and baseball team.) He describes how he would salvage dirt from construction sites and nearby farms, how he had to screen twenty tons of the stuff by himself every winter, and how he grew his own grass and never resodded the field. “It was seed, seed, seed. Now, it’s sod, sod, sod,” he says, referring to the fact that stadiums buy sports turf from sod farms instead of growing their own. “They maintain the field until the grass goes bad, and then a company comes in and gives them a new field.” It’s like a totally different profession, in Toma’s mind. “They’re not groundkeepers. They’re caretakers.
“I’m not ripping them,” he says, “but …”
It’s true that big-league stadiums no longer grow their own grass. The Atlanta Braves get their turf from an outfit known as Bent Oak Farms in Foley, Alabama, not far from the Redneck Riviera along the Gulf of Mexico or my all-time favorite restaurant, Lambert’s Cafe, “home of throwed rolls.” Founded in 2007, Bent Oak burst onto the sporting scene and quickly became the go-to grower for major-league teams like the Braves, Marlins, and Astros, NFL teams like the Jaguars and Dolphins, and a host of big-time college football programs like the University of Georgia, the University of Alabama, and Auburn University. While you’ll easily find Bent Oak in any discussion of top sports turf providers, you can’t find it on a map.
“There’s a reason for that. I ain’t looking to be found,” says Bent Oak owner Mark Paluch, who instructs me to meet him at a nearby Pick-n-Pay gas station, surrounded by nothing but flat grass pastures and a blinking red light. There I ditch my car and join Paluch in his pickup truck. “We’re only about a mile from the Gulf of Mexico,” he continues, pointing out the other sod farms (mostly landscape grass) and the soybean-, peanut-, corn-, and wheat-growing operations we pass on the way to his place. “This is the last piece of fucking dirt between here and Mexico, and that body of water doesn’t allow the air here to drop below freezing. I didn’t pick this place by accident.”
Paluch actually has two farms here, one growing Bermuda grass and the other growing paspalum. While both are warm-weather varietals, they would cross-contaminate and create an undesired hybrid if they grew too close together. Paluch takes me to the Bermuda farm, where a crew of workers is rolling up thick strips of sod, which are 42 inches wide and between 45 and 55 feet long, each one weighing around two thousand pounds. The sod is being shipped to the University of Georgia, in preparation for football season.
“They all come down to get grass from Hillbilly Willy,” cackles Paluch, who at 55 has wind-mussed gray hair and a wisp of a mustache. He is alternately braggadocios and weirdly secretive as we drive around his property. One guy we come across, he tells that I’m a representative from MetLife Stadium—for what reason, I’m unclear. He also tells me not to take photos of certain machinery, which they have customized to their needs. One machine, in particular, I’m told not even to describe. “You don’t need to write about that,” he says. On second thought: “You can call it a gadget.”
We drive past a shed that is filled with various other sod machines and draped with Super Bowl banners. (Unsurprisingly, Mangan relies on Paluch as a regular supplier for the big game. For the 2015 Super Bowl in Arizona, for instance, which is significantly farther away than any of Bent Oak’s regular clients, Paluch shipped sod to Glendale in refrigerated trucks.) “I sleep out here,” Paluch says, explaining his dedication to the turf. “I don’t chase pussy, dude. I don’t have any hobbies, habits of any sort. You got to live this shit.” He points to the banners. “This is how I get off. Watching TV and your grass is on every channel? Oh yeah.”
Paluch parks his truck. Before getting out, he spritzes himself with some sort of pink liquid from a Victoria’s Secret bottle. “Alabama bug spray,” he says, by way of explanation. “Works better than OFF or DEET, which you’d have to drink. Forty-five dollars a bottle and you smell like a lady, but most the guys down here are sissies anyway. Come on.”
He wants to show me the grass.
Actually, not grass, Paluch clarifies, as we walk onto a patch of the stuff . “Value-enhanced athletic turf.” Unlike most sports turf growers, Bent Oak grows sod only for stadiums. Paluch doesn’t dabble in residential installations or even golf course grass. But what really sets his operation apart, he explains, is the manner in which he grows it: on sheets of plastic. “I’m not in the dirt business,” he says. “I only grow grass on plastic.”
