Joey Stevenson, head groundskeeper Indianapolis Indians at Victory Field
What path led you to a career in sports field management?
I grew up on a 3,300-acre corn and soybean farm in a town of about 4,000 people, Dwight, Ill. My dad had me out picking weeds by the time I was in kindergarten and running tractors by third grade. That gave me the itch for the hard work. At age 15 I started working at our local country club and part-time for the Joliet Jackhammers in the evenings. From there I received my bachelor’s degree from Purdue University, and a couple of MLB internships later I became the head groundskeeper for the Indianapolis Indians.
What are the biggest challenges in maintaining your field?
We push ourselves every year, whether we’re lowering the mowing height down to .75 inch or trying new products we are constantly evolving. Our players, management, staff and I all want our field to look opening day quality every day. We also encourage our management to tackle large events, concerts, Super Bowl events, etc. Field protection is #1 to the entire organization, but we have the staff and experience to successfully handle large events, which not only helps our bottom line, but also helps us as sports field managers to become better at our job.
What field care product/piece of equipment could you not live without?
To be honest, I could probably live without several pieces of equipment, but most important to me is our crew/staff. You can have the best equipment and best tools money can buy, but if you don’t have the trained staff to run them, they’re useless. We’re fortunate to have a full-time assistant groundskeeper, two interns, a grounds game staff of up to 10 on fireworks nights (normally four per night), and front office interns, 15-plus, to help pull tarps.
What has been the most memorable moment of your career?
The moments I am most proud of would be hosting the 2011 DirecTV Celebrity Beach Bowl, and having to renovate the field in March and finishing roughly two weeks before our first event. I’m also proud of the gals/guys that have worked with us over the years and gone on to do their own thing successfully. Most importantly, I like to hear when former MLB players or veteran coaches tell our staff that we have one of the best surfaces they’ve ever played on; it shows our younger staff and interns that the hard work pays off.
What have been the greatest advancements in field care over the last 10 years?
I would say the advancement in the sports turf manager. The education, the science-backed research, and the confidence of turf managers to push the envelope and not settle for what “has always been done” has changed the most. With the push for safety and more events, a sports turf manager with the will and desire to think of new ideas and implement them and not to settle will hopefully be the future of our profession.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned on the job?
I know every day there is going to be a game at 7:05, whether I am there or not. Understanding that the grounds crew is an important piece of a puzzle that contains many other important pieces. For everything to work seamlessly, there must be communication. It’s important to communicate to the crew how important it is to keep our schedule, communicate with the team to develop a schedule, and effectively communicate with the entire front office staff about what we do daily and why it’s important.
How do you predict the sports field industry will evolve in the future?
Since grass has been grown, the four most important practices are mowing, fertilizing, aerifiying and irrigation. I don’t think that will change. What I hope will change is status quo. I hope sports turf managers continue to evolve and become better. I hope GMs, parks directors, athletic directors, etc. won’t settle for what has always been done or switch to alternative methods i.e., fake grass. I hope the best sports turf mangers get recognized and moved to where they need to go, and those who aren’t pulling their weight find a new career.
What do you wish spectators/players/coaches knew about your job?
I don’t know if they necessarily need to know more about my job, but I think they need to respect it. Because everyone has a lawn, they automatically think they can do our job. The second we start talking about sand/silt/clay and sand sizes on infield mixes, or that not all fertilizers are the same, it immediately goes over their head, and you can’t really fix that. If a spectator sees a guy wearing baggy shorts with holes in them, a cut-off T-shirt and backwards hat, the respect is lost immediately. On the flip side, if you see a turf manager who looks professional and acts professional, we can slowly change what people think about our job, if not we can at least fool them!
What is the most important quality required to be a successful field manager?
Everyone knows an umpire or coach or ticket sales rep that has worked with you in the past. A successful field manager would obviously have a field that is reputable, but also know what goes on behind the scenes. Taking pride in your shop, clean and serviced equipment, a crew that looks and dresses professionally, and acting professional on and off the field, etc., makes a successful turf manager.
What advice would you give aspiring field managers?
The biggest proponent of you is you. Networking and communication are extremely important. Starting off on the right foot is the most important. We tell our interns every year, ‘All we ask for is three months of hard work, and we will do our best to help you get to where you want to go.’ Sports turf managers are a tight-knit group of gals and guys, where everyone knows everyone. So if you ruin your chances during your first shot at working in sports, chances are it will be your last.
Who have been your biggest influences/mentors?
My family has been extremely important. Our parents taught their three kids respect, hard work and honesty at a very young age. They were hard on us; they didn’t put us in “time-out,” they disciplined us, and I am thankful for that. I have a wife who is extremely supportive and a child on the way who will be my biggest influence. I’ve had many friends, co-workers, teachers, professors and bosses that have taught me things along the way, really too many to list.
Complete this sentence: “If I weren’t a field care pro, I would be …”
A professional motorcycle racer, zoo activist, Caribbean scuba divemaster, the list goes on, but most likely a picker/restorer and a farmer. Not a guitar picker, but one who goes to auctions and picks through junk and restores it. I am a huge fan of restoring items from the past and bringing things back to where they once were. My great-grandpa starting farming at the turn of the 20th century, so with my background in farming it could still be a viable option if the turf thing doesn’t work out.