Soccer is joining baseball at ONEOK Field, and Gary Shepherd is planning for success

Gary Shepherd has been with the Tulsa Drillers for most of the past 20 years, but he’ll be facing a new challenge next season as he transitions ONEOK Field back and forth between baseball and soccer.

Many sports field managers are charged with hosting special events on their field. At ONEOK Field in Tulsa, Oklahoma, home of the Tulsa Drillers (AA affiliate of the Colorado Rockies), Head Groundskeeper Gary Shepherd is about to take that to the extreme. He’ll have to learn how to multitask, regularly transitioning his baseball diamond into a soccer pitch, and then back again. That’s because, beginning next year, ONEOK Field will also be home to the Tulsa Roughnecks, a professional soccer team playing in the USL PRO league.

Shepherd knew something was up when management approached him late last year and suggested he sit down to hear the news. “I had a feeling that we might be having some soccer games. I didn’t know that it was going to be a full 14-game season with a team playing here as its home field,” he recalls. “It was a little bit of a shock, but I accept the challenge and look forward to trying to make the field play the best it can for both sports. I know and understand the excitement that soccer games will bring.”

Shepherd started with the Drillers in 1993, and after a three-year stint in Indianapolis (1996-1998), which included opening Victory Field, he returned to Tulsa. “We were still at an old field on the Tulsa Fairgrounds called Drillers Stadium then,” he says. “We opened ONEOK Field in 2010 in downtown Tulsa.”

When it was time to select the infield material and grass for the new field, Shepherd voiced his opinion. “We have TifSport bermudagrass here. We had 419 bermudagrass at the old field, but I had replaced the infield with TifSport there a few years before we left, and we were very happy with the way it performed, so we stuck with that when we moved down here,” he explains. ONEOK Field is sand-based with drainage lines and a Rain Bird irrigation system with Rain Bird heads. “We have 12 zones on the field, encompassing a total of about 90 heads,” notes Shepherd.

In addition to the field, he’s also in charge of maintaining about 2 acres of landscaped grounds outside the stadium, which includes bermudagrass lawns and some shrub beds.

Shepherd has one full-time seasonal assistant, Robert French, an Oklahoma native who gained baseball experience working on spring training fields in Arizona before returning home this year. “It’s been great to have an experienced person who’s really helpful with all the day-to-day stuff,” he says of French. A part-time assistant comes in occasionally to help with projects like edging and aerating the field when the Drillers are on the road. This core team is supplemented by three assistants who come in on game days to help ready the field for play.

During the season, ONEOK Field is mowed every day during homestands and every other day when the Drillers are out of town. That helps to provide a break for the turf and the crew, says Shepherd. “We could probably get by with mowing every other day even when the team is in town, but we mow every day just to ensure consistency of play,” he explains. A John Deere 2653 greens mower is used on the outfield, and a Toro walk-behind Greensmaster is used on the infield.

Shepherd usually prefers a relatively simple mowing pattern, either a checkerboard or straight in-and-out lines to center field. “But right now we’re doing a sunburst pattern that fans out [from home plate]. We’re doing that because with soccer coming I’m not going to be able to do this one again,” he says. Once established, he usually keeps a pattern for a couple of months before switching it up.

Since Tulsa is located in the transition zone, the bermudagrass is overseeded with ryegrass. “We usually transition back around early to mid-May, and then we’ll have bermuda through the end of the season and we’ll overseed again around the first of October,” he explains, noting that he hasn’t had much trouble getting rid of the rye when the weather warms up. “We’ll hit it with some high-nitrogen fertilizer, lower the height of cut, aerate and maybe back off the watering a little bit – just do all the things we can to burn out the rye. I haven’t used chemicals to transition; I know some places do, but we’ve done it manually.”

With just one full-time seasonal assistant and a handful of part-time help on game days, Shepherd is definitely hands-on.
Photos courtesy of the Tulsa Drillers.