Paluch lifts the corner of a strip of sod to reveal what looks like a black tarp or thick garbage bag underneath. The grass is literally grown on plastic. “You can take 1 percent of the grass and roll over 300 percent,” he says, emphasizing the strength of the sod, its ability to withstand the sharp movements of 350-pound linemen. “It’s bulletproof. Boom. Now look at that fucking piece of felt right there.” I have never seen anything like it. The sod itself is about two inches thick, the bottom as flat as a piece of floor tile.
Paluch’s bulletproof sod doesn’t begin life in Alabama. Bent Oak is more like its finishing school. First Paluch grows his grass the traditional way—in the earth—at a farm in Georgia. After the better part of a year, he harvests that grass and ships it down to Foley, where it is laid down on plastic and fattened up for another year by raking in sand—because the sod is sand-based, it is less likely to come apart in the rain; or as Paluch puts it, “There is no mud in it.” The care programs are customized so that each field has been treated with the same cocktail of fertilizers and fungicides being used at its stadium destination. Richard Wilt, a former groundskeeper for the Miami Dolphins and Marlins who now works at Bent Oak, explains how the plastic affects the growing process. “Typically, grass grows down, right? The roots grow down. We don’t grow down. We grow up. Once the roots hit the plastic, they turn back up, and it grows within itself.” That is why the sod is so dense and heavy, he says. “The root-to-shoot ratio is twenty times more than any other grass. You can make a hammock out of it.”
Another advantage to growing grass on plastic, Wilt says, is that there is zero stress on the sod when they ship it to a stadium. “When we cut and roll it up, you’re not hurting the grass at all. All you’re doing is rolling it up. Basically moving it. Other guys that sell grass, they harvest it. They cut it off dirt, and they’re cutting half the plant off.” Paluch nods, because now we are hitting on the heart of his business model. “It’s carpet, dude,” says Paluch. “It lays like carpet, and you can play on it in the morning. When you put it down, you can play on it immediately.” Because the sod is so thick and heavy, it won’t slide around, he says, not even under the stress of NFL game action. Why does this matter? “Because the money is in the concerts,” Paluch says with a smirk. “Not ballfields.”
He’s right. Of the twenty-plus groundskeepers and turf industry insiders I interview for this chapter, each one identifies the increasing number of event days at stadiums as a growing issue for field directors, who have to maintain a surface that is both aesthetically perfect and safe to play on at all times. As Steve Wightman, the retired head groundskeeper for the San Diego Padres and Chargers, puts it, “You live and die with that field. It just tears you apart when they start putting all this stuff in there, and then they expect you to have that field the way it was before the event.”
Ed Mangan describes a delicate balance between using and abusing a field, because depending on the type of event—and its duration—it can be hell on the turf. Dave Mellor, who is the field director for the Boston Red Sox, tells me about the time Fenway hosted the Rolling Stones. “Most shows are here for about five to seven days,” he says. “That show was out here thirteen and a half days. About the sixth day of the show, I remember a roadie said to me, ‘Hey, duuuude, you smell rotten pumpkins?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I think that’s my grass.’ He’s like, ‘Ah, you are so fucked!’” Mellor had two truckloads of new sod ready to go, as soon as the stage came down.
“It hit me in the head like a fucking hammer,” Paluch says, crediting a conversation he had with Mickey Farrell of the Tampa Sports Authority, which manages Raymond James Stadium, where the Buccaneers play. “He looked at me and said, ‘Let me tell you something— the Bucs ain’t my best tenant. I got to do something with these other 44 weekends.’” After all, stadiums can make good money off of ancillary events, like motocross shows, soccer exhibition matches, and concerts. Paluch’s advice to field directors and stadium operators is not to try to save the grass during such events but to “kill the son of a bitch. You’ll spend three hundred thousand dollars trying to protect it. Just scrap it. Keep the three hundred thousand and kill that motherfucker. For four hundred, I’ll give you this one. It’s a totally different concept. Swap the son of a bitch,” he says.
