Mowing is like the final coat of paint — it’s only one small part of the total job, but it’s critical to get it right in order to ensure that all of the other prep work pays off.

BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston, Texas Home to: Houston Dynamo, MLS Soccer

Rodney Griffin, turf and grounds manager | Editor’s Note: Griffin currently works for King Ranch Turfgrass

It may seem simple-look how many people mow their own home lawns-but doing the job right takes real effort. We asked a few of the experts who care for some of the country’s top sports facilities how they approach mowing, and what tips they have for achieving professional-level results.

“I’ve got a little saying: The guy who mows knows,” says Rodney Griffin, turf and grounds manager (and mower-in-chief) at BBVA Compass Stadium. “I do the mowing, so I get to see every square inch of the turf up close.”

He encourages head groundskeepers to be involved personally in field mowing whenever possible, as it allows the opportunity to visually inspect every part of the field for problem areas or signs that other maintenance practices are working or not working. It also guarantees quality control over the mowing job, he adds.

BBVA Compass Stadium has a Discovery bermudagrass field. “We mow every day to every other day, and we always collect the clippings,” Griffin states. A Toro Reelmaster 5610 is used for the job. “Our mowing height varies,” he adds. “We go anywhere between .75 inch to 1 inch, depending on the game schedule, the time of the year and some other factors.”

Rodney Griffin, turf and grounds manager at BBVA Compass Stadium, personally mows the field. “I do the mowing so I get to see every square inch of the turf up close,” he explains. MLS requires a specific mowing pattern on each field in the league.
Photo by Paul Duron/GNU Free Documentation License.

He advises that when it comes to altering the height of the turf or other mowing practices, it’s important to communicate those changes with the team. “Anytime we make a change, we let them know first,” Griffin emphasizes.

Major League Soccer (MLS) has specific striping requirements that must be adhered to. “We follow those requirements, which is the traditional pattern you see on soccer fields with the big, wide stripes,” he explains.

Griffin’s biggest tip for those looking to achieve professional-level results with their mowing program? “Slow it down,” he says. “You have to mow slow and often. You have to take your time. It’s not equipment that makes our fields look the way they do; it’s the time and effort. A lot of people think they don’t have the right budget to get these results, but that’s not always the case; a lot of it is the time you put into it.”

Safeco Field, Seattle, Wash. Home to: Seattle Mariners, MLB Baseball

Bob Christofferson, head groundskeeper

The Seattle Mariners play on a bluegrass field that is mowed nearly all of the time at 1 inch. “There’s a lot of factors that go into the height, including what type of team you have and the weather conditions that you’re working under,” explains Head Groundskeeper Bob Christofferson. “Ours is not a really fast field, but it’s not a slow one either.”

This off-season, for the first time, Christofferson is raising his mowing height in order to take some stress off the turf, mainly because it doesn’t receive a lot of sunlight inside the stadium. “I want to see if I can get just a little more light on each leaf, which should help it during the winter,” he explains.

The field is mowed daily during the season whenever the team is in town, typically as close to game time as possible given all the other maintenance tasks that need to be completed. “Very rarely will we not cut on a game day,” notes Christofferson. “Sometimes when we turn around from a night game to a day game we may not mow, just to give the turf a little bit of a rest. Because sometimes you can over-mow.” Another time they might not mow on game day would be in the spring or fall, when the grass isn’t growing as much.

For those who want a nice pattern on the field, Bob Christofferson says that repetition is the key.
Photo courtesy of Morguefile.

When the team is on the road, the field is typically mowed every other day in order to give the turf a little break. “We might even give it two days’ rest, depending on weather conditions and other events taking place on the field,” says Christofferson. During that time the Mariners ground crew also switches to a neutral mowing pattern. “Not in the opposite direction, but if we had been mowing in a north-south direction, we’ll switch to east-west,” he explains. “And we’ll mow in both directions, so we’re really not even putting a pattern in. That keeps things neutral and ensures that our main pattern stays as the bright one.”

For those who want a nice pattern on the field, Christofferson says that repetition is the key. “You really need to take your time when establishing a pattern and then stick with it. That’s what gets the pattern in nice and deep and crisp and clean,” he explains.

A Toro 3100 reel mower is used on the outfield at Safeco Field, while Toro 1600 reel mowers are used on the infield. Clippings are collected on the infield, but not on the outfield. “I’m not sure collecting the clippings helps that much, and it would be much more time consuming,” Christofferson says of the amount of basket emptying that would be required on the outfield. “Some teams do that, but we haven’t found it any kind of an issue here to leave the clippings.”

