March 14, 2012
By Jack Smith
Bradley Kirkland and Zach Willard are more than assistant groundskeepers for the Auburn Athletics Department. They are part weatherman, part scientist and part artist, too.
It takes all of those skills to keep Auburn's baseball and softball playing surfaces green and pristine.
Kirkland and Willard are part of a close-knit team that works to keep Auburn's fields at Plainsman Park and Jane B. Moore Field as close to perfect as possible. They work under the direction of Athletic Turf Manager Eric Kleypas, who like his employees has a passion for making sure Auburn's playing surfaces are so immaculate that visiting teams leave Auburn green with envy.
Kleypas and Kirkland are graduates of Auburn's turf grass program in the College of Agriculture, and Willard is currently a student in the program.
"These guys are well trained and well versed," Kleypas said. "They have a passion for what they're doing and the knowledge to get the job done correctly."
Head baseball coach John Pawlowski appreciates their skill and hard work.
"We're very, very fortunate," Pawlowski said. "We feel like we've got one of the best playing facilities and surfaces in the country. These guys do a tremendous job and I know they take a tremendous amount of pride in what they do and it certainly shows in their work."
Kirkland enjoys the role he plays for the sport he loves.
"I grew up playing baseball, and I like trying to provide the best playing field that I can for the guys," Kirkland said.
Kirkland and Willard's jobs are a lot more complicated than mowing grass and raking dirt. They closely monitor the weather, which has a major impact on the playing surfaces. Sunny days mean extra water for the infield dirt, while cloudy forecasts call forclosely monitoring the moisture so the surface doesn't get too wet and heavy. Rainy days mean the crew rolls out the tarp, which can complicate matters and invite diseases if left on the playing surface for too long, requiring treatment with fungicides.
"Most coaches will tell you that 93 to 94 percent of a baseball game is played on the infield dirt, so that's a big area of emphasis." Kleypas said. "If it's too wet or too dry, it's not going to play right."
Weather isn't the only factor in good field management. Personal preferences of the home team's infielders are also taken into account.
"We talk to the infielders all the time to see how the surface is playing," Kirkland said. "You just cater to what they want. If a player likes it hard and fast, we'll make it hard and fast."
A team's personality can also affect the way fields are managed.
"You can really cater a field to the individual team," Kleypas said. "When you play small ball, it matters."
Auburn's baseball coaches typically want the infield's front triangle wet and soft.
"We have a couple of ground ball pitchers, and that slows it down," Kleypas said.
Keeping the turf a deep green color for the duration of the season is a never ending, cyclical process for Kleypas' crew. Good color starts with a quality cut each time the grass is mowed. The groundskeepers also have to monitor the soil's Ph, aerate the turf the correct number of times during the summer and apply just the right combination of slow and quick-release fertilizer throughout the growing season.
Every August, the infield and areas around the foul lines at Plainsman Park are re-sodded. The old sod is dug up, the ground is laser-graded, and new sod is planted.
"It's a year-long process," Kleypas said.
As for the patterns cut into the outfield grass that fans watching from the seats enjoy, they are limited only by the imagination of the groundskeepers. Kirkland sometimes will see a pattern that he likes while watching professional baseball highlights. He often sketches them out on paper, using contrast and color to make the patterns pop.
There's nothing terribly scientific about making straight cuts--Kirkland aims his mower directly at a target on the fence and never takes his eye off it for the first cut. Alternating passes in opposite directions form the crisp patterns that give the field its attractive appearance. Kirkland seldom uses the same pattern twice.
"I try to mix it up a good bit," he said.
Over at Jane B. Moore Field, home to the Auburn softball team, Willard has a smaller area to groom compared to the two acres at Plainsman Park, but maintaining the outfield and infield to meet Auburn's high standards is no less challenging. Just like at baseball, the infield can be catered to the team's specific needs, such as whether the lineup features slap ball hitters who use speed to get on base or sluggers who swing for the fences.
Days during the season can get long for the grounds crew, especially during tournaments that often require 16 or 17-hour days. Yet it's all worthwhile for Willard, who enjoys his job and making sure the team has a safe surface that suits its needs.
"I just enjoy being with the guys," Willard said. "We're really close, and that makes you look forward to coming to work every day."
Other members of Auburn's grounds crew include Michael Cronin, who has overseen softball for a decade, Stan Czerkawski and Miles Cook. Landscapers Justin Sutton and Wiliam Daltonalso help maintain the fields and prepare them for competition.