Blue Jays grounds crew still learning ins and outs of all-dirt infield

By: Alexis Brudnicki

Canadian Baseball Network

It’s just dirt.

Or is it?

Much to the excitement of a fan base in need of off-season stimulation, the Toronto Blue Jays began to celebrate the beginning of the 40th season of the franchise with a winter upgrade to the infield – moving from dirt cutouts around the bases to all-dirt infield basepaths.

In terms of the significance of the change, the most obvious is that the dirt addition just looks better. Without the old landscaping to compare to, it might not be as noteworthy, but since the comparison is there to be made, the field at Rogers Centre just took on more of a baseball look and feel than it had previously.

But the change goes beyond just the surface, or maybe it stays right on top of it. Over time, it will offer more natural paths and hops for ground balls, making them potentially more predictable and easier to read off the bat, and longer-term, the dirt infield is easier on the players and their joints than the turf. It’s a book that can be judged by its cover.

“One of the big things for me is cosmetically, it just looks awesome,” said Ben Jamieson, in his 12th year as a part of the Blue Jays grounds crew. “Way better than last year. The way it plays is probably great too. It seems consistent. I mean, I haven’t heard too much player feedback other than good things, and in my line of business I always say no news is good news.

“If they’re not complaining about it or worried about it, it’s got to be because they’re fine with it. That’s the biggest thing for me.”

The idea of the change seems simple – just get rid of a few squares of the carpet that was the turf, pile the dirt on and let the players go to work – right?

Wrong.

Beyond the substantial amount of construction that took place during the off-season just in order for the change to happen, there’s more work to be done each and every day at Rogers Centre.

“Off the hop, it has been pretty significant as far as time,” Jamieson said. “We’re still new to it ourselves, so we’re still teaching ourselves. We’re getting good at it with each day that passes, so the time is getting down...it’s definitely different from last year.

“Being new is going to add time on for any aspect. For the most part, it will probably consistently be a little bit longer just because of the sheer size of it, going from last year and having three small dirt pits to then multiplying by 10 or 20 or whatever it would be, you’re going to have to spend more time on it.”

The grounds crew has grown, adding six new members of its own this year along with cross-training the building’s conversion crew to join and help ease the workload.

“We’ve gone from an experienced crew to not an experienced crew,” Jamieson said. “When you’ve got turnover like that, you’re going to feel it. It’s not that they’re bad workers, it’s just the fact that you’ve got to teach them and they’re not going to be good at it right away. It’s going to take time for everyone to get to a level where they know what they’re doing off the hop.”

Toronto’s infield artists have taken advantage of every opportunity available to offer more practice time to the newbies, most recently utilizing last week’s Tournament 12 tryouts to get the conversion crew on some of the tractor equipment, and move this year’s grounds crew additions around the diamond to try out each of the different positions.

“This training is good so people get practice at it, and so when they do come in, they don’t always need supervision to be told what to do – they can just do it and they know what to do,” Jamieson said. “The conversion crew has been really good – learning, cooperating with us, working together, which is huge – and the rookies we got have been really great too. Other than that, you deal with it every day, and every day has been better. Everyone’s learning and getting better every day at their jobs.”

It’s a constant work in progress, one that started with Tom Farrell, Toronto’s head groundskeeper, and Dean Caracciolo, the supervisor of the Blue Jays’ crew, heading to Tampa Bay before the season to learn from the Rays, the only other team with the same combination of Astroturf and dirt.

It continued with a visit from Pat Skunda, the head superintendent of Florida Operations for the organization, who marvelled at the budget and equipment available in the big leagues, but offered his incredibly valuable expertise from managing not only the field at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium – Toronto’s spring training home, and the summer stadium for the Class-A Advanced Dunedin Blue Jays – but all of the diamonds at the Bobby Mattick Training Center as well.

“Dean and Tom went to Tampa and basically got a look at what they do and what their process is, so a lot of my experience has come from Dean and Tom and what they’ve known,” Jamieson said. “When Pat came, he was a huge help. He was here for four or five days and he showed me the machinery, because we’ve never done anything like that, and the patterns that work best for him, and he gave really good advice.”

Every little bit helped of course, but nothing compares to the firsthand experience the grounds crew gets with each game and moment on their field. 

“[Skunda] told me there are 100 ways to do this and every way is right; it’s just a matter of what you feel the most comfortable with,” Jamieson said. “I took that to heart and just practiced what he showed me. From there, I haven’t changed too much. I’ve expanded on what he’s taught me and personally I’ve changed a lot as far as my daily routine goes, and I still am. Every day is different, and that’s why this job is unique in a good way. It keeps it exciting.”

