After the last high-five is exchanged, after the ballplayers hit the showers, another team takes the field at Oracle Park.
The stadium lights flick off one by one as ballpark workers sweep away the detritus of over 30,000 spectators. The sound of the grounds crew lovingly tamping down the clay that comprises the pitching mound and the area around home plate echoes across the empty stadium.
Led by Oracle Park Head Groundskeeper Greg Elliott, they wear grey slacks and black polos with the orange SF logo on the left breast. They come from all stations of life and they number around 60 part-timers and two supervisors below Elliott.
They’re armed with rakes, hoses, tampers
They begin work five or six hours before first pitch and don’t leave until they finish nightly chores that usually hold them for two or three hours after the fans have gone home.
One member of the crew circles third base in a motorized cart dragging what amounts to a 1,000-pound rolling pin in its wake. Others bustle around watering the infield, buffing out the remnants of the game just played, removing bases, repairing turf and smoothing out the infield skin —that’s dirt, to you and me — but the soundtrack to it all, a groundskeeper’s lullaby, remains the same.
Elliott, who has worked as a groundskeeper in professional baseball since 1998, said:
“It’s almost white noise for me now. We’ll have to come out with a white noise app: ‘Field Tamp.’”
Before he became the head groundskeeper for one of Major League Baseball’s largest fields, Elliott got a degree in elementary education, something he said has served him well in managing and training many of the younger members of his crew over the years.
His first job was in operations for USA Basketball in Tucson, Arizona, and he later made his way to the Arizona Fall League. But he had an eye toward reaching his ultimate goal of working in MLB, so he went back to school and studied soil at Michigan State University for a two-year degree in sports and commercial turfgrass management.
“I did my internship in Indianapolis with the minor league team there and the head groundskeeper at the time [Mike Boekholde] is now the head groundskeeper for the Philadelphia Phillies. So I trained under him and then I got my opportunity [with the Giants]. There’s a lot of good groundskeepers, so you gotta capitalize when you have the opportunity.”
He said most people don’t realize how complex groundskeeping is. Often people assume the job is essentially mowing turf and turning on the sprinklers:
“We joke around that we just clean up peanut shells after the game, we’re just out here leaf-raking. I think a lot of people think it’s a lot simpler than it is. We get soil tests, we look at how we’re going to fertilize the field and make it grow or even maintaining a mound, there’s just a lot more science to it. And any more if you want to go into this you need to be a soil scientist.”
Since taking the job, the field at Oracle Park has seen 25 post-season games, seven of them World Series contests, two no-hitters and a perfect game.
Elliott said he has especially fond memories of Matt Cain‘s June 13, 2012, perfect game, in part because he had such a good relationship with the Horse.
Long after the Buster Hugs, the dogpile, the standing ovations and the Gatorade shower from Melky Cabrera, Cain and his wife came back out on the field to document his monumentous achievement with pictures.
Elliott and his staff, who had been working on removing the pitching rubber and home plate for authentication, halted to give the couple space. Elliott said they were surprised when Cain turned to them and asked the crew to join in the photo. He remembered:
“That was really nice of him. I definitely don’t have any expectation for that and I don’t want my staff asking for that. We work — we’re seen not heard kind of thing. We respect what they do and that was kind of a situation where we were recognized and the guys loved it. He had a big smile on his face, obviously because he just did something that not many people have ever done and it was fun.”
Elliott and his team’s work was recognized again this season, almost seven years to the day of Cain’s perfect game, this time in the aftermath of a June 12 Giants win in which rookie starter Shaun Anderson pitched six strong innings, allowing two runs on four hits and striking out six. Anderson said the quality of the mound contributed to the quality of his start:
“They do a great job on the field. Sometimes when a mound is super dry it rips up my feet, but today it felt good. When your cleat sticks in and it’s not sliding around it’s always good, and those are the little things that go unnoticed. [It had] the perfect amount of give, stick and wetness — not too wet, not too dry.”
Elliott said the crew takes a lot of pride in the mound and he was glad to hear about the compliment. Since he came on at Oracle Park, the mound has always been a big emphasis.
Every night the crew repairs it from the wear and tear of nine (or more) innings, the landscaping of anywhere from five to a dozen pitchers and, by Elliott’s estimate, an average of 1,000 pitches and their attendant landings. Then they water it, tamp it down and cover it for the night.
He said they run through another regiment during pregame field preparations to ensure it’s in fighting shape for the next contest:
“We uncover it, we tamp it again, make sure it’s firm and we check the moisture levels with our hands. It’s kind of a feel, it’s an art form. When you go to school, there isn’t anything that’s really written down, you kind of have to get a feel for it.”
One idea Elliott implemented that he said improves playability and versatility was to make the entire pitcher’s mound portable, allowing the grounds crew to simply move it when necessary for other events instead of rebuilding the mound every season:
“One of the things we did when we came on in 2008, is try to figure out a way to make the field turnkey
tolessen the impact on the players. So that mound consists of six pieces that we lift out with a crane, we pull it out, and we put it back in and we just repair the edges.”
