Saturday, March 13, 2010

Preparing the SF Giants Pitch for the 2010 Season - Part 2

Greg Elliott is the Giant's Unseen Pitcher, a man charged with producing a perfect pitch before the baseball season has even begun and without ever throwing a ball...see previous blog 

For the Head Groundskeeper of the San Francisco Giants baseball team, the most complex part of pitch construction is the pitcher's mound.

A carefully calibrated centre-piece that can hinder or enhance a pitcher, this season the Giants' mound will bear the imprint of the likes of Cy Young Award twice-winner Tim Lincecum, whose skills have catapulted him into a two-year, $23 million contract, Barry Zito, Jonathan Sanchez, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner.

Aware of the need to achieve both a firm foundation and softer topping, last season Greg instituted a new design. This involves six specially-engineered circular steel pallets - similar to those pictured above. The pallets, like giant trays, hold about a four-inch depth of solid, undisturbed soil.

The pallets were lifted out of the ground at the end of last season and stored under the bleachers until ready for use again. Then, like a circular jigsaw, they are slotted together and laid over the cement pad that forms the base of the mound.

'They should create a more consistent pitching surface for the pitchers - it's all about consistency,' said Greg, using the 'C' word that is one of his twin themes, playability being the other.

His next task is to shape the mound using infield clay for a lighter topping, and allowing air and water into the surface soil.

He literally inches his way over and round the precious mound, making sure it is 18 ft in diameter, rises to a plateau measuring 5 ft by 3ft and 10 inches above home plate, slopes gently down at one inch per foot, and has the centre edge of the players' rubber exactly 60 ft 6 in from the rear point of home plate.

'Building a pitcher's mound is as much an art as it is a science,' says Baseball Almanac on

'We've been able to embrace both aspects, the artistic and scientific parts,' said Greg. Describing the artistic part as 'how you interpret it, check the shape and compaction,' he added, ''I think we've taken the technological aspect as far as we can and so the artistic part is up to us.

'It's more artistic than anything. You have to have a feel for it. There's no books on it, there's nothing really out there.'

Another job is to install the infield clay, also stored under the bleachers - pic left -and base lines at home plate, and level them.

Then there are the bull pens to build, both for the Giants and the visiting teams. Greg uses rectangular steel pallets of heavily compacted soil - pic above - for the Giants, and steel frames built with pieces each weighing one ton.

 pics show Greg constructing the visitors' bullpen last week after the grass has been laid

Two of his final remaining tasks are to nourish the field with 'earthworm castings', the waste of earthworms broken down - 'It helps to root the field in better,' he said, meaning that it helps with water flow as well as nutrient levels - and root out bugs.

'Then we're pretty much ready to go! We start hosting baseball games. That's when we get into our general maintenance,' he said.

With hardly time to draw breath, once the games start, Greg moves into high-gear care and repair.

When there is a game, he mows every day, irrigates lightly and daily as opposed to the alternative groundkeeping philosophy of 'deep and infrequent', fertilizes before each 'home stand', deals with pests, aerifys and top dresses, and manages the clay surfaces.

Has he ever been thrown a curve ball?

'Oh yes!' he said, throwing his head back in bemusement. 'There's always curve balls!!!'

Last season a rock jammed part of the irrigation system overnight. A puddle of unwelcome water greeted him in the morning in the left field, though fortunately it was during preparation time just after the soil had been laid. 'We just had to be patient and let it dry out,' he said.

During the season, the Giants' grounds are also open for community events including concerts. After one particular concert, he found he suddenly had to replace 18,000 square feet of sod, when he was hoping that only 6,000 square feet would be needed.

Concerts, especially combined with weather, are unpredictable. 'With concerts you don't know what you're going to get,' he said. Come what may, his role is to make sure that the players are unaware that anything has happened!

Then there is surface damage that Greg always has to be on his toes about, though 'that shouldn't be a problem if you're doing things right with your maintenance and if you have good grass,' he said. Basically, 'we can resod it and move on.'

The front of the mound and around home plate are treated as individual areas, and rain, especially during games, is always a concern. A polyvinyl field tarp of 170 square feet is pulled over the field for protection.

Over one inch of rain makes Greg nervous, though 'one-quarter of an inch in ten minutes could be just as devastating as one inch over a day,' he said. However, rain in San Francisco is 'not as large a concern here because of the weather patterns, but we are expecting a rainy spring with El Nino.'

Greg is entering his third season as Head Groundskeeper for the Giants. In all, he has been a Head Groundskeeper in baseball for 12 seasons. Before the Giants, he was in Minor League Baseball with the Lake County Captains in Eastlake, Ohio, where he also ran a consulting company to help local schools with sports fields for soccer, football, baseball and soft ball.

'That's why I know a lot about this,' he said. Before that, he was with the Cedar Rapids Kernels in Iowa, and in assistant roles in Indianapolis and Arizona.

He trained as an elementary school teacher at Bowling Green State University, Ohio. 'My mum was a teacher, so I thought that was the way to go, but in the long term it wasn't what I wanted to do,' he said.

Immediately after teaching, he became Director of Stadium Operations with the Toledo Mud Hens in Ohio, after which he went back to school to train in groundskeeping. And not just any school. Rather, Michigan State University where one of his professors was 'Yard Doctor' John 'Trey' Rogers, professor of turfgrass science, who helped Beijing in their preparation of the Olympic stadium.

A training that no doubt contributed to his outstanding achievements of being a four-time winner of the South Atlantic League Groundskeeper of the Year Award and twice Sports Turf Manager of the Year for Class A Minor League Baseball. Modestly reticent to talk about his achievements, he pays tribute to the Minor League teams that 'allowed me to grow as a professional.'

So what drew him to this career?

'Love of sport,' he said. 'My dad coached Little League Baseball for 25 years so I was always around a ballpark. And my first job was working for that Little League as a groundskeeper.'

Strange, how things come around, he mused.

His predictions for the Giants for this season?

'I'm not in the prediction business. I do know the expectations are high for the Giants, and they would like to get to the play-offs. They want a shot at that.

'Their expectations are high, which means my expectations are high.'

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