He says his crew inspects the reels every time they operate a mower and adjusts them. “When a mower is not sharp you’re chewing it rather than cutting it,” Christofferson explains. He says that mowing with sharp blades is just one example of the small things all sports field managers – no matter what field they’re working on or their budgets – can do to improve field conditions. One of the other keys, he explains, is being consistent with all maintenance practices, including mowing: “I always tell people, ‘You don’t have to do it exactly like we do it, but get into a pattern and a routine and stick with it.'” That means, for example, not letting the grass grow long, and then cutting it short to prepare for a game. “You should never remove more than one-third of the blade,” Christofferson advises. “If you do that it’s too stressful on the grass.”

In addition, he says, “When they’re out there on the mower, they are doing more than mowing. They’re looking for disease and overall turf health. You can pick things up and see what’s going on out there,” he says. For that reason, he doesn’t allow his crew to use radio headphones or anything else that might distract them on the mower. “It’s important to concentrate out there. They might, for example, find a sprinkler head that’s out of adjustment. Or someone who is mowing a school or rec field might spot some glass out on the field,” notes Christofferson.

He also wants the mowing crew to pay attention to how much grass they’re cutting, as this provides important clues about adjustments that could be made to mowing frequency as well as irrigation, fertilization or other maintenance practices. “You should be doing more than mowing when you’re out on the field,” he reiterates.

Angel Stadium, Anaheim, Calif.

Barney Lopas, head groundskeeper

With more than 17 years on the job as head groundskeeper at Angel Stadium, Barney Lopas has a well-established mowing program. He starts mowing each spring at .75 inch. “Then in the summer we’ll drop it to between .5 and 5/8 inch,” he explains of the effort to get the bermudagrass “up and going a little bit.” When he makes the change, he does so in two steps to help the turf get accustomed to the shorter height. “When I cut it down to .5 or 5/8 inch, I’ll cut it at that height for two or three days, but then I’ll let it grow back up to .75 inch before I start cutting again.” Jacobsen Greens King 526 walking mowers are used on the infield, and Jacobsen Eclipse 322 riding mowers are used on the Angel Stadium outfield.

“You could have the greenest grass in the world, but if you don’t have sharp blades, the grass isn’t going to look good,” says Barney Lopas, head groundskeeper with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Photos courtesy of Jacobsen.

Lopas follows a carefully created mowing pattern, one that’s designed not only for aesthetics, but also for playability. “At the beginning of each year, I’ll try to find a spot between where the shortstop plays and where the third baseman plays. I try to find a spot where if a ground ball got between them it would be a straight line to where the left fielder stands,” he explains. “That way, when the outfielder is charging a ground ball, the ball isn’t going to snake on him. The grain of the grass is going straight at him.”

From that reference line he creates the rest of the field, striping in a way that the same benefits apply to the center fielder and right fielder. “I make sure that every line is going toward that position player, so the balls won’t snake on them,” he states. “If the ball is moving back and forth, it makes it really hard for them to charge the ball and make a play.”

The mowing pattern at Angel Stadium is carefully designed to ensure that the grain of the grass runs directly from home plate to each outfielder, so there is no “snaking” or lateral movement added to the ball, which would make it harder to field.

Lopas recommends using string lines to get a pattern established, and even then to only do three or four passes at a time, and then going back over those lines before proceeding. This provides a chance to continually check to be sure the pattern is on track. Doing a large part of the field only to find out that you’re half a mower width off results in a lot of wasted time, he notes.

He maintains that pattern throughout the season. “It’s not good for the turf if you keep mowing it in the same direction, but my outfielders like it, so that’s why I keep it that way. It would be better if I could change the pattern every home stand or week, but this is the way these guys like it,” says Lopas.

In order to give the turf a break, he does change the mowing pattern anytime the team is on the road. “I change it so I can lay the grass another direction and stand it up,” explains Lopas. But four or five days before the team returns from a road trip he switches back to his preferred pattern in order to “burn that in” and hide whatever temporary pattern he had been using.

While other crew members sometimes mow when the team is away, Lopas says that whenever the team is home he personally mows the infield and his assistant mows the outfield.

Lopas adds that mowing with sharp blades (or reels) is essential, and something that’s frequently overlooked. “We sharpen about once every home stand, and we backlap probably every other day,” he notes. “We want to make sure we’re cutting rather than tearing.” Not only is this better for turf health, but it also results in a much better appearance, Lopas adds. “Especially if you’re playing night games on television; if those blades are not cleanly sheared, you’re going to get a whitening effect. You could have the greenest grass in the world, but if you don’t have sharp blades, the grass isn’t going to look good.” Even for fields that won’t be seen at night or on TV, the visual appearance of a field is much better when mowed with sharp blades, emphasizes Lopas.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in the November, 2013 issue.