Tuesday, July 15, 2008

My Conversation With Our Head Groundskeeper

“RFK was a different animal," stated Larry DiVito. " We were winging it over there.” Since 2006, when Mr. DiVito was named The Head Groundskeeper for Our Washington Nationals, challenges have come his way most every work day. From sharing the field with DC United on East Capitol Street to helping construct and build the new field on South Capitol Street, Larry has been the point man in making the fields of play for Our Washington Nationals--set up and ready to go.

For the past 14 years, Larry has worked as a groundskeeper. Seven years as the top man for The Pawtucket Red Sox in Rhode Island. Then, The Number Two Man for The Los Angeles Dodgers at Famous Dodger Stadium. 2008 is Larry DiVito's third season with Our Washington Nationals.

This past July 2nd, Larry and I sat down in the Home Dugout at New Nationals Park to talk about all he and his staff of seven regular grounds crew assistants do each and every day to keep Our New Diamond ready for action.

With that, here we go with My Conversation With Our Head Groundskeeper--Larry DiVito.

To keep this field up to Major League standards, how difficult is that to do? (SBF)

“Far more difficult here than in California, I can tell you that. The weather here is the biggest variable. The climate, humidity, and the constant changes keeps the job fresh, but also makes it difficult. You don’t know what to expect here (weather wise) three days ahead of time.”

So you are saying humidity, constant summer rains hurt? (SBF)

“Rains, humidity—during the off season—ice and snow, everything. It all plays into it. Once you get the field and it’s on a 12-month cycle, just trying to maintain it is, by far, the biggest challenge—dealing with all the weather changes.”

Then, what is different here, that makes it more difficult than California? (SBF)

“In California, the weather is a little more constant. The field can be maintained with a more consistent program with your maintenance, your watering, your fertilizing and everything else. Here (in Washington), you have to constantly read what is constantly going on with the grass, dirt and everything else—based upon how the weather has been and how it’s going to be.”

Does that mean there is a constant fight to keep the grass alive? (SBF)

“This time of year (summer), YES!! Changing to (Kentucky) Bluegrass here from the Bermuda Grass we had at RFK (Stadium) was a joint decision by a number of people—architects, builders, the team, sports commission—a lot of people involved. And we knew we would start strong with Bluegrass—in terms of the late fall install and then the weather this spring. That all went very well. We came out of The Pope Mass (on April 15th) very strong because it was in April and the weather was cool. So, the Bluegrass did well. But now, we are in the period of the year where the Bluegrass will go through the most stress due to the heat and humidity—occasional heavy rain. We are putting fungicides out on a pretty regular basis—just to be in a preventative mode---to just help us along.”

When The Pope came here in April, I remember seeing a brown spot in centerfield after all his alter material was removed from the field. How did you deal with that? (SBF)

“We re-sodded about 700 square feet. A couple spots in front of the “Welcome Home” sign and Geico sign due to the forklift traffic—even though we had protective flooring down. There was a tremendous amount of constant traffic on the field in those spots. We had to deal with that. Overall, the field came out pretty good. Sometimes, if you have to put a little paint down—you put a little paint down (chuckling). But, we just re-sodded those two spots.”

When you have to put fresh sod down and you know a game is upcoming soon—can you trust the grass will be solid and in place—without fear of it slipping and causing an injury? (SBF)

“It’s pretty heavy sod, just like a football team would place in the middle of their field and play on it within a week. It’s pretty heavy and it holds.”

Today, I noticed a few guys placing sod behind home plate near the batting circle? (SBF)

“We probably do that every few weeks where the hitters warm up—because our warning track is really small here and since the hitters prefer to swing on the grass instead of the warning track—they wear it out quickly.”

