New hires must be able to fit in with the crew, stepping up to their tasks with the precision needed for pregame field preparation.

I’ve been in sports field management for about 20 years and am in my 13th year as head groundskeeper for the Louisville Bats baseball club, a Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. Louisville Slugger Field is a sand-based field with Kentucky bluegrass turf, located in the heart of downtown Louisville, Ky.

Since I’ve been in the industry for so long, much of the preliminary work of hiring is done for me. I seldom put out a job posting. I get a lot of résumés and recommendations from past employees and current suppliers who understand my work ethic, my personality and what I expect from our crew. They only suggest someone they think will be a good fit. I look for people that want to move forward in this industry, and focus on equipping them to achieve that, so I also get tons of unsolicited résumés and e-mails for positions.

It’s a lot to sort through, so I don’t mind applicants calling to make sure their materials were received and making follow-up calls if I haven’t responded to them after that. It lets me know they’ve invested some time and thought into the process and I’m not one of 50 or so that received an email blast application. If they appear to be a good prospect, I’ll ask them to come in for an interview.

Interview process

First impressions do matter, whether they’re coming in with strong recommendations or from a mailed or emailed résumé and follow-up phone contact. They’re interviewing for a position on a crew of professional turf managers, and I expect them to look like it. For a guy, a suit or sport coat and tie are fine, at least a clean, neat shirt and tie and khakis, with comparable choices for a woman. I want them to look me in the eye, show some confidence and sell themselves a bit. I don’t mind the sir to start with; it shows a level of respect for the hiring process and the person that may become their boss.

When I interview I do most of the talking and show them around. I tell them what I expect of them; that they’ll work really hard, but have fun too. The money isn’t great, and they’ll put in long hours in all kinds of weather. Then I ask them if they still feel this is a fit for them. If so, we’ll go to the next phase.

Tom Nielsen, with rake in hand, watches the game in action.

Some get to this point and I can see they’re backing off, telling themselves this dude is way too intense for me. That’s fine. This isn’t the job for everyone, and we’re both better off if they’re honest with themselves, and with me.

First time in the head position

When you’re new in the business, in your first head groundskeeper position, you have to do all that preliminary work on your own. At my first head position in Eugene, Ore., I was just looking for a body, searching for one person who would really work hard and not be paid much. I’d done some landscaping work for a design/build company while I was going to school, then I was on the Milwaukee Brewers’ crew for four or five years, moving from the game day crew to seasonal, full-time to first assistant prior to landing the position in Eugene.

At that stage, I didn’t know what kind of a head groundskeeper I was going to be. They’ll be in the same position, with no management reputation, so it’s hard to get people to apply for a job because they don’t see how the position is going to benefit them. I posted the job opening, and then talked to everyone from the hot dog vendor to fans in the stands, asking if they wanted to work on my crew.

Nielsen stresses attention to detail, with the results clearly shown in this game time view of the field.

I’d review résumés mainly to see when I would be able to utilize them. Are they still in school? If so, when can they start, when do they need to leave? Do they just want a summer job or do they want a career? I’d put the résumés in separate piles: one for the ideal, one for those that might work out, and one for the rejects. Sometimes I’d only have one pile and one person overall. Sometimes I’d have to sort through a lot of résumés, but it would still boil down to one person to consider, and they were in the “might work out” pile.

I didn’t have connections in the industry or anyone to help me find my first job on a sports field. I was once in that stack of résumés. Someone saw something there and gave me a break, so I’ll always at least review every résumé I get. It takes a strong phone interview or a good recommendation, and preferably both, to move them to the interview stage.

The 2010 Louisville Bats baseball club grounds crew. Back row: (left to right) Andrew Swanson, Scott Gerlach, Brock White, Thomas Theobald and Craig Sampsell. Front Row: Eric Harshman, Tom Nielsen, Justin Shirley and Chris Miller.

