Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Baseball and Grass by Todd Taylor

I Don’t Go to Watch the Grass Grow

I’d be lying if I said I only enjoy watching live baseball solely because of the grass. I also wouldn’t be honest if I said I wasn’t impressed with the field every time I go to Dodger Stadium. There are many reasons I choose the top deck. The low ticket cost (usually between six and twenty dollars) and free drop off by a Metro shuttle bus close to the entrance help, but I also really do enjoy taking in the entire field at one glance. It’s like watching a fishbowl. Everything’s equally in view—the players, the crowd, the field, the sky, the bullpen, the ball—you just get to pick what to pay attention to. The grass, since there’s so much of it, is a big part of the ambience. I admire the artistry, the attention to detail, the crisp cross-hatch designs. The game just wouldn’t be the same if it was played on dirt or a leprous clotting of weeds and dying tufts of brown grass. There’s something undeniably calming about a nice, uniform green field. It’s a thing to contemplate when the grounds crew does their zen garden raking thing between the bases between innings and there are lapses in conversation with buddies.[1]

A Short History of Lawnmowers

Edwin Beard Budding invented the first lawn mower in 1830 in England. It was a good idea. Budding had based his mower on a bladed reel-cutting tool used for the uniform trimming of carpet. His contraption was made of cast iron mounted to a wheeled frame. Being immensely heavy, it was hard to push, and many of the early lawn mowers had to be horse-drawn, with the horses wearing oversized booties to prevent their hooves from digging into and uprooting the turf. The machine’s rotating blades also didn’t cut the grass very well.

Budding’s invention, however, did provide the catalyst for three things: better mower designs; the replacement of the traditional tools of lawn care—the scythe[2], shears[3], and domesticated grazing animals[4]; and accelerated the preparation of sporting ovals. The lawn mower was instrumental in creating and maintaining those fields. An even turf of grass made possible the quick expansion and codification of an array of sports, starting with cricket and swiftly thereafter adopted by tennis, football, lawn bowling, and baseball.[5] The popularity of these sports rose in tandem with the ubiquity of the technologically advanced mowing machines.

America’s Lawn Fever Dream

The first intentional lawns—and I’m speaking from my deep class bias—were kind of asshole-scapes. They were created by European aristocracy of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. King Louis XIV of France’s Versailles gardens were the first to include the “green carpet.” Turfgrass: uniformly grown grass and the surface layer of earth held together by its roots. Think sod. The asshole part is the subtext: “I’m so rich and have enough leisure time that I don’t have to plant life-sustaining food here, like you peasants. It is intentionally empty, nothing is built on it.” The lawn was almost pure aesthetics, conspicuous consumption, and status. It’s a monoculture by design. A carefully planned, maintenance-heavy monoculture; and it left such a deep impression that George Washington designed a style of this lawn all around his home in Mount Vernon.[6] It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1800s, after the Civil War, that wealthy Americans started copying the softscaping of George Washington’s estate.


Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park in 1857 and continued its construction through the Civil War, was partially responsible for sparking the migration of turfgrass lawns across America. In 1868 he designed the middle-class Riverside suburb of Chicago to include a lawn for each home. In areas where it rains frequently and grass can grow easily, it made some sort of sense. Grass is a nice playing surface. There are studies that show freshly mown lawns make people feel happy and relaxed.[7] Grass also keeps concrete at bay, from overtaking every nook and cranny in subdivisions and suburbs.

With the expansion of the train lines and automobiles across America in the 1920s, homeowners were pressured to make the fronts of their homes pleasant for the people passing by. However, it was the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which limited the workweek to forty-four hours, and freed up the weekends of America’s working and middle classes for leisure activities. More people had time to focus on their lawns. Societal pressure is a heavy force. Appearance and emulation are important components to reinforce the status quo. The American lawn equation changed.

Lawn=good neighbor.
Lawn=good citizen.

Then Lawns Got Ridiculous

The United States caught lawn fever and lawns proliferated from coast to coast. Today, about 80% of all American homes have lawns. Although much of the country is not hospitable to turfgrass—none of which are native species—lawns became synonymous with homeownership. Lawns—something so benign-looking, so uniform, so everywhere-they’re-invisible—began exacting huge environmental tolls. Lawns are the most-grown crop in United States. It’s a crop that people can’t eat. 50% to 70% percent of residential water is used for landscaping, the lion’s share to water lawns. Lawns require the equivalent of 200 gallons of drinking water per person, per day. In 2005, a NASA study “conservatively” estimated there are 49,000 square miles of lawn in America.[8] That is three times the area of irrigated corn and is larger than the entire state of New York.

