It takes a lot of work and dedication to keep Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, or any spring training facility, in tip-top shape. Salt River Fields Head Groundskeeper Marshall Jennings literally turned off his lawn mower and sat down for a few minutes with Au-Authm Action News to discuss everything involved with the maintaining the grounds.
Jennings began doing landscape work when he was 16 at the parks and recreation level, and quickly decided that this was his calling. He continued working through college, where he also played baseball and earned a bachelor’s degree in plant and soil science. When his baseball-playing days were over, he wanted a career where he could be out on the fields and around the game. After almost 10 years in Florida, he moved to Arizona. Hearing about Salt River Fields, he thought it would be a good match for him.
“I will be 35 in two months, so it’s been about 19 years I have been in this trade,” said Jennings.
There are 21 full-time groundskeepers at Salt River Fields, assigned to the various fields according to a specific schedule. “For the spring training season, we have an additional 10 part-time staff in order to have seven-day-a-week coverage. You need a certain amount of staff to be here working on 13 fields, and sometimes 17 fields when you include the agility and half fields,” Jennings said.
Mowing, Watering and Setup
Now that spring training has begun, there are 32 consecutive game days when the fields need to be ready for the players and fans. Every day the grounds crew receives a schedule from both teams, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, indicating what fields they are going to be using that day and what equipment needs to be set up. The grounds crew makes sure everything is in place so that when the players get on the fields they are ready to go.
On a typical game day, Jennings said, “We have our crew split up on the Rockies and Diamondbacks sides. Depending on who has the home game that day, there is a split shift; the crew working from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. will be in charge of taking care of the practice fields, and the later crew works from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Those are the guys that are going to stay late in the stadium after the game is over and close it up and finish the day.”
Before and during the game, and while the players are warming up, the grounds crew keeps busy with a variety of tasks. “We will have guys on the field putting on the final touches,” Jennings said. “The crews will water and screen drag [the grass] one more time, repaint the foul lines or batter’s box lines right before the national anthem begins, and then the crew will take a quick break for two to three innings. Twice during the game, after the third inning and after the sixth inning, about five guys clean up the infield to keep a good playing surface.”
After each game is over, the fields are prepped for the next day. The crew repairs the pitcher’s mound and home plate, infield dirt, bullpens and more, then places the tarp on the grass in the main field.
The Star of the Show: The Grass
“Everyone sees the grass, so we make sure it always looks nice and the dirt is clean and smooth too,” said Jennings. The crew constantly watches the weather, keeping an eye on wind, humidity and the chance of rain. “We have to adjust our watering to those conditions.”
Plans are in place in case the weather decides not to cooperate. “We got some rain after the opening day, and we were expecting it, so we put out the tarp on the field after it was prepped [before the game],” he said.
The main stadium field sits on a foundation of 12 inches of sand and 4 inches of gravel, which is all tied into a very intricate drainage system that goes to the storm drain. “The main field can take on so much water, more than you will ever know,” Jennings said. “The field is designed to be played on, rain or shine, and not have any problems on the grass surface.
“Most of the work takes place on the practice fields in the back fields, so that gives us all morning to do all the things we need to do to get the main field perfect for the game,” Jennings added.
The grass used on the fields is Tifway 419 Bermuda, which is the industry standard sports turf, and it’s grown in Eloy specifically for Salt River Fields. Bermuda is a warm-season grass, so it goes dormant in the winter, turning brown and resembling straw. “If we need the grass to be green throughout winter, then we overseed it with a perennial rye grass, which is what the crew used this year,” Jennings said. “That gives you the green color and is a cool-season grass that takes to the cooler temperatures and has a different growing habit.” As the temperatures heat up in May, the rye grass will transition to Bermuda.
As far as the striping in the grass, Jennings said it’s really simple to create that effect through mowing. “It’s just the way the sunlight reflects off the blades of grass and the direction the mower cuts the grass. Some guys get pretty elaborate with their patterns, but we plan to keep it simple for this first year and do something traditional, the checkerboard. But there is a lot of different [patterning] you can do with [the grass]; it comes down to how much time you have.”
A lot of people don’t realize it, but this area, the dirt on the infield, is the most important part of the field. “From the player’s perspective, [it has to be] maintained to a consistency they prefer, which is usually [a bit damp] so it is not hard as a brick when running on it,” said Jennings. This requires the crew to monitor how much water they use and keep the dirt [as close as possible to the same consistency] from day to day.”
All the mowers and other grounds maintenance equipment used at Salt River Fields is by Toro, which Jennings said is considered an industry leader in golf and turf equipment. “It is used all over the country, and it is light-weight equipment used for highly maintained grasses.”
When Spring Training Is Over
A lot of people ask Jennings and his crew what they will do after spring training is over. “Actually, when spring is over they have what you call extended spring training, which is when the lower-ranked and rookie players play baseball until June. Both clubs will have a team. They will practice on their major league replica fields,” Jennings said.
The Rockies’ major-league players will go back to Colorado, except for some rehab players, and the D-backs will have their rookies playing. At this time other events will kick in on the Salt River Fields schedule.
“We will have all the events that other spring training facilities have,” Jennings said. “We have almost 10 acres of grass that will be used for events like amateur and celebrity softball and baseball, soccer, lacrosse and other events like the Hot Air Balloon Festival in April and a concert which is still in the works. So we will still be here working our shifts. This is our goal, to get people here and make this the ultimate tourist attraction.”
There is not really any downtime for the Salt River Fields grounds crew, not even on a Sunday. “On the first Sunday after opening day, 10,000 people came out here for the game and the crowds were big all week long,” Jennings said. “We’ve got a good staff, and that makes it a lot easier. You surround yourself with good people and that is the beauty of what we have going on here.”