Of course, this is exactly what George Toma is talking about, when he criticizes the state of modern groundskeeping. I ask Wilt if he thinks Toma’s critique is fair. He does, without reservation. “All the legwork and grunt work are done here,” he says. “Most places have more checkbook than they do patience.”
Mark Paluch isn’t the only one growing grass on plastic. In recent years, a variety of other sod farmers have adopted the practice, including Carolina Green Sod and West Coast Turf, which is tabbed to provide the field for the 2016 Super Bowl at Levi’s Stadium. Ask Paluch about these other growers, however, and he just scoffs. “They’re my best salesmen,” he says. “I have no competitors.”
The question no one seems able to answer—Paluch included— is when or how exactly the idea of growing sports turf on plastic emerged. Says Wilt, “Who came up with the idea of wearing a hat? I don’t know.”
But there is one guy who says he knows exactly how it started, Paluch’s former boss at a company called Southern Turf Nurseries, Ed “Eddie Boy” Woerner. Now in his sixties, Woerner, who is based in nearby Elberta, Alabama, has always had a curious mind. He’s a tinkerer and an inventor, a problem solver. When starting a sod farm in Hawaii, for example, he knew he couldn’t use the native soil. “You got that lava,” he says. “So we got some soil from a horse farm, we put down plastic, and we put the grass on it with a fancy irrigation system.” Sure enough, it worked. Not long after that, he brought the idea back to Alabama, where he was multiplying seed stock. “If you multiply it in contaminated soil, you’re going to plant contaminated soil. You want to plant pure seed, so I was growing it on plastic,” he says. “I had never considered using it as a grass that is ready to play.”
That changed after an encounter with George Toma in Green Bay in the mid ’90s, when Woerner delivered a couple of the sod-laying machines he had invented and Toma had been flown in to fix the field after a snow-filled season destroyed the turf. They stayed in touch. “I was on the phone with George every other week for a solid year talking about what I got to do to be ready for these kinds of events. Not just the machines but the grass,” says Woerner. Toma gave him three criteria: the grass had to be green for TV, it had to hold up for the players, and it had to be mobile. By 1999, Woerner was ready. His first stadium installation of sports turf grown on plastic would be for an exhibition game at the Louisiana Superdome—indoors!—as if the challenge weren’t difficult enough. “When you put grass on plastic, you have now put it in intensive care,” explains Woerner. “That isn’t normal for the grass. What I created is not in a textbook. There are no groundskeepers learning or studying what I did. That is not there. That’s not even science. Hell, I tricked the system.”
Woerner wasn’t afraid to go beyond the bounds of book learning, and the exhibition game was an unmitigated success, a victory for shade-tree mechanics and garage inventors everywhere. “Old boy from the stadium said, ‘That’s the rug!’” Woerner recalls.
According to Toma, it was the best sod he’s ever seen.
Woerner made one mistake, though. “I didn’t patent it,” he says. “I just assumed it wasn’t patentable. See, grass isn’t patentable. Plastic isn’t patentable. Sand isn’t patentable. But you know what happens when you put a combination in an order, that’s a process patent.” Woerner learned about this category of patent only recently—surprising for a man of so many inventions. “I wish I’d patented the process,” he sighs, “because if I would have, then Mark or nobody else would’ve been able to do a damn thing. So I could’ve done that, but I didn’t know at the time. I didn’t know about that.”
Real or fake
If we’re going to talk about grass, then we have to talk about the alternative: artificial turf. I take one more road trip before returning to Turner Field, this time to Dalton, Georgia. About ninety miles north of Atlanta, Dalton is informally known as the carpet capital of the world, for its many mills, which once produced about half the world’s carpets. It is also the home of AstroTurf, and I have been invited to take a tour.
“This is the original plant,” Sydney Stahlbaum, AstroTurf’s director of sales support, says as we pull up to a low-slung building in the heart of carpet country. Inside, the factory is filled with what appears to be a mess of interconnected instruments and engines straight out of the board game Mouse Trap, as raw pellets of polymers (nylon and polyethylene) are melted down and extruded into long strands of mono filament fiber, before those fibers are dipped in a cooling bath, stretched for strength, and sometimes crimped (either with steam or mechanically) to impart certain performance characteristics. “Yeah,” Stahlbaum shouts, to be heard over the noise of the machines, which are running 24 hours a day to meet the demands of fall school schedules, “it might not be organized in the most intuitive or most efficient [manner], but because the machinery was just kind of set up that way, this is how it’s evolved.”