It gets worse. Every year, nearly 70 million pounds of pesticides are used on America’s suburban lawns and it’s been estimated that nearly 17 million gallons of gas are spilled when refueling lawn-care equipment. To put that in perspective, the Exxon Valdez fiasco in 1989—the nation’s worst environmental disaster up to that time—was 11 million gallons. A gas-powered mower emits as much pollution per hour as eleven cars. Americans spend more than three billion hours a year mowing lawns and 12,000 people per year are hospitalized in this country as a result of lawn mower accidents.[9]

In total, residential lawns in America are highly problematic at best. If you ask me, they’re a travesty and should all be turned over to native species, fruit and shade trees, and victory gardens. Let’s beef up our community park systems and go play on those.

The Master Grass Bender

David Mellor is the Senior Director of Grounds at Fenway Park for the Boston Red Sox. He is widely regarded as the “godfather of striping.” What Ed “Big Daddy” Roth was to customizing hot rods, Mellor is to designs in baseball stadium grass. “Striping” isn’t just stripes in a lawn, it’s any grass design. Modern grass striping started in 1993. Mellor was an assistant groundskeeper at Milwaukee County Stadium and the audience for a Paul McCartney concert had badly damaged the grass in the outfield. There was not enough time to properly repair the patch, so Mellor mowed a busy pattern over the distressed spot in the field in order to camouflage it. People noticed—and really liked—the design, unaware of the turf damage those disappointed Beatles fans caused.

While it’s true that mowers have been making patterns in grass since 1830 when they were first invented, and there are photos of New York’s Polo Grounds in 1883 with elegant curves and straight stripes in the grass, Mellor is responsible for igniting new enthusiasm in MLB grass striping designs.

Mellor’s journey to his grass-bending calling was fraught with near-tragedy. He was an excellent pitcher in high school, on the verge of a college scholarship in 1981. As he was crossing a parking lot, he heard a car rev its engine. He stopped for the car to pass. In what seemed like a random assault, the driver waved him on, then punched the gas and hit Mellor, throwing him twenty feet into the wall of a building. The driver of the car then attempted to smash Mellor against the building and crushed his leg.[10] Mellor was on crutches for three years and his pitching prospects disappeared.

Mellor’s love of baseball remained and in 1995, he and his grounds crew were resodding the Milwaukee Brewers field. Mellor was on the warning track when he heard an engine revving. Mistaking it for a sod truck coming in to drop off a load, he continued raking. The sound quickly got louder and closer. The driver stepped on the gas and the car bee-lined directly towards him. Mellor’s body smashed against the windshield and crumpled to the ground. The driver lapped the field and attempted to strike Mellor again, barely missing him. It was later disclosed the driver had a history of mental illness. She thought she was a stunt driver in a movie.

Mellor suffered from PTSD for many years. Part of his therapy was keeping the grounds he was in charge of healthy. He and his crew mow every day during the baseball season, a task that takes up to three people anywhere from forty-five minutes to two-and-half hours. He also found solace in striping the grass, finding inspiration from many sources, including his young daughter Cacky’s designs. “I’m not looking for more work,”
he said, “but the grass has to be mowed anyway. So why not do it well, with straight lines, or checkerboards, or something more festive?”

Grass Magic

The distinctive shades of green grass on a striped MLB field is not from dyeing or painting the grass a different color, the grass isn’t cut at different heights, nor are different breeds of grass used for separate colors. It’s all in the bending of the grass blades.

How is lawn striping done? If you’ve ever vacuumed a plush carpet or rubbed your hand over a velour jacket, you’ve done it, too. The concept is simple. The stripes are made by bending the grass in different directions by a lawn roller behind the blades of the mower, which causes the grass to bend down farther in the direction it is cut. The stripes of grass leaning away from you look lighter. This lighter green is caused by light reflecting off the entire blade of grass. The stripes of grass leaning towards you look darker. The light is reflecting solely off the tips of those blades. The color of the stripe depends on what direction you’re looking at it from. Lighter stripes appear darker when viewed from the opposite direction. When the sun is behind you, you will see a more intense stripe pattern. It’s an optical illusion.[11]

Grass patterns are neat, but not at the expense of two things: safety and playability. The grass can never take away from the game and it is important that the surface provides a true bounce. The pattern in the grass is there for the fans in the stadium and watching on TV.[12] Most MLB fields are mowed into different patterns between days of baseball. Mowing in different directions is beneficial for the grass, since it’s not good agronomic practice to mow the same patterns on the turf for an entire season.[13] The constantly different patterns also minimize ball “snaking.” When a ball rolls across the turf, it follows the direction of the bend of grass, causing the ball to move side-to-side or make strange little turns as it crosses each mowing lane.

