Human Guinea Pig

I Got To Roll Out the Tarp, but …

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

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.

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.

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.

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?

While the ballplayers practiced, Royse and Rowland intently watched the results of their work. Were the ball hops good? Was the pitcher having to dig around too much on the mound? At around 5 p.m., Rowland brought out the line roller and painted the foul lines while a member of the evening tarp crew on the lookout for flying balls literally watched his back. At 6:30, the Nationals’ opponent, the Philadelphia Phillies, finished batting practice, and the grounds crew looked like silent-movie actors as they hustled during the half-hour before the game to get the practice equipment off, all the lines and stencils painted, and a final grooming of the baselines finished.

After so many long, intense hours, when the national anthem was sung at 7 p.m. it seemed to me that the important work was done. The little matter of the ballgame felt like an anticlimax. I sat in front of the stands, just inside the stadium fence, on a folding chair with the other members of the crew. Watching baseball with the grounds crew truly gives a worm’s-eye view of the game. The fans can focus on hits; they’re looking for divots. Rowland praised a player for tamping back a wad of grass on his way to the dugout. He also observed, “On the first baseline we don’t have as many chunks and blowouts as yesterday. We got the right level of moisture.” At each Nationals game, giant mascotlike figures of Washington, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt run a race on the warning track. When Washington and Lincoln fell on the infield at the end of the race, Rowland winced—such antics tear up the grass.

At the third inning, the crew ran out and dragged and raked the baselines. I stayed behind because only employees of Major League Baseball are allowed on the field during the game, although I thought that if I reprised my encounter with the Sand Pro I could get some fan support. At the fifth inning, they replaced the bases for clean ones for the aesthetic appeal. At the sixth inning, they dragged and raked again.

Royse and Rowland started compulsively checking their Doppler radar maps. Rain cells were popping up in the region. At 9:58, rain started falling in the park. Royse hopped the fence and talked to the umpire, but the rain was too light, and it was too late in the game for it to be a concern. At 10:11, the game was over, another Nationals loss, 6-5. And at 10:11, the grounds crew was running onto the field stomping divots, picking up bases, raking the batter’s box. I took a rake and cleaned up the baselines, my beautiful work from earlier in the day pocked with cleat marks. Then the tarp was unrolled and laid over the field. At 10:33, we were done. But my colleagues would be back in a few hours; the next day the Nationals had another game—which they won! *

Correction, Sept. 24, 2009: This article originally implied the Nationals lost the following night’s game. The Nats beat the Phillies 8-7.