Obviously, being here at Nationals Park is different than RFK because you are no longer dealing with sharing the field with a soccer team (DC United). Has that aspect made your job easier? (SBF)

“It’s a little different here. RFK was fun. It was a really fun challenge. I had a good time working that field. Here, we have a different set of problems thanks to a different kind of grass. And a new field is always a big challenge. Here, the worst part of the season is over—schedule wise. A couple of 10 game home stands put a lot of stress on the field. We have a fairly reasonable schedule the rest of the way. I am feeling pretty good about the rest of the year as I have a good understanding now of how this particular field works, how it’s growing and dealing with it. RFK on the other hand was a great time, but far more difficult—to say the least.”

This stadium was built very quickly, the grass was not laid down until late fall—was that an impediment to getting the field ready for play in 2008? (SBF)

“The field contractor did not get the field area ready (for sod) as early as we wanted it. So, we did have to put it all together rather quickly. We were waiting for cranes to be taken away from home plate and clear out. We needed the leftfield concrete to be poured for the seats so the constructions crews could work on that area. So, we ended working on half the field—then waiting for the other half to open up for planting. The first sod went in on November 1st and the last on November 8th. We spaced it out a little bit just because we were waiting for a construction spot to finish. Yeah, it was fast, everything was fast. But, at the end, it all went pretty well. We got it done.”

Can you explain the type of clay that is used around the infield? Around the batters box, that is far different than the material the average player might see on their baseball field? (SBF)

“The infield clay is not that different than you might see anywhere else in the area. It’s a local product—60% Sand and the rest Silton Clay. That combination can take water better than say the batters box—which is a far heavier clay. I also use different clay on the mound—even tighter—packs down even more—firm. Understand, a lot of the problems people have with clay and dirt is maintaining the water properly. When to water, when not to water—when to prepare for rain.”

If I go to any high school field or college field, most every hitter has dug in and a rut has been formed in the batters box—you can’t have that here. How do you deal with that? (SBF)

“They (Major Leaguers) dig in (laughing). It’s just a matter of how much. The hitters want to be able to get their foot in fairly easily. They don’t want to work at it. You could have it too hard and that would be a negative. But, you don’t want it too soft either—that’s were you get the ruts. Early in the game, you want the clay around the batters box to be firm. The hitters can get their foot in pretty easily. But maintain it so that late in the game, there is not a huge hole.”

At times, I have seen your workers pounding out the batters box flat. Is that something done after every game, every day? (SBF)

“Yes, the box is swept out, watered, and raked up. Then, new material is added every day to the mound and the plate—wherever the holes are. I don’t re-use the clay. I throw out about a couple of buckets worth and put new stuff in daily.”

This is sort of on the sidebar of this conversation—but was that retractable mound at RFK difficult to deal with? (SBF)

“It was because there were a number of occasions where we played soccer on Saturday Night and baseball Monday Night. And I didn’t get the mound up until Sunday Morning. Then, we had to trench around it to fill in. Then, you had to work on the mound. The timing of two sports made things tough at times to handle.”

So, let’s say Jon Rauch goes out there and digs a rut in the pitcher plate—how long does it take you to fix things back to normal? (SBF)

“After the game, maybe one hour and a half on it. But, every single day.”

Can you explain how the drainage works around the field to remove water from the playing surface? (SBF)

“There are quick caps for draining the tarp. When the tarp is not on—it takes water very well. When the tarp is on and you have to dump the tarp and play in 10 Minutes, it takes a little time for that water to get through. That’s the reality of soil. It doesn’t have a vacuum system. It doesn’t have a suction system. Its just gravity, the forces of nature. So sometimes, we have to wait for that water to soak through there.”

So far this year, there has been a handful of rain delays—before and during games—starts and stops. Before the game begins—whom are you talking to—to decide whether a game should be delayed or not? (SBF)

“I am a part of the decision making, but I don’t decide that. That is an organizational decision on whether to start the game. Once the game starts, it’s then the umpire’s decision and I will communicate with the umpire on the weather, timing and work with them on possible scenarios. Recently, we had a storm on a Saturday Night where the umpire did a good job of timing. We didn’t wait too long. If you wait too long, the thunder and lightning is right on you and you can’t get the tarp on. But, we got the tarp on in time. It worked out OK.”

