Remember those long weeks last spring, at the dawn of the pandemic, when tee sheets remained empty and courses echoed with quiet? Remember that ache of helplessness, perhaps on the back of a mower, perhaps all alone for the day, no clue that a boom and a record year were fast approaching?
Remember the fear of total uncertainty?
Golf course superintendents endured all that for a month or two. On the other side of the turf maintenance industry, minor league baseball groundskeepers ached all season.
They received furloughs and pay cuts, some of them banking just half their regular salary from last spring to this spring. They watched as their assistants, crews and colleagues were let go, skeleton staffs remaining in most front offices, folks filling in wherever they were needed and wherever they could. Some groundskeepers were ordered to return supplies and products that were already shelved in their equipment facility. Some picked up second and third jobs. Some worked solo for months.
All the while, they maintained the turf.
Major League Baseball sprinted through a blur of a 2020 regular season, just 60 games. Minor league baseball never played one. An industry that relies almost entirely on butts in seats tallied a total attendance of zero.
“I’m a very positive guy but I’m also a very realistic guy, and I was ready every day to get the call, to come into the office and know that that was it,” says Ben Hartman, who started the pandemic as the assistant groundskeeper for the Triple-A Round Rock Express in Austin, Texas and is now the head groundskeeper for the Triple-A Wichita Wind Surge in Kansas. “My wife, Hannah, kept telling me, ‘Quit being negative and be thankful that you have a job.’ I told her, ‘I’m not being negative, I’m just being realistic.’”
What can golf course superintendents learn from a fallow year for minor league baseball groundskeepers? Plenty.
The minor leagues are up and running again — Triple-A teams opened their season in April, and Double-A, High-A and Low-A teams followed in May — but the institution looks very different than it did in 2019. Forty affiliated teams were scrapped, victims of MLB restructuring, all of their employees, turf pros included, scattered. Dozens of head and assistant groundskeeper positions remained open into the season, with low salaries and uncertain team finances the biggest concerns, according to current groundskeepers. And with more MLB oversight over facility and field conditions, more groundskeepers anticipate that they will have to reveal their chemistries, the secrets that help their fields glow, to the powers that be.
Rewind to March 2020. On St. Patrick’s Day eve, Major League Baseball ceased all game activity for six to eight weeks. That shuttered the 30 MLB ballparks, of course. It also shuttered the then-159 affiliated minor league parks. High school and college teams had already stopped playing and now, just weeks from the start of another season, the schedule emptied out.
Kel Rensel remembers the details of that day. Then the head groundskeeper for the Great Lakes Loons in Midland, Michigan, he was talking with Johnny Dukes, the team’s clubhouse manager, who was in early to prepare for the season. “We were talking about how things were getting bad, this and that, and when I went into the clubhouse, at that moment, it got shut down,” Rensel says. Rensel figured the season might pick up around the All-Star break in July, “and then we got shut down for the whole year, and it was just like, ‘This sucks.’”
Rensel started asking himself questions almost immediately. “Is my pay gonna get cut? Am I gonna get furloughed? Am I just going to get let go? Are they going to bring in a landscape company to do this? They don’t need to be paying me. They could just contract out.” Like so many groundskeepers — and so many Americans in general last year — he pondered his professional future. “Do I go into golf? Do I go into parks and rec? Do I just walk away from the industry that I love and go be a gym teacher? It was always a little scary.”
Rensel checked out a variety of job boards “but there wasn’t really that much out there,” he says, and what jobs were posted were “just incredibly, incredibly low paying. For somebody like me, I have 13, 14 years. I’m not taking eight steps backwards.”
Rensel avoided a furlough until November. Elsewhere in Michigan, Mitch Hooten, the head groundskeeper for the West Michigan Whitecaps, located just outside Grand Rapids, was not as fortunate. His hours and salary were cut in half starting in May. “And from there, I was working by myself all the way through the season, because there’s no way I could justify having another guy getting paid hourly to be here when we don’t have anything going on.”
Hooten filled out his schedule by working for a local landscape company during the spring and summer, then shifted to plowing snow in the winter. But with three daughters ages 6 and younger, the sporadic hours drained him.
“I just hit a brick wall,” he says. “I was exhausted. Crazy hours for removing snow. I call them fireman hours. You get a phone call, ‘We’re gonna go start pushing snow at 1.’ I have to get my girls ready for daycare in the morning. I have to pick them up, so I ended up having to resign my position. Couldn’t make it work.” Hooten finally returned to a standard schedule at LMCU Ballpark and full pay in February after nine months of shuffled hours.
Hooten learned “what my field can and can’t do over the course of a couple of weeks, how much stress it can take. Our irrigation went down during a stretch of 90-degree weather. Over the course of last year and moving forward to this year, I know the tipping point.”
Ingenuity is a turf trademark, from individuals working wherever they can to teams filling their field with a patchworked schedule of events. Down in Texas, the Express provided a blueprint when they hosted a Granger Smith concert on July 4, the 11,631 seats at Dell Diamond empty in favor of 509 socially distanced squares on the field. “The Monday after, we got some phone calls from other teams,” Hartman says. “That kind of got the ball rolling.”
College and professional baseball games followed starting the next week, Koe Wetzel and other musical acts played concerts throughout the summer and the fall, and bull riding stomped in just before Thanksgiving. After 500 tons of dirt were trucked in and out over the course of the week, “it was surreal,” Hartman says, “to be sodding the infield in November.”
