Fifty-six years and counting.
That’s how long the Little League (Baseball) World Series has been held in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania. In those 56 years, there’s been a lot of drama, history, big names, future stars and prestige, pomp and circumstance. This year’s event – scheduled Aug. 20 to 30 – is sure to have all of those things, there’s no doubt. But one of the things that makes the 2015 Little League World Series different is the groundskeeper of both playing fields, Lamade Stadium and Volunteer Stadium.
Meet Rob Guthrie, a 2007 graduate of Penn State University’s turfgrass management program and newest head groundskeeper for Little League International.
“I have a passion for baseball; I grew up playing baseball,” Guthrie says of why he was interested in the job. “I have good memories of Little League baseball. Little League has a very big name behind it, and, from a fan aspect, I watched the Little League World Series every year. I always thought it would be a great job to be a groundskeeper here.”
Guthrie’s professional journey to South Williamsport – a borough of fewer than 7,000 people about 130 miles northwest of Philadelphia – is unique, to say the least. After graduating from Penn State, Guthrie worked as a spray technician at a Pennsylvania golf resort and conference center, followed by jobs as assistant golf course superintendent at two Pennsylvania country clubs.
Then, in April of this year, Guthrie – currently a student in the Penn State turfgrass management master’s program – saw the opening for the head groundskeeper position for Little League International. Despite his background in the golf course side of turfgrass management, he applied and was subsequently hired.
“I had worked on two NCAA regulation baseball fields (at Penn State),” Guthrie recalls. “I was kicking back and forth whether or not I wanted to go into the sports turf or golf side. I ended up going into golf course management. But coming from that golf side, a lot of things I was doing on those golf courses translate to this job.
“It’s been great, a good step for me,” he adds. “Coming from a golf course as assistant superintendent and now running my own grounds crew, it’s a step in the right direction as far as my career in turfgrass management.”
Grass isn’t the only aspect that golf course management and sports field management have in common, but it’s perhaps the most obvious. Learning about different types of grass on golf courses helped prepare him for this job, where he manages several grass fields.
“I learned a lot about how to take care of specific kinds of grass, ranging from grass on a green or on a fairway, or out on the rough where you’d have bluegrass or ryegrass,” Guthrie says. “I’m very specific with my disease management and what chemicals I use when. That’s a lot of what I learned on the golf course…. what to use in different situations. You have to be out on your fields daily to see how different chemicals are reacting. I’d walk the greens every morning on the golf course, seeing what they looked like, what they were doing and if they needed fertilizer. That’s what I do here. You have to be on your turf to see what needs to be done.”
That championship look
Two venues host Little League World Series games: Howard J. Lamade Stadium and Little League Volunteer Stadium. Lamade has hosted games since 1959, while Volunteer opened in 2001 when the event’s field expanded to 16 teams. Both playing fields feature Daktronics scoreboards, 100 percent Kentucky bluegrass and symmetrical fences, with a distance of 225 feet from home plate to each outfield position.
Lamade was built in 1959 and has a capacity of 40,000 spectators, most of whom sit on the outfield berms. The stadium is two-thirds the size of a Major League Baseball stadium, with 60-foot base paths and a 46-foot distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate.
Volunteer was completed in 2001 to accommodate the growth of the Little League World Series. Its approximate capacity is 5,000 and is used for double-elimination pool play only. All elimination games and consolation games are played at Lamade.
“They’re different fields, but Lamade is older and gets more recognition – that’s the one everybody knows,” Guthrie says. “Volunteer is newer and the turf is denser, thicker and healthier. That being said, we treat both fields exactly the same, unless something is drastically needed on one or the other. The chemical/fertilizer programs are the same, and both are maintained at a 1-inch cut.”
The crew is very aggressive with aerification and venting on the two championship fields, Guthrie says. He hollow-cores the fields twice a year, in the spring and fall. The fields are vented each month in between. “We’re hoping that makes a difference,” he says. “It’s a big thing we’re doing this year.”
In addition to the championship fields at both stadiums, Guthrie is responsible for the property’s three practice fields and three public parks and recreation fields across the street from the Little League complex.
“I have an overall management plan for each field that I implement,” Guthrie says of his job scope. “On each field, we do infield repair and grooming, patching of the pitcher’s mound and home plate, mowing, etc. We have high expectations for our championship fields, and we maintain them at a high level all year-round. We want to keep up with and maintain our practice fields at a high level, as well. They’re good Little League fields, overall.”