That’s an interesting issue. There has got to be a time where the umpire delays the game from stopping and that decision may hurt the field—in the long run. (SBF)

“Or, they create a longer delay because they did not get the tarp on in time. You could create a bigger problem. They want to keep playing, but sometimes if we had put the tarp on, we would have a half hour delay. Now, we didn’t get it on in time and we have a 90-minute delay. But overall—umpires are pretty good.”

There have been those times where it has rained really, really hard and the teams keep playing. And you have to come out with this compound that many times looks like cat litter. What exactly is that stuff? (SBF)

It’s called Turface; it’s a heat-treated clay. They heat it up to 1800 Degrees to take all the moisture out of the clay and create pore space. It just sucks up the water. (Pretty Fast, I take it—SBF) Pretty quickly, yeah.”

How often are you cutting the grass? And how thick or thin do you cut it in height? (SBF)

“We mowed yesterday, so today we won’t. When the team is on the road, we mow every other day—let it grow out a little bit—and give it a rest. When they (The Nationals) are here, we cut every single day. Roughly, we cut the grass to one inch in height.”

And how do you put that Curly W pattern in centerfield? (SBF)

“John Royce, my assistant, he does that with a walking mower. We have a bit stencil to set the design—when we need to—by setting marks out. The mower changes the direction of the grass—creating the Curly W.”

Do you ever find the players coming to ask you about something they would like to see on the field? Or, I don’t like this. I want to see that? (SBF)

“That happens a lot, especially with a new field. We want to get the field to where they want it. What they are looking for. We make small adjustments.”

Without revealing any secrets, can you be more specific about some field issues players or coaches may have asked you about? (SBF)

“We have been trying to get the slope of the mound the way they wanted it back in April. The height and cut of the grass. I started the season a little thicker in the outfield because it was new sod and because of The Pope coming. Then, about a week after The Pope, we took the height down and it’s been at that same height since then (1”). Those type of things.”

I remember after Opening Night, Chipper Jones of The Atlanta Braves complained that the infield grass was uneven and made fielding grounders more difficult. Did you take notice of that and make adjustments after? (SBF)

“Yes, the new sod was a little bumpy to start. We have been working on that by airing the grass.”

How about watering. Is this a daily thing? (SBF)

“No, last night I finally had the chance to let it dry out and we are going to put a little water on it right now. Again, it all depends on the weather. Today, the humidity is not too high. The air is supposed to be 88 Degrees. We got a breeze, so I have to figure how much moisture we are going to lose during the day and coordinate that effort.”

“The sprinklers are not set to automatically run. I do it manually every time I water, based on the weather conditions and what’s going on the next day.”

How do you get the infield so flat? (SBF)

(Laughing) “Actually, the contractor did that. All of it. (But you have to keep it that way—SBF) Yeah, we have to keep it that way.” (Continuing to chuckle) Actually, at The All Star Break we are going to till up the dirt, only about an inch deep, and re-grade the infield and see where we are. It nice when we can get the team away for a long enough period of time so we can do that kind of a project.”

What kind of reaction do you get from the players on the infield clay—soft, hard? (SBF)

“Honestly, it’s not where I want it to be yet. That’s just me personally. It plays fine, but I just feel it could be a little better (smoother). Firm and moist, not hard, but firm.”

So is it too fast right now? (SBF)

“Depends on the weather conditions.”

How about the mound—anything you feel needs to be adjusted there? (SBF)

“No, it’s exactly where I want it to be. That’s worked out really well.”

Does Manny Acta come and ask you specifically about anything on the field? (SBF)

“We have talked about the height of the cut of the grass. I explained to him after The Pope came what was going on with the field. And then we took the height down.”