Other minor league organizations remained afloat thanks to being selected as alternate training sites for players last summer and this spring. 121 Financial Ballpark in Jacksonville, Florida, home of the Triple-A Jumbo Shrimp, and Whataburger Field in Corpus Christi, Texas, home of the Double-A Hooks, were two of them.
“I felt like I had job security just for that fact,” says Christian Galen, the longtime head groundskeeper for the Jumbo Shrimp, who recently moved up from Double-A. “It was one of those things where you could kind of see the writing on the wall, there was no way they weren’t going to keep the facility in shape.”
The practice squad, the uncertain start and the ultimate cancellation of the season provided “the gift of time,” Galen says. “It gave us time to do things that we hadn’t ever done. By the time you reach the offseason in September and October, the last thing you want to do is major projects, right? We just asked ourselves, ‘What haven’t we done? How can we do this better?’ Because we weren’t rushed, we weren’t in a hurry.”
“I think the taxi squad helped solidify our jobs, because there were so many unknowns,” says Quince Landry, who was hired as the head groundskeeper for the Hooks a few months before the pandemic started. “I think we would have potentially lost even more than what we did had the taxi squad not been here.
“I haven’t put much thought into a whole lot of what-ifs. I don’t really want to think about that. Sometimes people get lost in those dark places. If you can’t mentally check yourself out, sometimes you find yourself lost in those dark places for an extended period and you end up battling with those every day, to try and get out.”
Labor is a problem everywhere, with employers bleating about a lack of workers and potential employees looking out for themselves professionally and personally. HELP WANTED signs are a storefront staple.
Golf course and sports turf maintenance both compete with labor industries that can pay more. They might soon be competing a little more often with each other.
When he was still with the Loons, Rensel wondered whether he should apply to work on a golf course. He ultimately landed the head groundskeeper position in Buffalo, New York, where he is maintaining Sahlen Field for the displaced Toronto Blue Jays, but he is far from the only sports turf pro looking at the golf course.
Tradd Jones was the head groundskeeper for the-then Low-A Bowling Green Hot Rods in Kentucky when the pandemic started, and he maintains Russ Chandler Stadium, home of the Georgia Tech baseball team, today. In between, though, he worked nearly a year as the assistant superintendent at Thornblade Club, a private country club outside Greenville, South Carolina. He made the move from baseball to golf to be closer to home. He made the move back to baseball because the Yellow Jackets have arguably the best field in college baseball.
Jones talked with industry friends and colleagues, to gauge opinion about jumping between the two disciplines. “It was somewhat surprising how many of them, probably three or four, kind of threw back that they were looking at possibly going back to golf at some point, too,” he says.
“You can always learn something. What I wanted to learn (on the golf course) was how can you maintain several different types of grass and keep them under essentially the same umbrella, as far as a fertility program, a fungicide program. Being on a baseball field, you have one type of grass, two if you count when you overseed. Let’s go learn in case I end up somewhere where it’s a grass I’m not familiar with. That was my overall goal.” The biggest difference between the two, he says, is moisture management.
Jones and Hartman both worked on golf courses and in ballparks simultaneously — Jones at a private course in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina and as an assistant groundskeeper for the Low-A Myrtle Beach Pelicans while he was a student at Horry Georgetown Technical College, Hartman as an assistant superintendent at a private 27-hole facility between Houston and Galveston, Texas, and on the Houston Astros game day grounds crew just out of school. Will more turf pros follow their lead? The needle will point more toward yes, at least as long as golf remains in a boom.
“If this happens again, we can’t stick around,” Hooten says. “The guys who got cut 50 percent, we stuck around because it was the right thing to do. We’re not going to see our work just go away. We got families to look after, mouths to feed. If we go through what we went through last year, I’m going to have to do some soul searching. You just can’t go through that again. Golf is wide open right now. That’s where the money’s at.”
This last year is, paradoxically, one we would rather forget but will remember for the rest of our lives. The world packed a decade into a relatively isolated 10 months.
Galen will remember 2020 as the year he was finally able to join his family for a summer vacation, spending a week at a North Carolina cabin. “Having that time with my family,” he says, “to just sit back and reflect on what we lost, was probably the best thing that happened.”
Rensel will remember it as the year he and his wife, Kristin, tied the knot, then opted to honeymoon in the Upper Peninsula rather than Hawai’i. “It was nice to have a summer off,” he says, “but I don’t ever want to do it again.”
Hartman will remember it as “an insane excel year” when he was able to talk one on one with Express head groundskeeper Nick Rozdilski far more than he would have during a normal season. All those extra events — the concerts, the bull riding — even played a part in his landing the head position with the Wing Nuts.
Landry will remember it as the year that will forever lend perspective.
“The number of times I heard someone say, ‘Oh, you’ve had a year off,’” Landry says. “It’s not their fault, it’s just that, in their mind, there was no baseball last year, so everyone that worked in baseball just had a full year off. No one’s gonna know about this unless the people that lived through it talk about it, whether it’s dark or not. It’s the facts. It’s real.
“To see those smiles that are back on kids’ faces when they get foul balls and back on families’ faces when they can actually just go outside and get out of the confinement of their home, being able to see those expressions and know that we’re playing a part in bringing some mental happiness back to people, I think that’s probably the most rewarding part of all of this, just being able to play a small role. I think we all take it for granted, all the little stuff that we get to do. As we start to open back up, I think that people are realizing that they forgot how much they love this.”