AstroTurf (originally known as Chemgrass) was developed in the ’60s by a company called Chemstrand, which was a joint venture between chemical giant Monsanto and American Viscose, and the green Brillo pad of a playing surface served as the first true disruptor of the sports turf industry. In many ways, it created the sports turf industry. According to Ed Milner, who oversaw early AstroTurf manufacturing and would go on to serve as president of what was then known as AstroTurf Industries, a lot of fundamental research was being done in those years, as they developed ways to measure things that had never previously been measured, like traction and abrasiveness and shock absorbency and how a ball rolls or bounces. All the while, a single research extruder at a nylon plant in Pensacola, Florida, produced six strands of fake grass at a time, day and night.
“We were in the fibers business, that’s what Chemstrand was all about. We supplied fibers to a lot of the carpet manufacturers,” says Milner. Working with a manufacturer known as Mohasco (or Mohawk), Chemstrand sent its slowly extruding nylon ribbon to Amsterdam, New York, where the first Astrodome turf was “literally woven on Wilton carpet looms,” producing about three-quarters of an inch per minute. “Pretty damn slow,” says Milner. Soon after that project, production of AstroTurf was brought in house, to Dalton, where it remains today. “We had Wilton looms—we could weave it—but we preferred the knitting process,” says Milner. “It made a stronger, more conforming fabric, and we could make about 12 inches a minute.” And so, by the late ’60s, knitted fields became the artificial turf of choice—tufting was another (weaker but faster-to-produce) option—as synthetic products spread across the sports landscape, especially in multipurpose stadiums.
Artificial turf has been widely maligned in the sports world since its inception. Early issues included rug burns, lumpy footing, baseballs taking circus bounces off the trampoline-like turf, and a conductive playing surface that could occasionally heat to 160 degrees in the sun. Some football players contracted staph infections, while others reported showering with their sheets on the day after a game, because the sheets had fused with their open, turf-induced wounds overnight. It got so bad that Congress held hearings over the safety of synthetic turf. Some of the noncontact injuries over the years proved particularly gruesome, as when Bears wide receiver Wendell Davis got his feet stuck in the turf at Veterans Stadium and ruptured the patella tendons in both knees. (Doctors eventually found his knee-caps swimming around his thighs.)
According to Milner, the conditions were no less safe (minus the rug burns) than natural grass, despite the widespread cultural perception stoked by melodramatic headlines and the occasional vomit-in-your-mouth injury like Davis’s. He says players were simply using the issue of artificial turf as leverage for collective bargaining. “That’s working conditions,” he says, “and that’s an ideal thing to raise a ruckus about.”
To some, the debate between artificial and natural grass was a debate over the soul of sports (particularly the soul of baseball). In Kansas City, there was a bumper sticker campaign to “Let George Do It,” when the Royals switched to a synthetic surface. In “The Thrill of the Grass,” a short story by W. P. Kinsella, also the author of Shoeless Joe, which was adapted into the film Field of Dreams, a man resists the artificial takeover of his local ballpark by leading a midnight army of fellow purists to replace the turf with grass one square of sod at a time. “Pride is lost,” former San Francisco Giants head groundskeeper Matty Schwab told Sports Illustrated in 1970. Still, according to grass professionals like Mike Goatley, a turf grass specialist at Virginia Tech and a past president of the Sports Turf Management Association (STMA), there is a place for both natural and artificial turf, as determined by a variety of factors, like geography and usage. “I like to think of them as another tool,” he says of artificial fields, adding that one point of frustration is the fallacy that they are maintenance free. “That’s simply not the case.”
