Indianapolis, IN - When the Indianapolis Indians took the field for opening night April 6, Joey Stevenson saw something he’d never seen before at Victory Field. The Director of Field Operations looked out at the grounds he’s spent the last 12 years caring for and saw about an inch of snow on the ground.
“It was getting to the point where it was getting too much snow to almost continue to play, but we made it through,” Stevenson said.
The strange night created an even stranger position for Stevenson and the rest of his crew. He says there wasn’t enough snow on the field to bring out the tarp, and the umpire allowed play to continue. But Stevenson was watching closely for any signs that players were slipping in the snow. Fortunately, it never got to that point and the game went on.
Much like this year’s baseball season, despite Winter’s best efforts to push Spring back out of the way.
“It’s been one like I can’t remember,” Stevenson.
Fortunately for Joey Stevenson, he and his grounds crew have the knowledge and dedication to foil mother nature’s efforts to spoil the immaculate conditions at Victory Field. Stevenson has a degree in Turf Science from Purdue University. Before that, he grew up on a family farm.
“That’s where I got the itch to do something with growing grass and working with my hands,” he said. “We want the grass to grow and produce for us, just like a farmer would want corn and soybeans to produce for them.”
On average, Stevenson and his crew put in about 100 man-hours caring for Victory Field before each home game. If you come an hour before the first pitch, you’ll see them out there watering the grass and dirt, dragging the soil, lining the baselines and hand-carving the straight lines surrounding home plate. During each game, you’ll see them running back onto the field after the 3rd and 6th innings to smooth out the infield dirt, and address any specific areas that need extra care. After and between each game, more hours of work are required.
The process includes watching where each crew member steps.
“It’s something we razz the crew and anyone who comes down on the field pregame, just to kind of respect the dirt a little bit,” Stevenson said. “Not to scuff your feet, or drag your feet or drag the hose because we don’t want the material on top to pile up or anything like that.”
The more than 100,000 square feet of grass on the field requires special equipment and about 6,000 lbs of fertilizer per year. Reel mowers, like those used on golf courses, are used to trim the grass to 7/8 of an inch high.
Many Indians fans may be surprised to learn the Kentucky Bluegrass used on the field is actually purchased from a company in New Jersey. Sand and soil mixtures used in the infield and warning track come from Texas, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Shelbyville, Indiana.
“Soils and stuff from all over the country just to make one baseball field, which is kind of cool,” Stevenson said. “We want the ball to bounce from the grass to the dirt and provide that same soft bounce.”
Members of the grounds crew come from many different walks of life. Some have moved on to work at major league ballparks. Others, like Gary Links, are trying their hand at turf management for the first time. The 63-years old recently retired from Allison Transmission, and is now a rookie on the crew
“I decided I needed to do something else, so I decided to do a labor of love, come out to the Indians and be on the ground crew,” Links said.
A longtime Indians fan, Links says he’s now working at his dream job.
“It’s a little bit more work than I expected, but it’s worth it,” he said. “It’s a labor of love.”
That labor of love has resulted in Victory Field being recognized as one of the premier minor league ballparks in the nation. Stevenson and his crew have one the “Sports Turf Manager of the Year” award 3 times. Prior grounds crew directors at Victory Field also won multiple awards over the years.
For Stevenson, maintaining the highest quality is a combination of science, love for the game, and countless hours of care.
“It’s definitely a labor of love, that’s for sure,” he said.