Jamieson’s passion for his job is shared by the rest of the crew, a group that allowed for an additional trainee to join in on the fun and hard work for a day during Tournament 12 tryouts. That extra helping hand – or perhaps the complete opposite of that – happened to be the author of this piece, thanks to Kelly Keyes, Vice President of Building Services, and the crew that welcomed me.   

I got a firsthand look and feel of the new infield while I learned to rake and loop and water and push dirt around in ways I had never imagined. I spent 12 hours with the Blue Jays grounds crew watching every move, attempting every task they gave me, asking an endless string of questions, and then watching again as they redid everything they let me do after I completed each task incorrectly, or to a subpar degree.

Amid the group of vastly different personalities, everyone on the crew shared patience and compassion with me as they repeatedly gave me advice and assistance. All of them knew they were doing a favour for someone familiar with the team and the building, and I’m sure they realized they were fielding an unusual amount of questions, but they didn’t know I was going to be writing about them until it was all over.

At the end of the day, I asked Jamieson my second-biggest question, to walk me through all of the required movements of the dirt once again. Even though I had seen and participated in most of them, I wasn’t sure I was even going to remember them all to write in detail, and he obliged.

“Our daily ritual before each game – we’ll come in and use the two machines we have,” Jamieson said. “The first is called the ABI; it’s essentially [tractor equipment with] nail drags on wheels. So we’ll use those nail drags and do a pattern on the dirt ring, either in a figure eight or circles, just to make sure we hit every spot of the dirt.

“That just turns it over, brings up anything that was badly damaged, makes it soft, repairs any big holes, and then from there we’ll probably let it sit for an hour and a bit because it will be too wet at that point. I’ll do a walk-through of the whole thing to see what needs to be done as far as damage that’s more hands-on. If there’s a big enough hole that I’ve actually got to put dirt into, I’ll use the tamper, tamp it in, rake it down, and you do that all over the place.

“First base is usually pretty bad from where the first baseman stands. After that, when it dries out a little bit more, we’ll use the red machine, the Toro, and put a big steel drag mat on it. That essentially just picks up any clumps, seeds, grooms it nicely, spreads out the topping evenly, and cosmetically makes it look good.”

The grounds crew answered my biggest question without me ever asking it. I wondered how they could work together every day for such long hours, always being around one another, and entering into these forced relationships based on the hiring of their superiors. It had nothing to do with the dirt, but their time together and the difficulty of their day-to-day tasks did increase because of the change.

I’m sure they all have their bad days but the one I joined them for wasn’t one of them, and it was easy to see the answer. Every member of the crew was friendly, helpful, affable, easygoing, sociable, and incredibly personable.

And they just love baseball.

The passion for the game turns strangers into friends. It partners 12-year full-time grounds crew veterans with 19-year-old students working through school, and makes it work. I believe that passion got them through watching me rake in the wrong direction. It helped them find patience to show me how to loop the dirt at least five different times, both left-handed and right-handed, because I couldn’t figure out what worked for me.

It helped when they had to re-rake, and loop again, and then when they followed me around the diamond with the incredibly heavy hose while I missed spot after spot, and left puddles where there should be none. At any moment when I had no specific task – likely because we all realized I wasn’t very good at anything – I would watch and pepper my subject with questions. None went unanswered.

My unique experience on the field at Rogers Centre gave me an in-depth look at not only all of the dirt, and of course the new infield, but at the people behind it, in front of it, pouring it, raking it, and taking care of it. I will never look at a strange hop on the infield the same way, nor will I take my eyes off of the rapid mid-inning cleanups, knowing just how hard the same task was for me in an unlimited amount of time.

I’m incredibly grateful that I got to take part, and also that I gained a new perspective on another way to love the game.

“Doing this, it being a change and me doing this job a long time, this is a new challenge for me so I’m having a lot of fun taking it on that way,” Jamieson said. “It’s been a lot more work but that’s the point, so that’s been really fun.” 

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Alexis Brudnicki

Baseball has been a part of Alexis' life since her parents took her brother to sign up for Eager Beaver Baseball in London. Alexis wanted to play and asked to sign up, too. Alexis played ball until the boys were all twice her size and then switched to competitive fastball. Her first job was as an umpire for rookies with the EBBA and since then Alexis has completed her education with an undergraduate degree from the University of Western Ontario and graduate studies in Sports Journalism at Centennial College