Despite the existential crises and the other “noise in the news,” as Milner puts it, AstroTurf maintained a stranglehold on market share, as competitors like Tartan Turf, Poly-Turf, Omniturf, and Wyco Turf came and went for decades, right up until 1997. That’s when a new company known as FieldTurf emerged, boasting a sand and rubber-infill system—what is now known as third-generation artificial turf (basically what every artificial turf company sells at the major-league level, AstroTurf included). It wasn’t just a new kind of carpet; it was meant to replicate natural grass. “There have only been two game changers in the history of our industry,” AstroTurf’s global director of sales and marketing, Troy Squires, tells me. “AstroTurf when it was invented, and then FieldTurf.”
Today AstroTurf doesn’t make a lot of money from supplying big-league fields. The vast majority of the company’s client list includes high schools, parks and recreation departments, and college varsity and intramural fields. But according to Squires, no artificial turf company makes much money off of stadium installations anymore, and that is the problem. “When a pro job comes up, we look at every one of them,” he says. “We might put a bid out, but we just don’t get all that excited about it, because it’s like a race to the bottom.”
Turf companies have a tendency to underbid each other so drastically, he says, that they end up giving the fields away for free, or worse: paying for the privilege. “It gets really crazy at a certain level,” says Stahlbaum, who tells me she knows of at least one company that has paid up to $1 million to get its turf in a stadium. There is some cachet that comes with a pro-team installation, of course, and that can be seductive, but the reality is that a free field likely won’t even act as a loss leader. “Unlike the old days, if you sold a professional-level field in a certain area, you’d sell a bunch of fields off of that,” says Stahlbaum. “But now every turf company has its little market share of the high-profile, so there’s less translation into more sales in that region.”
An industry veteran of almost forty years, Squires also questions if companies are supplying their best surfaces when giving them away for free. “I’ll be honest with you,” he says. “Most of the fields in the NFL, in my opinion, aren’t as good as your average high school field.” I find this statement shocking, not only because of the amount of money the NFL pulls in but also because of the amount of squawking the league does on behalf of player safety, especially in the wake of so many head injury headlines. And yet others in the industry say the same thing. One turf insider tells me he doesn’t believe the NFL cares nearly as much about player safety as about maintaining the appearance that it does. “That’s the only way I can see it,” he says. “They talk about injuries, all that stuff. But when it really comes down to it, if they’re talking, then put your money where your mouth is, and they don’t. It’s weird. It’s just weird.”
Joe Traficano, who is the sports turf specialist for West Coast Turf, tells me something similar when we chat following Reggie Bush’s season-ending injury at the Edward Jones Dome. The running back slipped on a stretch of bare concrete that borders the field. “You would think common sense would tell you that it is slick and you got cleats, and they would have [covered] it. But they got to wait until something drastic happens to make a change. And it is all about money. It is all about money.”
One place they never stop thinking about player safety (or more specifically, turf performance and how that relates to player safety) is the basement level of the AstroTurf plant. That is the last stop on our tour and the dominion of a man named Kris Brown, AstroTurf’s director of research and development. There he presides over a collection of instruments of torture. And really, that’s exactly what they are—a variety of machines that brutalize the turf in imaginative ways to test for things like wear (via a spinning set of four rolling cleats, which can be adjusted for speed and pressure), in fill retention (via a whirling dervish of a gadget that reaches 320 revolutions per minute), resiliency (via a machine that lightly slaps a blade of fake grass over and over and over, which I find both hilarious and embarrassing for that blade of grass), and shock attenuation (via a device that drops a seven-pound missile onto the turf, meant to mimic the weight of a human head), among other things. (I am glad to learn Brown has ditched former Houston Astros owner Roy Hofheinz’s initial durability test: renting elephants to pee and stomp on the AstroTurf.)
“There is a misconception that something has to be soft to be safe,” Stahlbaum says, since many players have complained about the unforgiving nature of artificial surfaces. As the turf silently screams all around us, she gives the example of a car dashboard. “Your car is designed to take impact and spread that across the dashboard. It doesn’t have to be a pillow to play on.”