Shepherd is a big proponent of aeration. He aerates the infield and sidelines monthly with a walk-behind core aerator, and the cores are raked off of the field. The outfield is core aerated three times a year. Once the season is over, right before overseeding he brings in a contractor to do a deep-tine aeration. “We’ll topdress twice each year: midsummer and then before the overseeding,” he says.

Scheduling these bigger maintenance projects requires planning. The Drillers’ road trips last anywhere from four to nine days, providing windows of time to complete jobs like aeration and sod repairs around home plate or the pitcher’s mound. With soccer coming next year there will be more to do and less time to get the work done.

“We’re going to have 14 soccer games, starting in early March, even before the first baseball game,” Shepherd explains. “Every time we have a soccer game, we’re going to take a little bit of the infield off and put down sod.” He anticipates using a tractor and shovels for this job, but admits, “I haven’t done it before, so it’s going to be a little bit of trial and error.” He’s hoping an exhibition soccer match can be scheduled for the end of this season to provide a test run before the challenge starts for real next season.

The infield is dragged at ONEOK Field, the soon-to-be home of the Tulsa Roughnecks.

“I’ve talked to some other people about how they’ve done it, and I’m sort of working off that advice,” says Shepherd. The plan is to put down a geotextile material barrier between the infield and the sod, which will be brought in on a native soil base. “We’ll use 42-inch-wide sod that’s 0.75 inch thick,” he explains. Sod staples will be used to secure the new turf, which will be removed before baseball games. Shepherd has looked into ways to be able to reuse that sod, but that might cost more than purchasing new sod for each transition. Latitude sod will be used for this endeavor rather than the TifSport that’s on the rest of the field, because that’s what the sod supplier is growing.

The plan is to lay the soccer field out so the first base line will be one end line of the soccer field, and it will head out into left field. In this configuration, the soccer field won’t cover the entire infield (about 6,000 square feet of sod will be needed) and one sideline would run just before the pitcher’s mound. “Our hope is that we won’t have to mess with the pitcher’s mound,” he notes. “But, in case we do need to move the mound, we are looking at ways to do that, whether it’s a portable mound or even a hydraulic mound [that lowers into the ground].”

Another learning curve will be painting the lines for soccer games, and then painting over those lines to get back to baseball mode, says Shepherd.

One thing that shouldn’t need to change is the mowing height of the turf. “I talked to some MLS groundskeepers at the last STMA meeting and they were mowing at the same height we do – between 0.75 and 5/8 inch during the summer – so I’m comfortable with that,” says Shepherd, who initially feared that soccer would require a lower mowing height.

Since the field will not be used for soccer practice, only games, he hopes that wear and tear will be minimal. “I am expecting a little wear at the goalmouth area, and maybe on the sideline where the players stand,” he states. “We might aerate more often because of that, it’s just going to be a matter of timing.” He expects to spend a couple of days setting up the field for soccer games while the Drillers are on the road, and a couple of days to break it down. “And we still have to fit in the fertilizing and aerating and other agronomic stuff that we have to do,” he adds.

Gary Shepherd talks over game day field prep with grounds crew member Brett Awalt.

Shepherd predicts that the wear experienced will depend to a large degree on the weather conditions. If it rains during the soccer game, or when the field transition is taking place, it’s likely there will be more damage done.

He plans to get input on field setup and conditions from the coaching staff of the Tulsa Roughnecks, a model he follows now with the Drillers. “I try to get feedback through the coaching staff. I’m always talking with those guys, whether it’s about what time batting practice will be or how things are going with the field. And I try to touch base with every visiting manager as they come in; I’ll just ask about what they’re hearing about how the field is playing and whether there’s anything we need to address,” he explains. A few years ago he also started talking with the visiting team and he’s found the additional input to be helpful.

As the 2015 soccer season draws closer, Shepherd continues to seek out the expertise of soccer groundskeepers and those who have soccer games on their ball fields. Since news of a soccer club moving into ONEOK Field broke, he’s received several calls from baseball facilities that are considering adding soccer asking him how he’s making the transition. “Of course I’m new to this to myself,” jokes Shepherd. Next year, though, he’ll have a lot more information to share.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories. You can contact him at pwhite@meadowridgemedia.com.