Grass Seeds to Sunflower Seeds
(Wednesday’s Weekly Reader….third in a series of folks behind the scenes with the Phillies. Mike Boekholder, Director of Field Operations, overseeing everything on the playing field from seeding rye grass to sweeping sunflower seeds).
The smell of hot dogs on the grill, the sound of vendors hawking scorecards and the sight of a plush green playing field. Those three senses are what fans experience upon walking through the Citizens Bank Park gates. Credit for the green field rests with Mike Boekholder, Director, Field Operations, and his merry crew of five fulltime groundskeepers and an additional 12-14 game-day troops.
Having spent five years doing the same job at Victory Field, home of the Indianapolis Indians of the International League, Mike’s phone rang early in the 2003 season. The call was from the Phillies wanting to employ the Washington state native as the head groundskeeper for their new home. He joined the Phillies that July 1 and oversaw the installation of the park’s first sod in late October and the installation of a state-of-the-art drainage and irrigation systems.
On non-game days, Boekholder arrives at his job around 9 a.m. and will be there “as long as needed to get the job done,” he says. Game days: 10 a.m. until about an hour after the game has ended. “A lot depends on the weather, meaning we may have to cover the field after a game or before leaving when we have no game,” explained Mike. Laughing, “Come to think, weather can affect us a lot.”
During All-Star Game breaks, he and his crew often replace sod behind home plate, an area that gets worn because of batting practice. In September, “We’ll seed with rye and again early the next spring but from June until September the field is strictly Bermuda grass,” he added. Fertilizing is usually done when the team is on the road. Mowing? “Every day when the team is home.” He uses a riding mower to give the crisscross pattern that is so noticeable on the field. Does that qualify as a unique skill or talent? “Probably neither,” he said smiling.
He lives on the field for nine months of the year but also spends time in an office located in the right field corner. Next time you are at the park, look for the window in foul territory on the green outfield wall. He’s the one at the desk which includes a radar monitor and a laptop on his right. A larger screen and keyboard sits on top of a work station on his left. “That controls the irrigation system but I can also control it remotely on my cell phone,” he explained. The room also includes a sofa (“prefect for a short nap”), file drawers, a large framed photo of the park’s first game and a small glass-door refrigerator filled with Coca-Colas. He can watch the game on a large wall-mounted TV or spin around in his chair and peek out the window.
Next to his office is the field entrance for his crew and their equipment, Phillie Phanatic, bands, elephants, whatever. Tucked under Section 108 is the batting cage which gets pulled out pre-game and then stored until tomorrow.
There’s also a large room labeled “Field Equipment Storage” under the same section of seats. It’s a cross between a John Deere showroom and the garden section of Lowes: John Deere gators, tractors and riding mowers, walk-behind mowers of all sizes plus wheelbarrows, edgers, hoses, field rakes, shovels, brooms, fertilizer spreaders, rollers, fuel and stacks of fertilizer.
Boekholder won’t spend the entire game in his right field office. Under the Diamond Club seats by the third base dugout field entrance is a room labeled Field Maintenance but more commonly known as the “Ready Room.” That’s where he and the grounds crew are stationed ready for in-game work and tarp duty in case of rain. The room is home to three blue leather couches, a large TV, radar monitor and refrigerator. There are field rakes, normal rakes, shovels, brooms, hoses, tampers, extra bases, large squeegees, chalk and red wooden forms for lining the batter’s boxes and foul lines, bags of clay conditioner in case the mound needs in-game work and bags of field conditioner to spread on the dirt if needed after rain. Plus various types of devices to hand-drag the infield. Mike can be spotted on the field during threatening weather informing the umpire crew chief of the situation
He and his crew get the field after batting practice, about 30 minutes prior to game time. The routine includes hand dragging the infield, smoothing dirt at home plate and on the mound, watering the dirt portions and chalking the foul lines and batter’s boxes.
Post-game also has a routine but a longer one. Sixteen members of his crew invade the field about two minutes after the last out. All the activity sort of resembles an ant hill, bodies moving all over the place. Two lonesome souls wonder to the bullpens to do their thing. The crew is armed wtih field rakes, hand-held blowers, wheelbarrows, tampers, shovels, brooms and hoses. The mound, both batter’s boxes and the area where the home plate umpire operates are refurbished with clay and water. The foul lines in the infield and batter’s boxes are removed, one person drags the infield riding a John Deer bunker rake, another chap removes the three bases and hand-rakes those areas, two guys armed with blowers on their backs blow dirt from grass areas back onto the dirt, one person is assigned to the warning track in front of each dugout smoothing the dirt with hand rakes. Yet another crew member fertilizes various grass areas following an obvious pattern and never colliding with a fellow worker. There’s also a person in left field with a broom and shovel. “Got to get rid of sunflower seed shells. A broom and shovel is the best way,” he explained. Watering the infield and covering the mound and home plate with round tarps ends the day.
How often is the home plate and pitching rubber changed? “There’s no set schedule. After Josh Beckett’s no-hitter in 2014, he wanted the pitching rubber. So we dug it up after the game and replaced it. We also replaced if after Aaron Nola’s first game in 2015,” Boekholder says.
December is down time for Mike and his full-time crew. “We generally can work on the field up until Thanksgiving.” In January, there are conferences and an MLB groundskeepers’ meetings to attend. February is the time to order supplies, purchase equipment, hire game-day staff (“We hire 25 and rotate them during the season.”), order uniforms for everyone and finalize the maintenance plan for the season. Weather permitting, they are back on the field in March getting ready for another season.
Raking, watering, seeding, fertilizing and mowing…is that also the routine at his home? “Nope, my wife does that. She’s better at it.”
(Looking for an Election Day gift? My newest book, Fightin’ Phils, would be perfect. Book was published in April by Triumph Books and available online or in book stores. One of the eight chapters is Behind The Scenes).