I ask about the future of artificial turf, since any impending game changers are as likely to come from this basement torture chamber as from a university laboratory. Both Squires and Stahlbaum express excitement over the possibilities of a new kind of hybrid field called XtraGrass, “where you grow the natural in the artificial,” says Squires. Stahlbaum chimes in: “It’s interesting. It has a biodegradable backing, so as it sort of decomposes, the grass roots into the synthetic that’s left over.” They installed one such field at a high school outside of Denver the previous summer, which will act as a beta site for North America.
Beyond that, Stahlbaum tells me they’re experimenting with a possible fourth-generation turf, which will ditch the rubber in fill, largely in response to an NBC News report that highlighted a potential link between crumb rubber pellets and types of blood cancer. (When I talk to Darren Gill of FieldTurf about this, he tells me he suspects the natural grass lobby scared the whole thing up, since they were hemorrhaging market share.) Says Stahlbaum, “We totally disagree with [the report], because the science just doesn’t support it. At the same time, there are certain clients who are reluctant to accept crumb rubber, and so the need has arisen to cater to that market.”
As we wrap up, Stahlbaum shows me a rectangular remnant of the original AstroTurf field from Three Rivers Stadium, from the 50-yard line, which is fittingly lying alongside all of Kris Brown’s modern tools of torment. Laughs Brown, “There’s probably some Lynn Swann skin in there.”
Monday, July 20, 10 a.m. I arrive back at Turner Field, ahead of a three-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. It is still early in the day, but the Braves grounds crew is beat. The guys always wear down over the course of a home stand, when the full-timers clock 14- to- 15-hour days on average, showing up at 9 a.m. for a night game and even earlier if the field is covered. (Once the sun comes up, the turf starts to cook under the sauna of the tarp, and that can kill the grass.) And then, of course, there is the possibility of rain delays or extra innings—or both.
At least a couple times a season, they expect to sleep at the ballpark.
During most home stands, the crew can recharge after Sunday games, when the Braves typically play in the early afternoon. But not yesterday. First pitch wasn’t until 5:11 p.m., and then they had to stick around for a postgame event. “I think I’ve slept four hours the last three nights,” one guy tells me, while smoothing the infield dirt. “I didn’t want to get up today. It’s going to be a fight until the end of the home stand.”
The heat can’t be helping. According to the morning news, the expected heat index is 109 degrees today, which makes maintaining moisture levels all the more critical. “Yeah, it’s pretty much a groundskeeper nightmare,” says Virgil. Around the field, crewmembers tend to various tasks, their daily routines—fixing the mound and the home plate area, brushing conditioner into the baselines, sweeping sunflower seeds out of the grass, hand-watering the infield and the hips. Soon the guys will move on to mowing. Virgil tells me they always try to double-cut the lawn to ensure they shear every blade of grass. This is important because if they miss, the ball can snake. “If it bounces right in between those seams, it’s going to hit some [taller] grass, and that’s when it shoots it right or left.” Certain mowing patterns can also cause the ball to snake, he says, which is why it’s important to change the grain on any pattern every week or so, to keep the grass as upright as possible. “Infield, the ball is going so fast, doesn’t matter. Outfield is where you’re going to get your issues with snaking.”
A conga line forms on the infield as Virgil waters the skinned areas, the dirt, with a handful of crewmembers draping the hose over their shoulders behind him. They do this every day the same. Muscle memory. Perfection. I think about what George Toma says about groundskeeping, how the art is being lost, and I’m sure on some level he is right. But what these guys do is not unimpressive. High-definition TV is unforgiving, and it is impossible to predict what kind of field-related emergencies might emerge at a ball game on any given night. There can be rain, obviously—in Atlanta, precipitation usually comes in prolonged downpours out of the tropics, or in thirty-minute thunderstorm bursts, what the crew calls “poppers”—which is when the guys snap into action, spreading drying agent on the dirt or pulling tarp during a delay. It’s not nearly as simple as it looks.