It’s a feature not universal across baseball, but Elliott said it’s more common in ballparks that host other events or sports. Oracle Park’s, he said, is a newer version, but the Oakland Coliseum, Rogers Centre in Toronto and Fenway Park in Boston also have portable mounds.
The bullpen mounds are also portable, and Elliott said moving them from their current location, which the team has been under pressure to do because of injury risks, would be no problem at all. In fact, he said, moving them to somewhere off the playing field would actually improve their playability because he could use the same clay on them that he uses on the game mound and keep them more consistent:
“[The bullpen mounds] used to be solid clay and we’d have to take them out on occasion to host events. They were very inconsistent and very hard to maintain. If they move those they’ll go in a spot where I can make them permanent and maintain them [better].”
It’s selecting and repurposing a new location for the bullpens that invites complications.
This portable mound design is more than just convenient, though. Using the same game mound for over a decade is part of what makes the Oracle Park mound a work of art. With every pitch that’s thrown off it, the clay gets more compacted and dense, Elliott said:
“Every time they land, they compact it. And every time you compact something it just gets harder and firmer, especially clay. And then with the moisture, it’s crazy, you have beautiful conditions, and it just keeps getting better, and better and better. It makes me happy to hear someone like Shaun coming up and saying he’s happy here.”
Anderson isn’t the only one who appreciates the work Elliott and his team put in. Madison Bumgarner said he’s grateful for what the grounds crew does to maintain such a good mound, and acknowledged how difficult that maintenance must be:
“I’d say that they have a harder job than most other grounds crews because of the climate that we have. One day it might be a day game where it’s 97-degrees and then the next start is another day game and it’s 55. And the night games are cold, so it hardens up. They do a really good job of keeping it the same consistency while adjusting to more drastic weather changes.”
Elliott said upkeep of the consistency Bumgarner and Anderson prize is in the details of the day-in-day-out maintenance of the mound as well as the products used:
“We use gumbo clay in the landing areas that comes out of the bag dry and then we kind of moisten it to the consistency we feel we can pack it in. It’s like brushing your teeth. You do it daily, you do it right—you have your teeth the rest of your life.”
The recently-traded Drew Pomeranz said it’s more than just the consistency of a mound that makes it good. For him, the height of a mound made all the difference in the world, and he loved how tall the Oracle Park mound was when compared with others across the league:
“You play in enough places and you realize fields and mounds that you don’t like and ones that you do. You like to feel tall, you like to feel like you’re on top of everything. It’s kind of hard to explain, but you want to feel like, ‘Man this is a tall mound.’ It’s good to have that feeling of, ‘Okay, I feel like I’m above everyone else.’”
He acknowledged some of this could be psychological, but at a lofty 6-feet-6-inches, Pomeranz was the tallest Giant before he was traded to Milwaukee at the deadline. He said there’s a mechanical component to it, too, though:
“Having a tall mound helps you fall towards the plate a little better. On a shorter mound you feel like you have to push more. It’s a momentum thing.”
Elliott said, despite the rulebook requirements, the grade of the field, which is centered on the pitching mound, is what accounts for the feeling of height difference. Mounds can only be 10 inches high, but how you get there can make a difference.
At Oracle Park, like Petco Park in San Diego, T-Mobile Field in Seattle, Busch Stadium in St. Louis and Chase Field in Arizona, Elliot said the field is at a zero grade, unlike, for example, Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark
At the Reds ballpark, he said the grade is approximately 0.15 or 0.1 degrees and on fields with grades everything slopes downward from the mound. At that grade, a span of 60-1/2 feet from the mound to home plate adds up to several inches of height. Elliott said:
“So if you’re losing four inches of height, just in grass grade, from the hitter to the pitcher, the clay can only be six inches tall. But my mound, cause [the grade] is flat, can be 10 inches, so you’re getting like four-inch lifts. Imagine you go to Cincinnati, and you’re walking around in normal shoes, when you go out in San Francisco you get to wear four-inch high platforms — you’re gonna feel tall.”
So why isn’t every field flat then? Elliot said it comes down to weather, and money:
“If you have bad weather and you get a lot of rain —Cincinnati, the Midwest
andEast Coast — they need water to shed off the field. They need it to infiltrate into the field and drain, but they also need it to sheet off. It’s really about moving water. But Dodger Stadium isn’t flat because they did some weird grading on it and they haven’t sunk the money into redoing it. It’s a couplemillion dollars to redo a baseball field.”
Elliott said he makes a point of watching all the games at Oracle Park closely to monitor for any issues with the field. Whether it’s odd hops that could indicate some inconsistency in the turf that a change in conditioning could alleviate, or a base popping out of its moorings, as was the case in early June when Kevin Pillar slid into second and didn’t know whether to tag the place where second base should be or where the base landed after skidding away. Ultimately he hovered around where the bag should have been and was ruled safe.
