Let’s talk about mowing patterns on our playing surfaces. Rarely discussed in educational sessions, for most sports it’s anything goes. Maybe you agree with me that some of it has gone too far. Wild and whacked-out mowing patterns make the game field look like it’s screaming for attention and may be hurting the playability of the field. A professional sports field manager should design the mowing pattern in a way that fits the field, fits the sport, and is attractive in an understated way. The field is not the show.

I’m not against creative mowing patterns, just the crazy ones. A pattern that is too “loud” and doesn’t fit the field of play, like a circular pattern on a rectangle soccer field, doesn’t work for me. I admire the impressive creativity and field engineering that goes into these patterns. We’ve all tried them, and these designs are hard to figure out and execute. But we also know that some of these designs can add undue tire damage and wheel compaction from riding mowers. A poor mowing pattern design can adversely affect field playability, especially in sports with ball roll. I wonder how many baseball outfielders have whiffed on routine ground balls, or how many soccer players have miskicked a one-timer because the ball was “snaking” across a heavy, burned-in mowing pattern.

Cal Ripken once asked the venerable Baltimore Orioles groundskeeper, Paul Zwaska, if he could do away with any grained mowing pattern in the pristine infield of Camden Yards. The great ones look at every detail, and Ripken was concerned about imperfect hops on this perfect infield grass. Zwaska, who preceded the Orioles’ current groundskeeper, Nicole McFadyen, removed any pattern in the infield for the next home stand. Sure enough, he soon heard from the owner of the team, and Zwaska had to go into the clubhouse to tell Ripken that he would have to put the mowing pattern back in. The owner didn’t like the no-pattern look. Ripken might have been great, but now we’ll never know.

Soccer and golf, as far as I can tell, are the only U.S. sports that pay any attention to this issue. Host any national or international soccer match and you will get a set of written specifications detailing the mowing pattern, the height of cut, and even the game week mowing schedule that ensures nothing is “burned-in.” Swaths are straight, east to west and north to south, fitting the field. Game day lines go across the field, or “east-west.” This helps the referee better judge offsides calls.

I remember watching golf on TV 10 to 15 years ago and there were mowing patterns everywhere at the majors. Checkerboard tees, fairways and even greens were in vogue at the time. Then for a while they had the two-toned fairways, just one light and one dark swath. Nowadays there are no mowing patterns visible anywhere on a course hosting a major tournament. I’m sure the evolution had to do with how the golf ball rolled and how it came off the fairways for iron play.

In football we have neither ball roll issues nor enough grass cover to even worry about mowing patterns. Just kidding, but not really. I like the 10-yard block pattern gaining popularity in NCAA football (instead of the more traditional 5-yard block). Troy Smith, CSFM, and I came up with this design almost 20 years ago. We had just received a new seven-gang mower at the practice facility, and with such a large mower the tight turns of a 5-yard block pattern were ripping up the turf. Every football field manager knows you mow across the field, not lengthwise. Mowing a swath over and perpendicular (across) a painted line will give the line a “squiggled” look during the game. Even when mowing across the field, stop before you mow over the sideline, then do a cleanup swath along the sideline to account for offset reels. Don’t be a sideline squiggler!

In baseball, I see several teams going with the “Fishnet” mowing pattern. Anaheim Angels Groundskeeper Barney Lopas came up with the pattern about 15 years ago. Lopas is a pro’s pro as a groundsman, and says he came up with this design in an effort to minimize ball snaking. Ground balls hit in the gaps between infielders will always roll parallel to a mower swath. The Fishnet name was coined by then Angels radio color analyst Rex Hudler. The Angels’ great right fielder, Tim Salmon, had asked Barney if there was anything he could do about ball snaking. Salmon, fishnet – get it?

Just mowing the field in several directions, multi-checkerboard style, and changing directions often will keep the turf from graining too much. Periodic brushing or verticutting (especially on bermudagrass fields) helps keep the shoots and leaves upright and juvenile, minimizing the effects on ball roll. Don’t burn in patterns too much. Make your field the best it can be, not the loudest it can be. Understated beauty is often the most attractive.

The San Francisco Giants baseball club has no mowing pattern at all at AT&T Park. It is unique and I admire that – so quiet that it is loud. With such well-maintained grass it looks great. But a simple and modest NSEW checkerboard, properly managed, not only looks great and has minimal effects on playability, it’s also a great aid to the turf manager in applying accurate treatments. A modest mowing pattern can also mask damaged grass caused by events such as concerts.

As sports field managers, we are compelled to put playability ahead of appearance on the playing surfaces we prepare. Mowing patterns are great, taken in moderation. They should fit the field, fit the game, and not be so vivid and burned-in that they dominate the look of the field. Perhaps an exhibition game or an all-star game, something like that, then let ‘er rip. Get funky and have fun with the mowing pattern design. Outside of that, keep it real with your reels.