Just Google “baseball tarp incidents” for a bevy of bloopers, like when a Kansas City grounds crewmember was steamrolled underneath the tarp and its metal tube, or when the Pittsburgh crew lost control of the tarp amid strong winds, and one crewmember was briefly swallowed inside. Richard Wilt tells me a story from his time in Miami, when a crewmember was lifted off the ground by a gust of wind while holding a corner of the tarp, before being slammed back to earth. In 1985, Vince Coleman was blindsided by an automatic tarp in St. Louis, and it cracked the speedster’s tibia, ending his season. And he got off lucky. While that automatic tarp was nicknamed the “killer tarp,” some grounds crewmembers have actually lost their lives to unwieldy infield covers, George Toma tells me. “In the olden days, they were heavy tarps. A lot of army tarps, from the war. Some of them were what we call twenty-ounce tarps,” he says. “Now you got six-ounce tarps that go on easy.”
Easy being a relative term.
But tarps are just the beginning. Remember when flamethrower Randy Johnson hit a low-flying bird with a fastball? (The bird exploded on contact.) Well, who do you think had to clean that up? Wilt tells me about another fauna-related incident, when the Miami crew was attacked by a swarm of bees. “All of a sudden you see half the crew come running across the field, screaming. We’re laughing at them because we thought they were fucking around, and then the next thing you know you hear pop pop pop, and they start hitting you.” There was also that time a fan asked to spread his dad’s ashes on the field. The crew told him no, but he dumped the urn out anyway, when he thought no one was looking. “We had to go out there and sweep him up before the game started,” says Wilt.
In Atlanta, the craziest episode came after a controversial infield fly call during a 2012 play-off game, when a popup landed safely in (not so) short left field. The call went against the Braves, depriving them of a bases-loaded situation, and the fans weren’t happy. A garbage shower began to rain down on the umpires, Patterson remembers, leading to a suspension of play. “All fucking hell broke loose,” he tells me. “They were throwing so much garbage out here. It was crazy. Beer bottles. We were out here picking up all the trash. Finally, eventually, they ran out of shit to throw. They were throwing their shoes. From up in the 755 Club, they were throwing full ketchup bottles. That shit was coming in hot.” Patterson still has a memento from that night. “I saved a ball,” he says. “I was standing near the umpires, and someone threw a baseball, and it hit one of them in the side. I picked it up, and it said ‘Fuck You’ on it. I saved that.” (Patterson can consider himself lucky he wasn’t working the Buffalo Bills–New England Patriots game in October 2016, when Bills fans threw a dildo onto the field.)
At two p.m., with Ed Mangan yet to make an appearance, the crew is back in the groundskeeper clubhouse. Virgil hands me a putty knife and a brick of packing clay. “Just don’t tell anyone you did this,” he says. “They told me you can’t do any manual labor.”
Because it is too hot for early batting practice, there is less to do on the field today. The guys take advantage of the midafternoon lull by chopping clay, a good time-killing chore they have to do once or twice a month. Lined up on either side of a wooden table, it’s like a cocaine cutting operation as we break the bricks down to smaller cubes, which can then be worked into the infield dirt as needed. “Smoke a bowl and you can do this for hours,” one of the guys says. “Just kidding. No drugs in the major leagues.”
As we cut the clay, there are no bowls to smoke—though according to one sod farm worker, weed goes well with anything turf-related: “You can’t be a grass man and not be a grass man,” he says—but there is an easy intimacy among the crew, a kind of in-this-together camaraderie, and for a few minutes I feel like one of them, too.
Such acceptance is not a given, I know. In Level Playing Fields, Peter Morris describes a groundskeeper who rose to prominence in the 1880s named Billy Houston who had, according to the Detroit Free Press, “a mysterious method of procedure which he refuses to divulge to anybody.” Houston saw his process as proprietary, because he believed it was the key to his livelihood. This historical example of secrecy actually touches on a philosophical split within the groundskeeping community that still exists—a divide between those who look to share information and those who want to keep their knowledge tight to the vest, who want to go it alone. Loners versus sharers.
As George Toma writes in his autobiography, Nitty Gritty Dirt Man, “I have often felt that groundskeepers who do the best job tend to be loners. The mediocre ones form a club and cry on each other’s shoulders.” Yet he was one of the founding members of STMA in 1981, which has proven a valuable resource for turf managers of all levels, while fostering a spirit of cooperation. Both Dave Mellor and Trevor Vance count themselves among the sharers. “Some people think knowledge is power and won’t share it,” says Vance. “I’m all about sharing.” In fact, he says sharing information might be the best defense against losing one’s job. “There are thirty of us in major-league baseball, it’s a small fraternity. And there are probably thousands and thousands that would love our jobs. So if I can help you keep your job—if I can make your job easier tomorrow because of what I learned today, I want to share it.”
