Thursday, March 11, 2010

Preparing the SF Giants' Pitch for 2010 Season

Greg Elliott is the Unseen Pitcher for the San Francisco Giants. A man charged with producing a perfect pitch before the baseball season has even begun and without ever throwing a ball.

The skills and ambitions of players and the hopes of thousands of fans depend on his pitching skills, though his name will never appear on the jumbotron scoreboard.

For Greg is the Head Groundskeeper. A few weeks ago, he stood in time at the end of the winter season with its roller coaster of other sporting and community events that have ravaged the pitch, and the heraldic call of spring and the 2010 baseball season.

He has until April 1 to produce that perfect pitch for the first of the home Spring Training games, and just a few more days beyond that, while the Giants pit their skills in their opening game of the season away to the Houston Astros, to tweak it. Then on April 9, the gates of the AT&T ballpark will be flung open wide for the fans and the team will parade out for six days of home games, first against the Atlanta Braves and next, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But in February, Greg gazed at bare soil and sand, a freshly-minted sprawling green lawn, and unblemished, skilfully constructed pitcher's mound, homeplate and infield yet a vision in his mind's eye.

A former elementary school teacher who retrained with a degree in Sports and Commercial Turfgrass Management, he is an award-winning groundskeeper and soil scientist looking for the best and utilizing the latest technologies. There are changes underfoot.

By mid-morning that day, with a tractor tilling the soil and skid steers flattening it, he was confidently proclaiming they were 'ahead of schedule.'

'There's a tight deadline to get the field in, but we have enough time to appropriately grow it,' he said.  'A 'tight deadline' - to be ready for a game - would be "we have a game next week!"' he said, as he supervised the team of workers in the stadium.

With or without baseball, Greg is a pitcher for all seasons. His winter season begins in October with disassembling part of the old pitch.

'At the end of the baseball season we remove the infield material - a clay loam soil -and remove the portable mounds and store these in the 'players' lot' under the Coke sign,' he said. The Coca-Cola sign being an iconic 80-foot wooden bottle high up on the far end of the stadium with viewing platforms and four slides, and which flashes with celebratory lights on a home run.

Then the stadium is prepared for community use and football games. This winter they hosted two games of the California Redwoods plus the college football Emerald Bowl. A massive 350 tons of sand was spread over the pitch. Not just any sand but a USGA (US Golf Association) 'spec' sand, and grass was rolled on top of it.

By the end of January, the pitch was gone in readiness for a stadium-shaking event when Greg and his team truly felt the earth move under their feet. Approximately 6,000 cubic yards of it.

The annual Supercross event, a stadium version of motocross, is a mud-fest. Plastic sheeting goes down over the entire field and for two days soil is trucked in to form a six-inch 'road base'.

Supercross chose the original soil ten years ago and it is stored in nearby Mission Bay every year and reused - pics of soil at Terry Francois Boulevard, Mission Bay

The set involves jumps and a different track design each time, and takes Supercross over a week to build.

Once the last vestiges of one of the most popular events on the social calendar have finally gone, the old sod layer of last season's pitch is removed and recycled. A company truck it away, put it through a grinder and sell it as premium top soil. Fans wishing to grow their flowers or seed a lawn with a souvenir bag of dirt trodden on by their heroes, need only buy!

Which leaves Greg to face a bare field and the prospect of FanFest, a pre-season opportunity for fans to roam freely around their beloved stadium, go where usually only the elite go, and collect player autographs.

A light covering of sand remains, and Greg stands in a stadium that resembles more of a military practice ground for Iraq and Afghanistan, and watches as thousands of pairs of fans' feet trample joyously over his denuded pitch.

Now winter has passed, the fun is over and it is time for the soil scientist to apply his knowledge with seriousness to help the team do what they and everyone wants them to do - win games.

'Playability and consistency' are his twin themes. 

Firstly he replaces the field, bringing in fresh soil and mixing it with the sand after FanFest. The soil needs to be tilled, and this year Greg is using 'farm discs', two rows of rotating metal discs that till down to a new depth of ten inches.

'That's why we're trying to go deeper with the tilling. Playability and consistency, that's what we want,' he said. He has to balance two aspects: compaction of the soil that will give a firm, stable foundation, and  enough space within the soil for the roots of the grass to flourish.

'It's one thing that makes my job hard,'  he said, referring to compaction. 'I need to relieve it. When you compact, air and water space is limited. You need a free-flowing soil, you need to let oxygen in.'

Once the field has been tilled, then laser technology is employed to level it to a degree of NASA-like accuracy. A rotating laser pole is held aloft that communicates to a receiver that in turn sends down information to a box plate. The box controls a blade that pushes and pulls the soil, and by the time it is finished the field is level to a staggering 0.2 inches per 100 ft.

Next, irrigation heads are replaced on the sprinklers - there are over 60 in the outfield and about 20 in the infield, and finding them is not always easy! - and then ground levelling is fine-tuned to an even more staggering accuracy of 0.1 inches for every 100 ft.

Now the field sits waiting for a spring coat of over 107,000 square feet of freshly-growing grass. And it's out with the old style, and in with the new. Abandoned, is a mix of Kentucky Blue Grass and Perennial Ryegrass.

'This season we're changing to an overseeded Bermuda Grass Tifway II with Perennial Ryegrass. This will handle wear a lot better. We hope it will make a large difference for us,' said Greg. The Bermuda will form a protective mesh over the ryegrass, which is a tough grass popular for sports fields in southern states, and should recuperate more quickly. And when the Bermuda goes dormant in cold temperatures, the ryegrass will complement it by remaining green all year.

Greg is hoping the Giants will flourish along with the grass!

With the field attended to, he will turn his attention to the pivotal points of a baseball pitch, the pitcher's mound, infield and bases, and the bullpens. For the next stage in the preparation of the Giants' pitch, see next blog.

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