Baseball has always been considered art. Norman Rockwell, considered “the Dickens of the paint brush,” often used baseball as the subject of his mid-20th century portraits. So has Hollywood, which has made numerous films embracing America’s pastime.
It’s no surprise, then, that baseball field managers have added their own craft to the turf they oversee in the mode of mowing patterns.
I’ve been going to baseball games for decades. In the 1970s, I saw some grass that looked shoddy and played dangerously. These days, however, the grass at baseball stadiums is nothing short of magnificent – for players to play on and for people to look at.
People go to games to watch baseball, but they also go for the ambiance, from sampling the artisan food to taking in the view of the field, which includes mowing patterns best admired from the upper deck.
Most field managers know laying down grass blades in a certain direction, which allows the turf to either reflect or absorb sunlight, creates patterns. Grass blades laying down and pointing away from you appear light green. Grass blades pointed up and toward you appear dark green. Reel mowers with rollers will do the trick.
If there’s a godfather of mowing patterns, it’s David Mellor, the director of grounds for the Boston Red Sox. Mellor literally wrote the book on the subject, “Picture Perfect: Mowing Techniques for Lawns, Landscapes and Sports.”
Groundskeeper lore has it that Mellor, an assistant groundskeeper at Milwaukee County Stadium in the early 1990s, mowed a busy pattern in the outfield grass to serve as “camouflage” after the turf was badly damaged during a concert. It worked. People noticed Mellor’s design, but not the turf damage.
The concept of mowing patterns has become so popular that the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) implemented a contest, which just completed its second year. Ironically – or maybe not – the winner of that contest, Ben Young, already has moved on to another job, as in a step up the career ladder. In February, Young was named head groundskeeper for the Memphis Redbirds, the Class AAA affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. He had been head groundskeeper for the Altoona Curve, the Class AA affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and in charge of the Peoples Natural Gas Field in Altoona, Pennsylvania.
I spoke with Young shortly before he moved to Memphis about winning the award and the art of mowing patterns. Young is no stranger to awards, having been named the 2013 Eastern League Diamond Pro Sports Manager of the Year when he was with Altoona. While he was intrigued by the mowing patterns competition and thought it would be fun to enter, Young didn’t have his heart set on winning it.
Mowing patterns are fun and cool and aesthetically pleasing for fans, but they’re not a top priority for Young. Put it this way: Young doesn’t stay up late at night devising new templates to carve in the turf as much as he would stay up worrying about how to combat the threat of Pythium overtaking the outfield grass.
Mowing patterns are cool, but not at the expense of two things: safety and playability.
“We work hard to make sure everybody knows this because those are the things that are important,” Young says.
Young doesn’t “get all intricate” with mowing patterns. In fact, it’s top of mind for him not to spend too much on creating them.
“It’s about priorities,” he says. “We’re not spending our time out there mowing patterns when we should be maintaining infield lips and things like that. The last thing you want is a player to get hurt because you spent three hours mowing a field, but you didn’t take care of a lip.”
But Young doesn’t deny that mowing patterns is something that’s enjoyable for him, his crew and certainly the fans. And the pattern for which Young won the STMA context, called “Four Patterns,” is very entertaining.
Young, who grew up in baseball-crazy St. Louis, began his career with the Gateway Grizzlies, a minor-league team competing in the Frontier League, when he was in college at Southeast Missouri State. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in agronomics, Young was off to Phoenix, where he worked for the Chicago White Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers spring training facilities for a year. He then got the job at Altoona, where he spent three seasons, before leaving for Memphis and AutoZone Park, where Young will incorporate his outfield artwork this season.
Young emphasizes “time” when it comes to mowing patterns. He and his crew must have time to do it, and they must do it when the time is right.
Perfect example: At Altoona, Young and his crew had more time than unusual to carve the “Four Patterns” because it was the end of the season and the team’s final home stand. They figured, why not have a little fun?
“The crew and I sat down and tried to think of something we hadn’t done before,” Young says. “We had done the four different patterns separately, so it was just a matter of laying them out on the field and getting out there and mowing them. We typically don’t get that wild with patterns.”
Earlier last season, Young and the crew cut the Altoona Curve logo in center field in celebration of People’s Natural Gas Field hosting the Eastern League All-Star Game.
“That was a little more intricate with some of the corners and edges,” Young says. “We went out with brooms and touched up some of the smaller corners.”
It’s vital to ensure mowing patterns don’t affect playability, specifically “snaking,” a groundkeeper’s nightmare. Balls rolling on outfield grass will follow the direction in which the grass is laying.
“If the pattern is going back and forth and there’s a ball going through the middle of the outfield, you can literally see the ball bouncing from side to side as it’s rolling through the grass,” Young explains.
The key to combat the issue is to mow straight to center field, Young says.
Field managers also don’t want to create mowing patterns so baroque that outfielders will be distracted, Young adds.
Mowing patterns also can affect plant health. It’s not a good agronomic practice to mow the same patterns on the turf for an entire season, Young says.
“It’s important to mow in different directions for the health of the plant,” he adds. “If you mow in the same direction [for an extended time], the turf will get matted down.”
If you mow the turf at different angles, you’ll get a better quality of cut, he says.
Kentucky bluegrass, the variety at People’s Natural Gas Field, is a good variety for mowing patterns because of its sharp color.
Young’s advice to those interested in sprucing up their fields with mowing patterns can be summed up in two words – mow straight.
“The straighter it is, the better it looks,” he says. “That comes with practice.”
While Young realizes that having cool mowing patterns isn’t nearly as important as a safe field, he knows that mowing patterns add to the fan experience.
“It’s a selling tool to show off to fans and get people to the ballpark,” he adds. “The field is a selling point.”
The field is a canvas.