Achieving the perfect turf

Kansas City Royals groundskeeper Trevor Vance is in charge of keeping one of baseball's most beautiful lawns mowed to perfection.

Trevor Vance is in charge of what very well may be the most gorgeous 100,000 square feet of grass in the world. It's the always perfectly cut, edged, fertilized, watered, and weed-free surface that lives inside Kauffman Stadium, the Kansas City Royals baseball park.

It looks almost nothing like troubled lawns in front and back of most homes. But Mr. Vance, director of groundskeeping and landscaping, is charitable: "Yours would if you had nine guys working on it all day, seven days a week."

The Royals field is regarded as the most beautiful in the major leagues. "We get a lot of compliments," says Vance. In addition to Kansas City, he says the best fields are at Colorado, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Florida.

"It's like a baby," he explains. "You have to spoon-feed it. Don't starve it. Don't stuff it. Grass is living, like you and me. If you need a drink, maybe it does, too. We want this grass to go to bed dry at night. It's like you don't want to put a baby to bed with wet diapers."

There's a sign outside Vance's office: "Snowflakes are one of nature's most fragile things, but just look at what they can do when they stick together." Ditto grass.

Vance estimates the annual cost of keeping the field beauty-contest perfect - along with 65 additional acres outside - at about $400,000. Major league groundskeepers make between $30,000 and $70,000 annually, Vance says. The crew includes the nine who work on the field, six full-timers who labor outside the stadium, and 16 who work every night the Royals play at home, their primary job being to put the protective tarp over the infield if it rains.

On this night, the tarp employees earn their $30 to $40 each. Three times they are wrestling with the recalcitrant 28,900 square foot plastic that costs about $12,000. The wetter it gets, the more ornery it gets. It's a miserable, showery night. The game is delayed 78 minutes; there's another 56-minute delay near midnight. The Royals lose in the 10th inning. Vance drives away from the stadium in his red pickup truck at 1:45 a.m.

For all the emphasis on grass, Vance points out that while there are only 10,000 square feet of dirt, "that's where 70 percent of the game is played." So, the dirt - Vance says there is no such thing as dirt, it being soil, clay, loam, sand, anything but dirt - gets plenty of attention, too.

The problem Vance faces: It is the grass that plays the starring role, and if it looks bad, everybody notices. Management especially notices. On the other hand, the soil always looks good, but underneath, it may not be. But the only ones who notice are the players.

To approach perfection, Vance believes in old-fashioned ways involving simplicity and hard work: "All I want to have is two acres or so that provide a safe and beautiful playing surface."

To this end, deep in the bowels of Kauffman Stadium, beyond right field, is a bevy of John Deeres - big tractors, small tractors, 14 small mowers. There's all manner of rotary spreaders, drop spreaders, spraying rigs, aerators, wheelbarrows, shovels, spades, rakes. "Working with grass," says Vance, "is therapeutic."

Plus, there is Vance's office in which the main element is his satellite-connected computer so he can always get detailed weather information. On this night, there would be no more rain after a brief 11:30 p.m. shower. That's when there was a deluge. Shrugs Vance: "The one thing we can't control is Mother Nature."

When the team is home (for 81 games a year), Vance works about 15 hours a day, arriving around 8 a.m., normally leaving around 11 p.m.: "I love my job. They're gonna have to throw me out of here. I'd sign a 30-year deal if they'd let me. I see results and I'm associated with Major League Baseball. I don't even count the hours between 7 and 10 when I'm watching a ballgame. That's not work."

Vance is no ivory-tower supervisor. He's out there in the loam with the guys. He personally does all the edging. This day it's along the warning track. He wants the edges straight and he is going to make sure. He always waters down the infield before the game so that if there is any complaint, he did it. He does all liquid-chemical applications, because of the critical nature.

As a teenager, he got a summer job at games here, working the earth and cleaning the area around second base twice each evening, for $3.15 an hour. Hired by the legendary George Toma, the most famous of all groundskeepers, he impressed Mr. Toma with his work ethic.

He returned summers when he wasn't attending Central Missouri State University, where he first wanted to be a gym coach, then a sportscaster, then do something involving criminal justice, or maybe first aid. "Only problem," he says, "is I didn't like any of them." Then it dawned on him one day at the park: "This is what I like. Why don't I pursue this?"

He never graduated from college. And in 1995, after 10 years on the crew, he was named to replace Toma. In his first season - and the first ever for real grass instead of artificial turf - there were floods, then scorching heat. Twice Vance resodded. Twice the grass failed to root. Vance sprayed the grass green in desperation. Even Toma, retained as a consultant, couldn't work magic.

But heat and rain don't upset Vance. However, he's abashed when a broadcaster makes reference to a "bad hop." That, he grouses, implies poor field conditions and therefore "reflects on the groundskeeper."

So how does Vance's lawn at home look? "Like a goat ranch," he says. When I go home, I don't want to spend time in the yard."

*Third in a series on 'Baseball People.' This series runs on Tuesdays through the summer.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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