In 2015, Greg Elliott received his third World Series Championship ring as the head groundskeeper for the San Francisco Giants. That’s three – as in trio, as in triad, as in trilogy. Any Major League Baseball field manager would be ecstatic to win just one.
Elliott, who is in his eighth year with the Giants, knows how fortunate he is to be in charge of the field for the team that won the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014. It’s a pinnacle of Elliott’s career. Make that pinnacles.
“These kind of opportunities don’t present themselves too often,” the 41-year-old Elliott, whose official title is director of field operations, says of the Giants’ dynasty. “Eventually, we’ll come back to Earth, but hopefully it won’t be for another 20 years.”
Elliott didn’t become a Major League Baseball field manager to win championships. Let’s just say the titles are the icing on the cake(s). Elliott is where he is because he’s passionate about his profession, much like Giants’ star player Buster Posey is passionate about playing the game.
Elliott has always wanted to succeed at a high level. He’s doing that at AT&T Park. AT&T Park, which opened in 2000, also happens to be one of the coolest stadiums in the league.
There are other field managers like Elliott who want to succeed at a high level. They dream of managing fields for one of the 30 teams in The Show.
But what does it take to get there? And, once you’re there, what does it take to stay? Is there pressure at the top? Do you have to work ungodly hours?
Is being a head groundskeeper for a Major League Baseball team all it’s cracked up to be?
Like getting any job, you must interview well.
There’s a scene from the movie “Hoosiers” when Norman Dale (played by Gene Hackman), head coach of the small-school Hickory Huskers, leads his team into the massive gymnasium where his team will play for the Indiana high school state basketball championship. The players’ jaws drop in unison at the size of the empty gymnasium. Dale, with tape measure in hand, calls on a few of his players to help him measure certain dimensions on the floor.
“I think you’ll find those are the exact same measurements as our gym back in Hickory,” Dale tells them.
In his interview for the Giants’ job, Elliott, a fan of the movie, borrowed that scene from “Hoosiers.” Elliott, who was the head groundskeeper at Classic Park in Eastlake, Ohio, home of the Lake County Captains (Cleveland Indians’ Class A team), said that he knew many dimensions of AT&T Park’s field were the same as at Classic Park, which made him confident that he could do the job.
Elliott also said, “I guarantee that the San Francisco Giants have more money than the Lake County Captains. So any problem here can be rectified faster and easier.”
Elliott’s creative and somewhat bold play went over well. You could say he interviewed well, as the Giants hired him after two meetings.
It also helped that Elliott was named Groundskeeper of the Year four times in the South Atlantic League. He made a name for himself with his attention to detail in field maintenance.
Elliott says his business experience – he once worked in operations with the Toledo Mud Hens, the Class AAA team of the Detroit Tigers – also separated him from other candidates.
“I knew how to run a budget,” he adds. “[The financial decision-makers] want someone they can trust. You’re spending other people’s money.”
Doug Gallant, who recently began his 15th season as head groundskeeper at Great American Ball Park, home of the Cincinnati Reds, says a solid work ethic is a must-have to make it to the big leagues.
“You have to work your tail off,” Gallant says. “You have to be willing to work long hours.”
Gallant works 15-hour days and gets little time off during the season. On most game days, he leaves the house around 9 a.m. and gets home at midnight. He will spend the night in his office at the stadium if the team has a day game followed by a night game.
All the hard work will help you get noticed, Gallant says.
“You need to put the best product out there that you can and get people to recognize it,” he adds. “The field is like your resume.”
Eric Hansen, the head groundskeeper and assistant director of stadium operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers, was a high school teacher before becoming a sports field manager. The Illinois native earned a degree in agronomy from Texas A&M University after giving up teaching.
At Texas A&M, Hansen studied under legendary turfgrass professor and agronomist James B. Beard, who became his mentor.
“He was instrumental in helping me get into sports turf,” Hansen says.
Beard, who was a turf consultant with the Toronto Blue Jays at the time, helped Hansen land a job as head groundskeeper at the Blue Jays’ spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida, in 1991. Hansen says he made “noticeable improvements” to the facility in his nearly six years there, which helped him get the attention of the Dodgers.
While with the Blue Jays, Hansen joined the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA), where he networked and became friends with industry icons, including Steve Wightman, a former NFL field manager, who was a consultant with the Dodgers. With his experience with the Blue Jays and his relationship with Wightman, Hansen had an “in” when the Dodgers’ job opened.