Phase two

Phase two is the tryout. During the interview, I tell them I won’t necessarily fire them, they’ll fire themselves. They need to be open to all the little details, not just with the turf and infield dirt, but also with the crew. The crew and I spend so much time together we’re like an extended family. If one person is not a good fit, the team as a whole won’t be as productive as we need it to be.

I have a crew of eight people including a full-time, year-round first assistant, Eric Harshman; two or three game day personnel; and the rest seasonal, full-time crew members. The crew numbers may vary from year to year depending on the workload and budgets.

I don’t often have an immediate opening to fill, but if someone wants to come here and they have potential, I’ll encourage them to come for a few days to volunteer. They’ll see what I’m about and how we operate, and I’ll see what they’re about. It doesn’t take long for me to make an assessment and the crew provides input, letting me know if they feel someone is not pulling their weight or is clueless to the world around them.

Some of the top applicants may volunteer several times over a year or two, keeping their foot in the door for a position to open. Usually I have someone lined up a year or two in advance.

Sell the learning aspect

If I can pass on what I’ve learned and help my crew avoid making some of the same mistakes I’ve made, they’ll be better groundskeepers. That doesn’t mean I can go to someone else’s field and give them all the answers. It took me three years here to understand the interactions of this field, the drainage, soils and microclimates, and I’m still learning everyday. So, I’m not looking for someone who will just come in and do the job. I want to surround myself with intelligent people, with innovative ideas and a passion for this profession that will help me keep growing, too.

I tell the applicants that our crew always has free rein to try something that they really believe will work, even if I’ve tried it previously with limited success. There are so many different ways to reach a goal that even the current best methods can benefit by a little tweaking. I want my crew to be part of the decision making process and understand that every task they do is important to how the field functions. I want them to learn every aspect of field care so they can step into any slot and perform to my standards. I give my crew the opportunity to come in earlier and stay later because something has to be done. That allows me to see which are willing volunteers and who thrives with new challenges.

I let the applicants know I’ll be teaching management strategies: how to deal with the front office; how to deal with suppliers; how to deal with the media and the public; how to understand their crew and how to treat them so they’ll want to work with them. I tell them upfront they can be a really great groundskeeper, but if they’re a horrible manager of people, they won’t make it in the head position. They’ll need to motivate and inspire their crew; they won’t be able to do it all by themselves.

Management mind-set

Attitudes matter. The grounds crew can’t have an adversarial approach with the front office and expect the kind of teamwork it takes to manage effectively. The head person has to set the tone for their crew and build a working relationship based on mutual respect.

Someone with a shy, introverted personality will have to come out of their shell and approach people when they don’t necessarily want to and put themselves in an uncomfortable situation to problem solve effectively. They’ll need to learn the art of give and take and be aggressive when necessary to stand up for their principles. They’ll need to become more interactive with their crew. They have to keep learning, becoming competent in multiple areas. That builds their confidence level, which brings their boldness out naturally.

Applicants learn during the initial interview that those hired will be trained in all tasks, including painting the foul lines.

Moving on and up

I’ll often suggest seeking a different position in another area of sports field management, or another region of the country, or both, for those that have worked a year on my crew and have shown strong management potential, especially if they have the flexibility as still single college students. I’ll help them find a good match. If they want to come back after a year, they’ll move to the top of my hiring list. If they want to keep exploring their options, I’ll continue to help them.

I tell those that move up to the first assistant position that I don’t want them here for more than three or four years. They’ll have learned all I have to teach them and are ready for a head position somewhere else. Again, I’ll help them make the right match. Sometimes the opportunity to move up comes at the worst time for my management program, but I’ll encourage them to make the move if it’s a great fit. My hope is they’ll go on to learn and grow in their new position and provide the same kind of teaching and mentoring for their new crew, making all of us better overall.

That puts me in a position of continually hiring new people, but each year hiring becomes a little bit easier. When, by the end of the season, one of those new hires tells me they’re thinking about switching their major to sports field management, I know I’ve done my job.

Tom Nielsen, head groundskeeper for the Louisville Bats baseball club, is known industrywide for his mentoring skills.