How much of an effort is it to learn how to work the tarp? (SBF)

“It can be tough, if only because of the pressure of working under 30,000 people, not necessarily the mechanics of it—that part’s pretty basic. Some of these kids have never done it and they get nervous. Some get so nervous they fall down and then we really have a problem. (Or go under the tarp—SBF—chuckling). Yes, going under the tarp. (Laughing)”

When the tarp is being taken off the field after a rain delay—is there a specific spot or place where you are trying to dump the water? (SBF)

“If I have enough time, I get a lot of it over the warning track—where it can drain—or in foul territory. Other times, like the other night, we wanted to get back to playing in about 15 minutes—so you just have to go with it.”

Is that the umpire saying you have to get ready in 15 minutes? (SBF)

“Well, if the rain has stopped, I don’t want to go to the umpire and say I need an half hour. We have already had an hour delay. It’s the umpire’s call, but you don’t want to keep people sitting in their seats doing nothing, You have television considerations. If it’s stopped raining, you just got to do it—as quickly as possible.”

Obviously, you are watching the weather developing during any delay—many times you see the grounds crew come out and start getting the little things done—maybe pick up the stakes of the tarp, whatever. At this point, is this your experience taking over—attempting to get the field playable as soon as possible? (SBF)

“We always try not to take off the tarp until it really stops raining heavy. But, there are plenty of things we can do to prepare if it’s raining lightly. Knowing the movement of the storm—we can anticipate what can get done quickly and get the game back on.”

New England, when you were with The PawSox has got to be a tough place to maintain a field? (SBF)

“No, this is tougher!! (Really? —SBF) No comparison. The summers up there are so much easier. March is tough up there. You are saying to yourself—come on, when is it going to get to 55 Degrees. But once you get through March, it’s a lot easier up there.”

So here in DC, is it humidity, bugs? (SBF)

“No, it’s not humidity. It’s not bugs or weeds. It’s fungus. Mainly from water getting under the tarp and around the tarp. Out deep in the outfield, we don’t really have any disease issues. Rain is not necessarily a bad thing out there. Having the tarp on, having the grass covered in hot and humid weather along with all the water that runs off around the tarp—sometimes that is five to ten times the water we get normally. So, that is the biggest issue. Washington, St. Louis, Kansas City and Cincinnati are tough places to maintain a field.”

Seattle would probably be a Godsend? (SBF)

“Seattle would be nice!!” (Smiling Broadly)

“From August 15th until the end of the season, this stuff will perk back up here. Right now, we are in the highest stress time—July to Mid-August because of the heat. Once we get shorter days and cooler nights—the Bluegrass will begin to respond a little better.”

Bermuda did not respond that way at all—I take it? (SBF)

“At RFK, Bermuda was a problem due to all the sunlight and all the shade of the bowl (configuration). In June, it would be all right, but then all of a sudden you were into August and sun took longer and longer to get up above that bowl—that’s tough. Here (at Nationals Park), the bowl is built correctly because of where the sun sets. You would want the sun to set on one of the foul poles—ideally. And most fields are set this way today (The sun rises over the right field pole and sets over the left field pole). That’s how Dodger Stadium is. The sun is not in the right fielders eyes, or the first baseman’s eyes. At RFK, the sun rose in centerfield and set behind home plate.”

Do you find yourself talking to all the groundskeepers around the leagues? (SBF)

“We do, all the time. We have meetings every January, where just about every team shows up. Some of which is sharing thoughts, and MLB comes in and talks about any policy changes, or any concerns we have. We have an umpire stop in to talk about game issues. It’s pretty constructive. For two and a half days we gather each year to discuss our business.”

