PAWTUCKET – The past week has featured plenty of heavy lifting at McCoy Stadium. No, this particular exercise has nothing to do with removing the Governors’ Cup trophy from its on-display perch in the team store and whisking the hardware away to the latest destination on the touring caravan.
At the 70-year-old ballpark located off Columbus Avenue, the blades of grass that cover the infield, outfield, behind the plate and foul territory down the first base and third base lines have been completely dug up and replaced with a new playing surface. For record keeping purposes, this marks the first time since the 2006 season that the playing surface at McCoy has undergone such an extensive makeover.
“This is something you need to do on a regular basis in order to provide the best field we possibly can for the players and staff,” remarked PawSox president Mike Tamburro. “When you have a big project like this, you shoot for perfection.”
Considering that Hurricane Sandy is slated to unleash her full wrath upon southern New England on Monday, the timing of this important and multifaceted project couldn’t have worked out any better. Had the process of ripping off the field been slated to commence today instead of last Monday, PawSox field superintendent Matt McKinnon and assistant groundskeeper Kyle Carney along with the 20-person crew from Sports Turf Specialties (based in Wrentham, Mass.) would have been forced to “rain plan” instead of game planning for a project that is precise in terms of wrapping everything up.
As he stood in the right-field bullpen Friday afternoon, McKinnon looked out and saw bare spots in right field and right-center. The process was nearing completion, with last Saturday afternoon serving as the target date to place everything down.
“We always envisioned turning this around in a week, so the baseball gods were definitely smiling on us,” remarked McKinnon, speaking as several pieces of construction equipment were performing their appropriate task. “This was all set up prior to even knowing about Sandy, but I can only imagine if we were starting on Monday.”
The chore of stripping away the old playing surface encompassed just about two days, such a quick turnaround speaking volumes about the strict schedule all parties were adhering to.
On Wednesday, the next order-of-business got rolling – both literally and figuratively. Think of the grass-placing step along the same line as wallpapering a room. The primary objective is to gently remove the grass out of its coiled state and arrange everything nice and neat. In order to accomplish this, a worker from Sports Turf Specialties would operate a machine that would unwind the reams of grass while two additional workers would stand off to the side. Their mission entailed making sure that every fresh piece placed on the ground lined up with the adjacent piece.
“It’s a very elaborate dance because one crew is focused on stripping and the other crew is laying sod, then there’s another crew going right behind them,” said McKinnon about the assembly line-type behavior that’s been taking place. “How they logistically combine everything is an amazing feat. It does look chaotic at times, but they know what they’re doing.”
The first areas where the new-arriving grass was situated were those always covered in shade due to the position of McCoy’s roof. After taking care of behind the plate and the spots in front of the suites on both sides, it was on to the infield, with the outfield tended to last.
“It’s one after the other after the other,” surmised McKinnon, who along with Carney are acting as supervisors, choosing to let those in the know conduct business in the fashion they deem fit. “It’s like rolling a ball down a hill; there’s no stopping until you get to the bottom.”
All told, 100,000 square feet of cutting edge sod – a.k.a. Kentucky Blue Blend – was dispensed, with 80,000 square feet placed in the outfield. The individual pieces are 350 square feet, which gives you a general sense just how many pieces were needed.
Part of the reason for the new grass is to reduce the stress of the drainage system in shallow right field. Whenever the tarp is removed following rain, that water is always dumped in the same exact location. Thanks to advancements in soil technology in recent years, players will no longer have to worry about setting foot on a saturated field.
“It’s no longer that heavy black soil. Now it’s able to accept water and water is able to percolate through much quicker,” McKinnon explained. “When it stops raining, we want to play right away. We don’t want any delays and we especially don’t want to lose a game (at McCoy) because of field conditions. In my mind, that’s the worst thing that can happen.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise why McKinnon and Carney have the utmost confidence in Sports Turfs Specialties. The group’s track record speaks for itself, beginning with the company’s president/owner, Dennis Brolin, an Attleboro native who spent 12 years as the head groundskeeper for the New England Patriots.
Prior to arriving at McCoy, Sports Turf Specialties redid Hadlock Field, home to Double-A Portland.
“What’s taken us a week (in Pawtucket) took us two weeks in Portland because it rained every day,” said Brolin.
The client roster for Sports Turfs Specialties also includes handling the playing fields at Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Citi Field (New York Mets), and Fed-Ex Field (Washington Redskins), among many other major league and college fields and stadiums.
“This was the crew that turns Fenway into a soccer field and a hockey rink and back into a baseball field,” McKinnon noted. “They really know what they’re doing.”
Depending how long Hurricane Sandy lingers, McKinnon and Carney take comfort in knowing that only minor bookkeeping remains now that the crux of the project has been executed.
“When those two pieces meet, sometimes a little seed needs to be placed between that seam to keep everything growing,” McKinnon said. “You see the sod all rolled up. Sometimes there are rocks from where it got cut, so we’ll walk the field before coming out with the mowers.”
Stated Brolin, “You don’t want to get caught with bare ground due to erosion.”
Naturally the goal is to get the field set for the 2013 PawSox season, though there’s also a more immediate concern in making sure everything is kosher for the Thanksgiving Eve football game at McCoy between St. Raphael and Johnston.
“What got this process going last week is that we have five weeks up until that football game and we need four weeks to get everything in place,” said McKinnon. “We didn’t want to start this after the football game because it’s too late and in March, there are so many non-baseball related things in terms of getting this place awake from the big winter that we don’t have the luxury to wait.
“The field that I inherit in March is the one I leave in October and November,” McKinnon continued, “so the pressure point is to get everything done now.”