But Elliott said he’s also always seeking feedback from players, either directly or through third-base coach Ron Wotus. As an up-close observer of field conditions both in-game and during training, Wotus is able to channel any abnormalities or concerns he hears to Elliott. Wotus said:
“He’s done a great job with the field, especially all the conditions, he has to deal with — the fantasy BPs and corporate events they have on the field, or when the other team hits early, having concerts, all the things he has to deal with, affect the field. He’s really done a great job of working with us, and trying to make sure we’re happy with the conditions of the field.”
When the team goes out of town, the grounds crew doesn’t take a vacation. Elliott said last year they handled more than 160 ballpark events in addition to the 83 home games (including two preseason exhibitions for the Bay Bridge series). Generally, if the team goes on a seven-day road trip, the field is in use during five of those seven days. Elliott said:
“For larger events like the World Rugby Cup Sevens—that was three years in the making. We grew our sod for two years. And that was quite an event, it had a lot of positive and negative ramifications for the organization. The players weren’t necessarily happy. I felt like there was a little bit of an overreaction on the playability. Sometimes you have to sacrifice the aesthetics and that’s what I had to do in that situation.”
When reports circulated briefly that the Oakland Raiders were working out a contract to play their final Bay Area season at Oracle Park, Elliott said that while he knew in practice it would be a nightmare, on the professional side he viewed it as a fun challenge.
Unsurprisingly, Giants infielders expressed relief when the deal fell threw.
Among them was Brandon Belt, who said keeping a smooth and soft infield contributes to cleaner plays and he feels the Oracle Park grounds crew has always done a great job of that. Elliott said that most of the players who climbed through the ranks of the Giants farm system like Belt, Joe Panik
But when the Giants acquired Evan Longoria from Tampa Bay, where he’d spent his entire career playing home games under a dome on astroturf, Elliott said he knew there would be growing pains:
“Evan came from the outside, he wants it a certain way, much like how he grew up. It’s like if you grew up eating pasta, you’re not going to be a meat and potatoes person, right? And Brandon [Belt], Joe [Panik] and Brandon [Crawford]—they’re more homegrown, this is what they came up with and what they’re used to.”
Longoria told Elliott last season that he preferred the ground to be firmer and moister and that he was used to the lip between the grass and the infield dirt sitting closer to the base. Elliott said the crew drew up a plan and implemented it starting midway through the 2018 campaign.
They altered their moisture management and lobbied to buy new equipment — enter the aforementioned giant rolling pin. Now, before the grounds crew waters the infield at night, they drive a cart in tight circles over the dirt and grass around third base towing the big metal roller to compact the surface and deliver Longoria’s requested firmness.
Longoria said he communicates his concerns to the grounds crew mostly through Wotus. He said he thinks they adjusted the lip of the grass, but the rest is a work in progress:
“I continue to try and get them to change it because I like the dirt to be pretty firm. From what they tell me, they have a hard time because the weather is always a little colder and windy. So our dirt is different than some places and they have to use a lot of top-soil to keep the moisture in. They have a hard time getting it to where I prefer it.. …[But] they made adjustments and just tried to help as much as they can and they’ve done a really nice job.”
Elliot and the crew also take specific measures to improve Buster Posey‘s workspace behind the dish. Dating back to his 2011 fractured left fibula after a home plate collision, they make the playing surface around home plate as soft as possible. This has become especially important after Posey suffered several seasons of chronic hip pain that finally led to hip surgery last August for a torn right labrum and hip impingement.
Posey said the softer surface was something he believed would improve his durability as a catcher over time, and help him better block balls:
“My theory on it was over the years if you could take a little bit of stress off the joints it was gonna help long term. Plus, if you get a lot of balls in the dirt when it’s hard they tend to kick and have more variance where if it’s a little bit softer there’s not quite as much variance in the way it kicks left or right or up. Greg’s been here longer than I have, so he’s got a good idea of what we like.”
Elliott said like so much of groundskeeping, fulfilling Posey’s preference is all about moisture. In this case, increased moisture is what softens the area around home plate and they use a couple of methods to achieve it.
Buster’s cubicle gets softer clay than what they use for the mound and it absorbs and holds onto moisture better. And they use mats to cover the area as much as possible before the game to keep in the moisture, Elliott said:
“With Buster’s injury, we have to watch it and make sure it doesn’t get too firm on him. But yet, we have to keep it at least within the realm of normalness for the visiting catcher. So we’re kind of like the umpires of the field, to kind of take the information [from the Giants], make it a home field advantage, but yet be able to relate it back to the other team so we don’t get any complaints.”
Asked if there was any part of the field or achievement at Oracle Park he was most proud of, Elliott noted that he has a lot of fun technology like soil sensors, sub-air, fertigation systems and new irrigation systems. He was allowed to renovate the infield and put in a new warning track, not to mention the portable mound.
But he said it’s the people he values above the rest:
“I got all this stuff, all these opportunities to make the field better, but the key is the people that are maintaining it. My two assistants, who I’ve trained for 10 years, they’ve worked their way from groundskeeper to supervisor to manager. They’re in college right now trying to do more of this to get a degree like mine. And every one of the 60 part-time staff members, they’re all walks of life. They’re not in this to be groundskeepers long-term but they come in, they give me their time, they dedicate themselves and they really put forth a Herculean effort.”