His point: Find a mentor and network. Both will help you succeed.
Once you make it to the big leagues, how do you stay there? Of course, you must know – and strive to learn more about – how to care of a big-league field, from the turf to the dirt.
At AT&T Park, Elliott is open to trying new things to improve the field any way possible. For instance, Elliott recently oversaw the park’s turf conversion to rhizomatous ryegrass, the only field in the Major Leagues with the variety, which is a solid fit for San Francisco’s maritime climate, he says.
“We’re always looking for the next best thing,” Elliott adds.
You have to be able to handle the pressure at the big-league level, too. When Gallant started with the Reds, he says, he was “on pins and needles with every pitch.” He was concerned that every ground ball would result in a bad hop or that a pitcher would stumble on the mound.
“It was agonizing,” he says.
But after a few years, Gallant learned to let it go. He knew the field was in the best shape possible, and there were some things he couldn’t control.
“Players are going to slip and there’s going to be a bad hop every once in a while,” he says.
While there’s pressure, there’s also glamour. Gallant doesn’t seek it, but he enjoys talking about his job when people ask him about it.
“It’s conversation wherever you go,” he says. “You just don’t meet a head groundskeeper from Major League Baseball every day. People say, ‘It must be great getting to go to Reds’ games every night.’ From the outside looking in, I can see it as being the best job in the world.”
There is also mainstream media attention. A few years ago, Elliott’s hometown newspaper, The Toledo Blade, did a feature story on him. Gallant has fielded phone calls from local Cincinnati television stations wanting to film him and his crew mowing the grass at Great American Ball Park for the first time in the spring.
Even the fans dig the head groundskeeper.
“One time on Opening Day, I was touching up the logo behind home plate before the game and about 10 people with cameras were there taking pictures. I said to them, ‘You realize you’re taking pictures of two of the most boring things in the world – grass growing and paint drying … and at the same time.”
Big-league field managers also have to learn to balance career and family, considering their long hours. It’s a challenge, says Elliott, who has three children.
“It helps that my wife is a bigger fan of baseball than I am,” he adds. “She likes coming to the park. As a former attorney, she also understands the commitment it takes.”
Because major league fields now host more than their team’s baseball games – from corporate outings to high school games to concerts to weddings to campouts, etc. – head groundskeepers have more responsibility, which has impacted the career and family balancing act, Gallant says.
“There’s maybe one or two weekends out of the season when nothing is going on [at Great American Ball Park],” Gallant says.
He doesn’t have to be at all the events, but he attends plenty of them. And even when he’s not there, his mind is.
- Find a mentor.
- Network, network and network.
- Be patient for your chance.
- If you get your chance and score an interview, don’t swing and miss. Be prepared.
- A willingness to work long hours.
- Agronomic smarts is a given, but must have a willingness to become even more agronomically astute.
- Have to be able to handle the pressure.
- Have to be able to handle the limelight.
- Business acumen for budgeting.
- Able to balance career and family.
Realizing he wants to be a better family man, Gallant is resigning from the Reds soon after the team’s home opener on April 6. Gallant loved the job, but his three children – two boys and a girl – are getting older, and he wants to spend more time with them before they’re off to college. Gallant will devote all his time to the field maintenance business he began as a side project a few years ago.
“The Reds have been very supportive of me,” he says. “It’s the nature of the beast, and they know that.”
If they have advice to offer on how to make it to the majors, head groundskeepers agree on one thing: Be patient.
“I almost walked away from the profession the year before I got my opportunity here,” Elliott says.
Sometimes, it’s just a matter of being in the right spot at the right time, Gallant says.
“I wasn’t 25 years old and thinking my ultimate goal was to be a head groundskeeper in Major League Baseball,” Gallant says. “It never even crossed my mind.”
Also, don’t put pressure on yourself with a make-it-or-break-it deadline to secure a big-league gig. Remember, there are only 30 jobs.
“I was never fixated on it,” Hansen says. “I was open to doing different things.”
Hansen was happy with the Blue Jays and says he would’ve been content to stay there.
Gallant expects his next great job will be as head of his own company. But he’ll miss the thrill that came with being a major league head groundskeeper.
“It was a lifetime of experiences,” he says.