Long workdays mean less family time- how sports field managers make time for both

When he was hired as the assistant head groundskeeper at the historic Fenway Park in Boston, an elated Weston Appelfeller felt like he’d hit one out of the park.

When his daughter Bowie was born, Weston Appelfeller says he realized his goal in life was to be a great father.

It was 2008, and Appelfeller felt like he was on top of the world, or least Fenway Park’s Green Monster. He couldn’t believe he would get to maintain the field where so many baseball greats had played, from Babe Ruth to Bobby Doerr to Ted Williams to Carl Yastrzemski. It was a step up to the big leagues, literally, from Appelfeller’s job as director of stadium grounds at Columbus (Ohio) Crew Stadium, home to a Major League Soccer team.

“It was humbling to get the Fenway job,” Appelfeller says.

He and his wife, Stephanie, packed up and moved to the Boston area. She got a job as a commercial real estate appraiser. The two worked long hours, but life was good – until they decided to start a family.

When their daughter, Bowie, was born at the end of 2010, the Appelfellers longed to return to the Columbus area to be closer to their families. While he loved his job, Appelfeller knew it would put a crimp in his family life. It wasn’t just the time he spent at work – sometimes 80 hours a week – it was the fact that the weather often dictated when he had to work. When he wasn’t working on game days, Appelfeller felt like a doctor on call, sometimes sleeping in the office. With his wife working full time and pursuing her career, something had to give.

“The hours in Major League Baseball can be long, hard and tiresome,” Appelfeller says. “I had a great job, but I felt like I had to make a change.”

Sports field managers from all corners, be it municipal parks or MLB stadiums, are often faced with similar dilemmas when it comes to balancing career and family life. The aim is to be the best that you can be in your profession, even if that means working long hours and weekends at the risk of alienating your spouse and family members. But if you want to maintain a healthy home life, you must find a balance.

That’s just what Appelfeller did. In May 2011, he took a job as the assistant groundskeeper with the Philadelphia Union, a Major League Soccer team that plays at PPL Park. It wasn’t a return to Columbus, but the job had set hours, from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and was much less stressful.

“I had to put the family first,” Appelfeller says.

It was difficult to leave Fenway Park; Appelfeller felt like he was taking a step back in his career, but he knew he was leaving for all the right reasons. Since he was able to spend more time with his wife and daughter, he didn’t think twice about his decision.

Philadelphia wasn’t Columbus, but the Appelfellers were content. Stephanie got a job working from home, and the family was able to spend a lot of time together.

Then, in December 2011, Appelfeller received a phone call from the Columbus Crew about returning as director of stadium grounds. It was a no-brainer to take the job he previously held from 2006 to 2008.

“We were ecstatic to come home,” the 29-year-old says.

It’s not that working for the Columbus Crew isn’t demanding. Appelfeller puts in plenty of hours, anywhere from 50 to 80 a week, but the weather doesn’t dictate his hours like it did in Boston. Plus, he and Stephanie are back home.

Appelfeller sometimes thinks about what he left in Boston, but when he sees Bowie with her grandparents and other family members, he realizes he made the right choice.

“No matter how much you love your job, and no matter how awesome your job is, you have to put family first,” he says.

While Appelfeller admits that working for an MLB franchise wasn’t his thing, he knows that other MLB groundskeepers have been able to balance their careers and families capably, despite the rigors of the job. They just have a different set of circumstances.

Doug Gallant, who’s entering his 13th season as the head groundskeeper for the Cincinnati Reds, says it’s top of mind for him to balance career and family.

This spring, Doug Gallant enters his 13th season as the head groundskeeper for the Cincinnati Reds at the Great American Ball Park. Gallant has been married for 14 years to Lisa, and the couple has three children, ages 11, 9 and 7.

Gallant began his career with a large Cincinnati-based landscaping company that was also breaking into the sports field industry. Gallant would travel to a city for a project, where he would stay and work for up to three months.

Gallant met Lisa in his early 20s, and they got married when he was 26. When they decided to start a family, Gallant knew he didn’t want to be in a job where he was gone for three months at a time.

While he had no aspirations of becoming a head groundskeeper for an MLB team, Gallant was happy to land the Reds’ job because it meant he didn’t have to travel. However, Gallant works 15-hour days and gets little time off during the season. On most game days, Gallant leaves the house around 9 a.m. and gets home at midnight. He will spend the night in his office at the stadium if the team has a day game followed by a night game.

Gallant says Lisa knew his job would require a lot of his time when he took it, but Lisa, who works part-time at a hospital, adjusts her schedule to accommodate his work hours.

“She’s obviously very understanding,” Gallant says. “She’s laid back and rolls with the punches.”