Steve Wightman, another past president of STMA, says, “I look at it this way: the whole industry is going to be better and everybody is going to be better if we share everything. But a lot of people—I don’t think they felt comfortable doing that. Maybe there was a lack of confidence in their own ability.”
Though I doubt Ed Mangan ever lacked for confidence, he is a legendary loner. “The rumor going around now is that when [the Braves] get fertilizer or fungicide or insecticides, he takes all the labels off, so [the crewmembers] don’t know what they’re putting on,” Toma tells me. This is false, but the fact that Toma could believe such a thing about his former pupil tells you the essence of the rumor—if not its specifics—must have some basis. Within the Braves groundskeeping clubhouse, on his own crew, there isn’t much love for Mangan. Part of the problem is that he is so clearly not a member of the crew—and not just because he never seems to be around. He doesn’t even bother learning the guys’ names. “For a while, he thought my name was Black, since I wore a black shirt every day,” says a guy not named Black. Another time Mangan asked for security to take a mug shot of everyone on the crew, so he could know who was working for him, since apparently normal human introductions weren’t an option. “I told security, and they said, ‘You got to be fucking kidding me,’” says Patterson.
“It’s weird,” Not-Black says of Mangan’s habit of ghosting the grounds crew. “I’ve never had a job where the boss is like not a part of what you do.” It’s even worse when he is around, though, they say, because he brings the same uptight energy I witnessed back in April.
But what if Mangan has to be this way? Not because he might otherwise lose his job—that’s ridiculous—but because it’s just the price of his own brand of greatness? What if this is the only way he knows how to run his ship? Militaristic. Keeping his guys on edge. A kind of pins and needles strategy to ensure he never makes a mistake and, by extension, they don’t either. The same way certain athletes fabricate perceived slights, to nurture a chip on their own shoulder, in order to play angry. Some seem to accept the possibility. My PR intermediary tiptoes around Mangan like he’s a temperamental genius. She describes him as being “in the zone,” when dealing with game time stress, as a way to justify his prickly personality, his one-sided communication, and his OCD-like need to keep an outsider like me at arm’s length. That’s what makes him one of the best, she says.
And yet as the afternoon wears on and the clay chopping continues, no one in the groundskeeping clubhouse gives much thought to Mangan, wherever he might be. They know what needs to be done. But unlike Mangan’s, their metaphorical pool games include an occasional ounce of fun. Mostly the guys give each other shit as we chop, as in any other locker-room situation, with one dude in particular receiving a lot of grief, like a resident punching bag. “Every crew has a guy like that,” per Patterson. They also swap some hard-earned insight from their time on the crew, like how to tackle field runners and streakers. “They stopped letting us do that,” says a veteran crew-member wistfully. Another guy describes how he became an inadvertent streaker during a rain delay. He was getting off a tractor, when a broadcast camera caught him with his fly down, without underwear on. “All the players and the Tomahawk girls [from the Braves spirit squad] saw it,” he says. After that, the field manager did underwear checks for a while. Virgil tells me how he used to make little figurines out of packing clay when he’d get bored. “Little dolphins and frogs and shit. I made my mom a pot that she could put all her spoons in.” He also reminisces about a former crewmember named Big Carl who cut his finger off while chopping clay, “and just kept cutting.” The guys hoot at the memory of Big Carl. “He cut it off and just raked it into the clay bin. Packed it into the mound,” Virgil goes on. “Players were complaining down in the clubhouse—I think I saw a guy’s fingertip.”
No need to worry, though—the finger looked great on TV.
Excerpted from The Arena: Inside the Tailgating, Ticket-Scalping, Mascot-Racing, Dubiously Funded, and Possibly Haunted Monuments of American Sports by Rafi Kohan. Copyright © 2017 by Rafi Kohan. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.