It's spring, but grounds crew at Maryvale isn't in training

March 26, 2012

This is the last week for the annual ritual of spring training baseball in Arizona. Fifteen major league teams and hundreds of players are prepping for the upcoming season.  While fans relax in the stands watching the players, there’s another team working from sun-up to sundown that most fans never notice. Al Macias reports.

Milwaukee Brewers grounds crew A member of the grounds crew at Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix. (Photo by Al Macias - KJZZ)
Milwaukee Brewers grounds crew Jon Naber leads an 11-man grounds crew at Maryvale Baseball Park. (Photo by Al Macias - KJZZ)
Milwaukee Brewers grounds crew Sections of the field such as the batter's box must be reconstructed after each game. (Photo by Al Macias - KJZZ)
Milwaukee Brewers grounds crew The grounds crew goes to work as the stands empty after a Milwaukee Brewers game. (Photo by Al Macias - KJZZ)

AL MACIAS: Before hitting drills start … Before pitchers and catchers begin warming up … Before the stretching and running drills get under way … And long before the first pitch of the game is thrown, work has started for Jon Naber and his 11-man crew. Naber is the head groundskeeper at the Milwaukee Brewers’ spring training complex in west Phoenix. From behind his sunglasses, he oversees the care and maintenance of six full-sized major league fields and two half fields. His deep tan is evidence of the 70-hour work weeks he and his crew put in this time of year.

JON NABER: Once you see games going its been, that’s months in the preparation, rebuilding mounds, rebuilding plates making sure things are level.

MACIAS: And if mowing, watering and raking acres and acres of grass weren’t enough, Naber also has to know dirt.

NABER: Our warning track is one material, our infield is a mixture of dirt, clay, sand silt and then we top it with a clay that absorbs the moisture.

MACIAS: And then there are the pitcher’s mounds. No matter what the crews do, Dale Gillespie says, pitchers always have to make their own modifications.

GILLESPIE: Every day they come out and kick it and you fix it and they kick it and you fix it.

MACIAS: Gillespie is a grounds crew member, and he says sometimes he silently screams to himself.

GILLESPIE: You cringe. Stop it! You’re making a hole. But that’s what they do, so they can dig in, push off the rubber so they can throw harder, throw faster, you know. But that’s what they do and we go out and fix it that’s what we do.

MACIAS: Getting the field just right is as much art as it is science. Not enough water, the infield gets too hard and line drives can become costly errors on the scorecard. But with temperatures in the mid-80s, watering the fields is a must.

BOB MISCIK: But they have to be careful, too much water and fielders may slip or leave huge gouges in the grass when they dive for a ball.

MACIAS: Bob Miscik is the roving infield instructor for the Brewers minor league teams.

MISCIK: This is our office. This is where these guys make their living. On the field so the field needs to be very good condition. When it’s not, it’s like anyone else going where the working conditions are not good.

MACIAS: Here at the Milwaukee camp, 200 minor leaguers and 60 major league players go through conditioning, running, throwing and other drills most mornings. On game days, along with the regular work, Naber and his team have to deal with sunflower seeds and other nuisances.

NABER: They’ll have practice, batting practice before the game. So we’re on the field picking up seeds, picking up gum, picking up everything, so when they come or the game it’s nice and clean again. Then they make a mess again, but it’s just part of the process.

MACIAS: Naber and his crew are baseball fans. But they watch the games differently.

NABER: And now we notice mow patterns, we notice how wet or dry the fields are. And that’s just part of it. It’s part of your job to notice those things. I want my guys, if they didn’t notice that, I’d wonder what they’re missing here at work.

MACIAS: On this spring day, the game may be over but there’s still work to do. Naber says the field’s in pretty good shape after the game.

NABER: Yeah today it was 7-4. We’ve had 13-12 games and that tears up the field pretty good.

MACIAS: So while the crack of bats and balls and the pop of gloves may be done for the day, the other sounds of spring training continue.

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