Which brings up another good question. Major League Baseball has their standard for how a field should be. Can you change those standards in any way for local aesthetic reasons? (SBF)

“Some of the standards are fixed, like the height of the mound, bases, those things that affect everyday play. Others have some flexibility. When we were constructing this field, we wanted to do what MLB is trying to do, which is to have playing fields more level. And you can see it standing in here. The infield is a little higher than the outfield, but it’s pretty subtle. Unlike fields of 10 to 15 years ago which had a big crown on them, a big slope. This field is basically level. That’s why we end up with so much water staying on the tarp. The field is pretty flat. But that is what Major League Baseball wants. You want to be able to sit in the dugout, stand where we are and see the entire outfield. I can always see where the ball is and I can see the outfielders’ feet.”

So you are telling me, if say 15 years ago, I was in Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, there was a possibility I could not see the feet of the players in the outfield, from the dugout? (SBF)

“Yes, absolutely correct!! Dodger Stadium did not get converted or flattened out until 1996. Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium in 2001. Wrigley Field just six months ago. They did it last fall. Wrigley was the last one that was still old school.”

That’s really interesting, you know that!!? (SBF)

“Yes, I know it is. Obviously, any of the new fields from Camden Yards, The New Comiskey—1991, 1992 and 1993—those were all built with sand, drainage, and flat. But a lot of the older stadiums they had to go in and eventually convert—flatten them out. So basically, all the fields now are pretty level.”

This is something I had never really thought of. That means, the older fields sometime affected play? (SBF)

“Yes, that could be true. You could be an outfielder and feel like you were constantly throwing up hill. Where as now, you stand out in the outfield and you look into the bases and the plate and you feel like you are throwing on a level plane—so to speak. Although, there is always some fall in foul territory (slope), but not much. When it has rained in here this spring when the tarp was not on and the team was out of town, and you could see the water running off. And the field has taken the water really well in those situations.”

With that My Conversation With Larry DiVito came to an end. Larry needed to continue with his days work and I needed to take pictures of his staff taking care of the field at New Nationals Park. As Larry was watering down the infield--we were discussing how he balances preparing the field for Our Washington Nationals while still having to work with each Umpiring Crew for every single game.

Larry DiVito concluded: "I have to realize, that before and after each baseball game, I work for The Washington Nationals. I work with the team. There is no question about that. But once every game begins, I work for The Umpires. There is no question about that also."

All Photos--Nats320 (except 11/1/07 Stadium Cam Shot from Clark Construction)


WFY said...

Great interview, but you forgot to ask the most important question of any groundskeeper -- "do you mow the lawn at home?"

Anonymous said...

SBF: How do you find the time? Thanks for a nice interview and the effort, as always.

Anonymous said...

I am curious about the dirt. It seems odd, but I was hoping we might have a more distinctive diamond, like the one in Detroit with its sharp angles, or in Arizona. Why did the Nats who are so big on branding and putting W's everywhere not make the dirt distinctive?

Screech's Best Friend said...

I know the team discussed having a dirt path between home and the pitchers mound, but the idea was eventually turned down. But, I believe many others did not want to see the gimicky angles that can change the game with a pop fly like at Minute Maid Park in Houston or the Band Box Park which is Citizens Bank. Nats Park plays pretty well so far. The left field corner scores many runners from first on balls hit there. The centerfield wall is tough to play it comes to a sharp angle at 412 ft. I actually like the dimensions and how the field has played so far. No one been cheated out of a home run like at RFK and batters are not getting cheap home runs.

Anonymous said...

I meant the infield dirt, like the cut-ins around the bases and the area around home plate. I agree on the fences.

Screech's Best Friend said...

The only other info I could add is that Larry was very interested in putting those dirt fungo hitting circles that use to be so prevalent in every ballpark slightly in front of each dugout toward home plate many years ago to give a distinctive retro look. But that idea was turned down also. I actually liked that idea. Thanks

SenatorNat said...

Seems like throws from the outfield in the old days weren't as prone to be airmailed - perhaps because they were throwing uphill in essence, which corrected for that tendency. Interesting.

Trust in Scott's products to make homeowner feel like he or she is actually doing something positive for the lawn. All crabgrass.