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The Journal Gazette

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Keith Winter, Parkview Field's head groundskeeper, drags the diamond between innings of a TinCaps game.

  • Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette Ryan Lehrman, a grounds­keeper at Parkview Field, turns circles to drag the warning track. He says the work no longer makes him dizzy.

Sunday, July 09, 2017 1:00 am

More than keeping grass green

Parkview Field crew keeps Class A diamond in major league shape

Austin Candor | The Journal Gazette

Accolades

For the TinCaps grounds crew:

• Won Midwest League Grounds Crew of the Year in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015

• First to win award six times in a row

• Keith Winter won Groundskeeper Awards Single-A Sports Turf Manager of the Year in 2013, 2014, 2015

• First three-time winner at Single-A level

• First to win three in a row at any level

As TinCaps fans tentatively find their wet seats amid the raindrops before a recent Thursday night game, head groundskeeper Keith Winter can be found in his usual spot alongside Parkview Field's third base line.

Standing less than five feet from the team's tarp, which weighs close to a ton, Winter prepares himself and the rest of his crew for their latest battle against inclement weather.

“We lead the world in 6:30 p.m. tarp pulls,” Winter says to an array of familiar faces, including Winter's assistants, Jake Sperry and Ryan Lehrman, TinCaps president Mike Nutter and the Bad Apple Dancers, each of whom falls to Winter's side when duty calls.

Winter's team can do little more than repeatedly check smartphones for weather updates, the fate of first pitch hanging in the darkening skies, a narrative all too familiar in a wild season that has seen at least 12 inches of rain more than the usual year.

Only a few days before, without a cloud in the morning sky, it was a different story for Winter and his assistants, who cover more ground than TinCaps outfielders Jorge Oña and Jack Suwinski do during games.

“It's hurry hurry hurry, wait, hurry hurry hurry, wait. That's baseball,” Winter shouts over the roar of a mower before returning to trimming grass by the foul line.

When Winter's day isn't dictated by weather, he's making sure his team comes home to a tidy office.  

It's June 27 and the TinCaps have an early batting practice at 2 p.m., which means Winter and his grounds crew have been out beautifying the field since 10 a.m., hardly the earliest start of the season for a trio that's battled firework debris, egg-laying moths and Mother Nature.

It all feels worth it when the gates open and the fans arrive.

“When somebody walks through any of these gates, what's the first thing they're looking at? The field,” says Winter, who has been with the TinCaps since 2010. 

While the grounds­keepers pour their blood, sweat and tears into what was named “Best Ballpark in America” by Stadium Journey in 2015, Winter, 58, is worried the younger generation may not want to be a part of what can be an unforgiving business.

“It's a dying breed. Most young guys don't want to work and put in the time outdoors,” says Winter, who has to endure menial tasks like dragging the batting cage across the field and painting the clubhouse in the offseason.

“See that thing rolled up?” Winter asks, pointing toward the third base side at the tarp, almost an after­thought as the sun beats down on its polyethylene surface. “When you're playing with that thing all day, it beats you up. It chases men who are good at this job out of the business because they get tired.”

Nutter may run the team, but he rolls up his sleeves like many staff members to tackle the tarp, a beastly task when it's heavied by rain.

“It's the days when you're taking it on and pulling it off three times. It's more mental than physical,” Nutter says. “You're just like, 'What in the world are we doing?' ”

Nutter, whose time with the organization stretches almost 20 years to now-razed Memorial Stadium, believes Winter is a rarity.

“(There's always) that little voice that says, 'We can do this tomorrow,' and (Winter) will not cave,” Nutter says. “He does an amazing, amazing job. … Winter is a machine.”

Under Winter's guidance, the TinCaps have won six Turf Manager/Grounds Crew of the Year awards in the Midwest League, no small feat.

“You get physically drained, but if you recharge your battery with a strong work ethic and desire to do things right, you just keep going,” Winter explains.

And it's clear Winter, Sperry and Lehrman are more than a crew; they are a family.

“For us to grow within the industry … it's seeing the bigger picture of not just certain duties … but taking what we learn on the field and transferring it to life as well,” said Sperry, who's worked with the grounds crews of MLB's Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles. “If we have a good looking baseball field, then we've killed two birds with one stone.”

There are reasons to be optimistic about the rigors of grounds keeping at places like Parkview Field, which contains engineered soil with a compound of sand, silt and clay that didn't exist 10 years ago and is intended to holds up under rainy or dry conditions throughout the season.

“Everything that we use here is a specialized type of thing, and technology, and being able to research those materials, and understanding what they do and how they work, yeah, that's all played a big part in how things are changing for grounds keepers,” Winter says.

The biggest commitment to Parkview Field's future may have come in 2012, when Kentucky Blue Grass was ordered from a turf company in Colorado for the 3-year-old field.

“I love that part of designing a field and putting the right materials and the right drainage and the right irrigation because that plays a huge role in how that field's going to maintain itself for the rest of its life,” Winter says.

“We paid more money to get (the grass) here than we did for the sod, but I felt this grass was the best grass in America and I still do.”

For the thousands of people – Boy Scouts, high school teams and TinCaps fans – who have roamed the outfield and run the bases, it truly feels like the big leagues. Keeping it as nice as PNC Park, Busch Stadium or Camden Yards in the MLB is the goal for Winter, who previously worked with the Great Lakes Loons and has gotten to rub shoulders with the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Dee Gordon and Carlos Santana before they were big-league stars.

Because he aspires to help assistants move up from Single-A baseball, Winter has pledged that if any of them gets to run an major league grounds crew, he will finish his career working for them. Two of his former assistants work for the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates, so it could happen.

For now, though, Parkview Field is home.

“I mean, look at this day. What's bad about that?” Winter says, stretching his arms out to figuratively embrace the stadium. “There's no better place to work than this.”

acandor@jg.net