There are more advanced tricks to the trade: line strings, irrigation flags, and tape measures. Trevor Vance, head groundskeeper for the Kansas City Royals since 1994, designed an entire crown logo throughout the outfield using ropes and spotters in the upper grandstands directing the template. Corn brooms, smaller mowers, small round carpenter rollers, and stiff streams of water add finer detail to the tight areas of designs. Make a mistake? It can be erased by just mowing back over the grass at the same height. It’s like an Etch-A-Sketch.

Mellor remains at the top of his field: vortexes, bulls-eyes, Red Sox logos, tartan, baseball bats; all have graced outfields which have inspired groundskeepers across the MLB to mow their own grass palettes.[14][15] He upped the grass game once again in 2016 with the more-realistic-than-a-pattern-in-grass-should-be portrait of retiring, fingers-pointing-skyward Red Soxer David Ortiz. Mellor and his crew used a GPS and air to fluctuate the grass. That’s all he’s divulging.

Dear powers-that-be, please don’t adopt Mellor’s talents for evil. Back in the 1990s, the MLB was all set to sell corporate sponsorship on players’ uniforms, like NASCAR drivers and Major League Soccer. The pushback from the public was New Coke-severe and the idea was dropped. Yet, a couple years later, advertising was added to MLB foul poles and few people minded. Sponsorship logos appeared on professional basketball courts and football fields to no outrage. It’s this creeping encroachment, these persistent weeds of commerce I’m keeping my eye on. If the Dodger playing field ever “optimizes” grass’s “creative capability” to become yet another “value-added, entrepreneurial” surface for capitalism to attempt to sell me shit I don’t want, need, or care about when I’m just trying to watch a game and admire professionals doing amazing athletic feats on a field of green, you have my word I’ll be done with watching professional baseball once and for all.

My Favorite Dodgers

My two favorite Dodgers retired in the past couple of years. Saint Vin Scully served for sixty-seven years as their venerable sportscaster. Nancy Bea Hefley retired after twenty-eight years as the organist.[16] Right now, that top Dodger spot is a tie between pitcher Clayton Kershaw and Dodger Stadium itself (tip of the hat to Eric Hansen, head groundskeeper). It’s such a beautiful place to watch a ballgame, so much so I temporarily forget the horrors of residential lawns depleting our national water table and revel in the expansive field’s clean greenness.

Todd Taylor is the co-founder of Razorcake, a bi-monthly, non-profit DIY punk zine started in 2001 and over 100 issues strong. As a child, he mowed lawns in Boulder City, Nevada and has deep civic pride in Clark County being the first county in America that banned lawns from front yards of new homes.

[1] The Angels ground crew’s locker room has an inspirational placard which reads, “Rake like a champion today.”
[2] It’s curious that the Grim Reaper’s image wasn’t updated with the advent of the lawn mower. The Reaper still holds a scythe instead of pushing or riding a lawn mower.
[3] Making a guess here. This is partially where the “manicured” comes in with “manicured lawns.”
[4] Mostly sheep and goats.
[5] The first official baseball field in America is contentious—due to what constituted “base ball” at the time (versus “town ball,” “round ball,” et cetera)—but a good guess is Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1845. No mention could be found if they had a lawn mower or used sheep and shears for the turf.
[6] Mount Vernon was a plantation. Slave labor was used for the garden. The lawn was one of the most labor-intensive sections of the garden. When the weather was damp, the lawn was flattened with wooden roller that also acted like a lint brush for earth that had been exposed through the turf to “render the surface perfectly clean.” The lawn was mowed once a week using a scythe. Not by George Washington.
[7] Done by Dr. Nick Lavidis, a neuroscientist at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. He went on to develop a fresh-cut grass-smelling perfume.
[9] According to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Mowing the Lawn Is Not Child’s Play, the vast majority of these injuries could have been prevented with proper footwear.
[10] I couldn’t find out if the driver was arrested or if he hit-and-ran.
[11] Murray Cook, the field consultant for MLB, had the Olympic rings striped into the outfield grass for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. International Baseball Federation officials were incredulous and pissed. They thought the baseballs were going to go into the rings and go around in circles.
[12] “We couldn’t even see the designs unless we were in the stands,” Red Sox outfielder Trot Nixon said. “It wasn’t a distraction at all.”
[13] Bending grass down repeatedly in the same direction contributes to a higher potential of turfgrass thinning and disease.
[14] The only staunchly anti-striping grass ballpark in the MLB is in San Francisco. “Our pattern is no pattern,” said head groundskeeper Scott MacVicar in 2008.
[15] The Toronto Blue Jays play on Astroturf, which, when mowed, is highly problematic.
[16] I do like organist Dieter Ruehle’s sense of humor.

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