Troy Smith (right), who’s in his 19th season as sports field manager for the Denver Broncos, says he never could have had the career he has had without the support of his wife, Bobbi (left)

Troy Smith, who’s in his 19th season as sports field manager for the Denver Broncos, says he never could have had the career he has had without the support of his wife, Bobbi. The 46-year-old Smith also spent three and a half years with the Milwaukee Brewers before joining the Broncos.

Smith’s children are grown – he has a 23-year-old daughter who recently graduated from college and a 20-year-old son in college – but he remembers the days of trying to balance his family life while working 70 hours a week.

Smith says Bobbi sacrificed her career to stay home with the children while he worked long hours. Smith missed some birthday parties over the years, and he’s had to work some major holidays, like Christmas.

“I’m very fortunate,” he says. “She was always there. It was nice to have that anchor at home.”

Most sports field managers agree that it takes a patient, strong-willed and understanding spouse to help them balance career and family.

“It’s not an easy task to be the spouse of a field manager,” says Elizabeth Fasbender, who’s married to Eric Fasbender, the assistant director of facilities and grounds for Louisiana State University athletics in Baton Rouge, La. The couple has two young children.

The 33-year-old Fasbender is a high school chemistry teacher. She and Eric have been married for 11 years. Eric also worked as head groundskeeper for the Schaumburg (Ill.) Flyers professional baseball team and as grounds manager for the University of Oregon athletics.

Eric works anywhere from 50 to 70 hours a week. Fasbender knows that her husband wants to achieve the best field conditions possible and that it takes a lot of dedication and time on his part. She understands his dedication.

“I have the exact same trait in that I want to be the best teacher I can be,” says Fasbender, who is speaking at the Sports Turf Managers Association’s annual conference and show in Daytona, Beach, Fla., on “Keeping Your Home Life Growing.”

Sometimes Eric will have to run to work to tarp the baseball field if there’s the threat of rain. It doesn’t make Elizabeth happy that he has to leave, but she has learned to deal with it.

“I’ve learned that he can’t change the weather,” she says. “I can either be grouchy about it or live with it … and I’ve learned that living with it is just fine. Besides, I like the time spent with my kids. It’s missing time with my husband that I don’t like.”

While Elizabeth Fasbender (right) says it’s not easy being married to a sports field manager, she says her husband, Eric, who’s the assistant director of facilities and grounds for Louisiana State University athletics, is a dedicated father to the couple’s two young children.

A person who marries a sports field manager may often be alone, and that person needs to figure out how long he/she can be alone without feeling lonely and compensate for that time, Fasbender says.

She admits she has gotten angry at times, especially during Eric’s 80-hour workweeks.

“But it’s futile,” she says. “The problem is you’re mad at the job, but the job feeds your family.”

Of course, sports field managers can do their part on the home front to make their family lives as healthy as possible.

After home LSU football games, Eric will complete all of the work needed, even if it means staying until 2 a.m., so he doesn’t have to come back Sunday to do it.

“Then he can stay home all day Sunday with the family,” Elizabeth says.

Eric is very devoted to his family, she says.

“The thing I really appreciate about him is that he tries to come home every night as quickly as he can,” Fasbender says. “He’s home almost every night for dinner.”

Gallant strives to help with family duties. For instance, he puts his kids on the school bus in the morning because he doesn’t have to be at work until 9 a.m.

During the winter, Gallant is at home as much as he can be, especially in December. He helps out with the grocery shopping and the laundry. He and Lisa also venture out together for a day of Christmas shopping. Gallant admits that he doesn’t like to shop, but he does it to please his wife.

“I can suck it up for one day,” he says with a smile.

Sports field managers shouldn’t discount the power of words in the process. Smith tells his wife that they are “teammates” in his career and their lives. He also made sure to tell Bobbi, who he has been married to for 25 years, how much he appreciated her support while the kids were growing up.

Appelfeller is in contact with his wife several times a day by phone and text messages. He may send Stephanie messages that simply say, “I love you” or “Do you need me to pick up anything on the way home?”

Fasbender is impressed that her husband remembers to send her a text when he’s busy at work.”It does a lot to nurture the relationship,” she says.

Even when they’re working, sports field managers can get some family time in if they want to. Gallant’s kids sometimes go to the stadium on game days. He lets them water the field and sweep out the dugouts.

“They think it’s really neat,” he says.

While working 12-hour days during the Broncos’ training camp, Smith says Bobbi often brought the kids to the facility when he had a break so the family could be together. They may have been together for only a few hours, but the time spent was priceless, Smith says.

When he’s in the midst of a long week, Appelfeller will phone Stephanie and tell her that he needs to see her and their daughter, and they’ll come to the field to watch the game.

“It’s whatever I can do to hang out with them,” he says.

When Appelfeller sees them at work, he realizes how important they are to him – and how important it is to strike the proper balance between career and family.

“You can’t favor your job over your family,” he says.

Aylward is editorial director for SportsField Management and Superintendent magazines. He can be reached at laylward@mooserivermedia.com.