In addition to the World Series games in August, the facility also holds local Little League games and a six-week baseball camp that runs from the first full week in July until the first full week of August. The campers use all the fields, including the two championship fields, which makes Guthrie’s job that much more involved.
“It’s a little tricky to squeeze all of our work in when [the campers] are here,” he says. “We have to come in early, and when the campers break for lunch, I’ll have about a two-hour window to get back out to the fields. And then I’ll follow up in the evening.”
Guthrie’s staff includes himself and two interns: Andrew Woodlin, a student at Penn State, and Mike Jensen, a student at Delaware Valley University. Also, a group of 30 to 40 volunteers will come in leading up to the World Series in August to prepare the fields and maintain them during the event.
“We rely heavily on interns,” Guthrie says. “We’d like to grow our internship program, increase the number of interns we have. It’s good to have younger kids [who] are willing to learn and [who] are interested. We rely on them to get our fields in shape and provide the extra manpower we’re looking for. It’s a great opportunity for students to be able to come out here and work for the summer and it all accumulates at the end, which is the final product, the Little League Word Series.” Guthrie notes that housing is offered for interns who are selected for the program.
As far as the volunteers, who are organized by Penn State extension agent Jeff Fowler, most are longtime help and come back every summer. Ages and skill levels of the volunteers range from professional to locals who just want to lend a hand. “It’s a very good program,” Guthrie says of the volunteers. “We’ll take all the help we can get to make sure the fields are properly detailed for the World Series.”
Picture-perfect for TV
At the Little League World Series, games are broadcast on television, but not some grainy transmission on a local cable access channel.
Think bigger – much bigger. The games are seen in high definition on ESPN, as the world’s top sports network brings in Major League Baseball analysts and reporters to cover the event, giving it the same production value as its MLB broadcasts. For about 10 days, South Williamsport gets the bright lights and the big stage. That includes Guthrie’s fields at Lamade and Volunteer stadiums. Naturally, they must look good in person. But they also must look picture-perfect for all of the viewers at home watching in HD.
And that’s fine with Guthrie.
“There’s some added pressure (with the games being shown nationally on ESPN),” Guthrie says. “This is my first Little League World Series, but I’m excited…to showcase our fields on national TV. That’s something that drew me toward the job, having an event that is going to be on national TV for 10 days. There aren’t too many other opportunities out there like it…aside from working at Augusta or something like that.”
With televisions set up inside Guthrie’s work area, he’ll be able to see the ESPN broadcasts and look at the fields from that perspective. “That’s definitely an aspect that I’ll focus on,” he adds. “It’s very important to know what the field will look like on TV. Perception is big with me.”
For an additional perspective on how the fields are looking, Guthrie is able to get up on a hill behind Lamade Stadium and look down, to gauge what it looks like from up top. He can also climb into the TV towers to get more overhead views.
Preparing for play
Considering there’s a baseball camp that operates at Little League International until the first full week in August, much of the field prep work on the two championship fields is done eight day prior to the start of the World Series.
This includes repairing the pitcher’s mound and checking for the proper slope, nail dragging, checking the home plate area, adding conditioner where needed in the infield, repeating any final edging around the infield skin and outfield warning track, checking the bullpen areas and pulling any weeds.
“We’ll also increase our mowing frequency, and put in our mowing patterns, the day after camp ends,” he adds. “We’ll also sod any areas that need it, and we’ll make repairs. Any spot that’s not up to par, we’ll go into our turf nursery and get what we need to make repairs. We’ll utilize all of our volunteer help to detail these fields to make them picture-perfect.”
Regarding the infield, Guthrie says, the crew uses Diamond Pro products exclusively, including Red Vitrified Infield conditioner and Diamond Pro home plate and mound clay. Also, once the baseball camp ends, Guthrie brings in an outside firm to laser-grade both championship infields.
“We also just re-cut the outside arc on the Lamade Stadium field to get it back to spec,” he adds. “We do all the extras on the championship fields.”
And, like any other groundskeeper, all of that prep work can literally be washed away by the weather. Guthrie will monitor weather patterns extensively during the Little League World Series and keeps a vigilant eye on any storm systems that could move in.
“You have to have a good handle on the weather to understand what’s going on,” he says. “A lot of our management practices are dependent on the weather. I ingrain that into my interns’ heads, to look at the radar and make decisions based on that.”
Regardless of the weather, Guthrie is confident the fields will look their best when it comes time to play ball, Little League-style.
“I have high expectations,” he says. “I’m excited for the opportunity.”