June 28, 2002
Americans are big fans of cognitive dissonance. It's hard to identify a single segment of society that doesn't have a significant amount of hypocrisy. Commerce, law, politics, sports, media... it's all over the place, and every last one of us is to blame to some degree or another. I'd argue that it's not necessarily a bad thing. I'm a libertarian who's in favor of having people who happen to light up a cigarette near me beaten senseless, a la an Iranian prison circa 1975. I rationalize this hypocrisy away by convincing myself that the smoker has infringed upon my rights, because of the health hazards of second-hand smoke.
Most hypocrisy has a strong streak of fundamentalist moralism right down its middle, augmented by a smug sense of moral superiority. The media's tone in the coverage of the various accounting scandals and other ethical failings of business is one of shock and surprise. I wonder how many of us really are shocked at these misdeeds and others like them. If you're shocked, why? We spend a lot of time and effort in this society putting up fronts to make ourselves look more presentable. Suits, ties, priests' collars, judicial robes, hair mousse, leather seats, mahogany walls, etc. They're designed to intimidate and remove doubt, both as to one's ethics and competence. (You can disabuse yourself of this notion by working for any Big 5 firm for one year, or any bank for even less time. Competence plus effort put into appearance is often a constant.)
Let's face it, these little props provide some comfort, but at the end of the day, your insurance guy, even with his suit, is judged on how little it costs to settle your claim. The company that invested in that polished cherry and brasswork in the lobby did so because they think they can make more money off of you because of that facade. Nothing is free. Very few people would wear a suit to work if it didn't affect their ability to either advance or protect their career, or impress the women in the office. (Those who would should have their heads examined.)
All of these things, from fancy clothes to Lancome representatives wearing lab coats, are little cheats. It's all about winning-the dollar, the war, the game-and you can define those any way you want. And if it's about winning, you owe it to yourself and the game to try your hardest. You aren't trying if you aren't cheating, and it's only cheating if you get caught.
So now that we've brushed away the mutual distractions, let's admit that we all want to win, and focus on some ways to do it that aren't necessarily generally accepted, even if they are generally practiced.
There's a gobload of ways to cheat in baseball. Everyone has seen a Niekro or two attempt to nonchalantly toss a piece of sandpaper, or super balls fly out of a shattered bat. As with most things, the key to cheating is preparation, and in setting up favorable conditions before the game ever starts.
I spoke with groundskeepers from MLB and two independent leagues about things they do to increase their team's chances of winning. Not surprisingly, they only agreed to talk with me anonymously, and all declined my requests to take photos at the field. They also wouldn't come completely clean for the record.
Fortunately, the good people at the Recreation and Park department in Davis agreed to allow me to take some photographs at their beautiful and well-maintained facility. I want to make this clear: the reprehensible acts described below do not take place in Davis.
So, how can the groundskeeping crew contribute to the success of the team?
"It depends on who's playing. If you've got a pitcher with a good fastball going, you're going to want to prep the boxes real well. When you prep the boxes, take out about three shovelfuls of fill. You might want to drop the grate down a little bit, too. With less fill in the box, and the grate dropped down, the batter sits about an inch lower in the box, making it much tougher to get on top of a fastball. More pop ups and strikeouts."
Note the tamp marks throughout the batters' boxes. The level ground can cover a newly lowered batter's box.
How about the mound?
"You can do a lot to the mound. One thing is to make a soft area just an inch or so away from the opposing pitcher's landing point. You can mask it easy enough, and that spot causes the guy to mess up his mechanics a little. He'll miss in the direction of the landing point change. You can't do this if your guy's the same height or has the same landing point."
That's pretty evil. Anything else?
"With a portable mound, you can move it back and forward an inch or so. A sinkerballer gets hit pretty hard with an inch or two less time for the pitch to break. If it's not a portable mound, it's harder to play with distance, but you can do other things, but it's pretty tough. You can angle the rubber itself slightly down if you have a junkballer and they have a flamethrower. It's harder to push off, and it makes the pitcher start slightly lower to get good footing. That takes the edge off the high fastball."
Red: Normal landing point for opposing pitcher
We've heard a lot about groundskeepers playing havoc with basestealers. Maury Wills and Lou Brock both complained about teams watering down the takeoff area so they couldn't get a good jump. Do you do that?
"There's lot of ways to mess with basestealers. Extend the basepaths six inches. Instead of watering all over the place, don't water enough. On a sun-baked field, the ground will get so hard that you won't be able to get a good grip with your spikes. Makes it hard to get a good first step. Watering works too, but it's easy to spot.quot;
Note the color difference. If the infield dries to the color on the left from the color on the right very rapidly, it's probably underwatered. If that's the case, the ground sun-bakes during the day, creating a footing that's as hard as asphalt. If it's 106 degrees during the day, getting a good first step on a steal can be as dicey as counting on John Shulock's professionalism. If you're a baserunner, you want that infield to be the color on the right, even after more than a few minutes of sun exposure.
How about if you have a fast team?
"Keep the infield dirt in perfect shape. Cut the outfield grass like it's a putting green or field hockey pitch. When the ball hits it, it should run forever. Everybody cuts the grass to a height that helps their team. You wouldn't be doing your job if you didn't. If your outfielders can't run, but can mash, the grass should be long enough for a dachshund to get lost in. If you've got jackrabbits, cut it short."
How widespread are tactics like this?
"It's my team out there, just like it is for every other groundskeeper. The players do their part to win, and they expect me to do mine. If I can give them an advantage within the rules, I'm going to do that. That's nothing new. It's been going on for years."
Next time you get to the ballpark, maybe you should arrive in time to watch the grounds crew in addition to batting practice.
...and Heaven on Earth
Before last September 11, I was planning to do a column called "Heaven on Earth." There's an excellent book out there called Green Cathedrals, with which I'm sure many of you are familiar. In my estimation, it's probably the best-titled book I know, because the title captures, in two simple words, the very essence of the ballfield.
I've been fortunate enough to spend much of the last six years playing at an excellent municipal facility in the city of Davis, California, called Playfields Park.
Playfields Park is a simply tremendous facility. Two softball diamonds (fields #2 and #3), an excellent baseball diamond (field #1), great kids area, batting cages, a reasonably-priced snack bar, and even a clearly identified soccer pitch. (I only mention this because it's a tremendous way to keep the great Satan-winter soccer players-from turning a beautifully manicured outfield into a ligament minefield.)
The Adult Sports Programs in Davis are managed by Jerry Lee and Lori Conrad, both of whom have been doing an outstanding job for at least the past 15 years or so. They organize leagues, make sure teams don't sandbag, keep games moving along, and bust their butts to make sure conditions are great and costs stay as low as possible so people can play. For many years before Playfields opened, they managed to keep thousands of rabid softball players happy with constant recruitment of space, umpires, facilities, volunteers, and tournaments. It was mostly a whole lot of babysitting of us overgrown kids. I have seen these people out on a drizzly field early in the morning before a tournament, on their own time, cleaning beer bottle shards out of an infield piece by piece. They've done a tremendous job, and made a direct, lasting positive impact on my life and that of hundreds of others.
When Playfields opened, it was really a crown jewel, but hot as hell. No mature trees in the Central Valley sun means plenty of Fahrenheit to go around. It's been six years since the park opened, and it's become one of the best facilities anywhere. Jerry McKean is the lead groundskeeper out at Playfields, and he does nothing short of a magnificent job. From painstakingly repairing the nervous spike marks of Pony Leaguers, to keeping the outfield grass alive, green, and level on softball fields that host upwards of 1,000 games a year, Jerry and his crew do an amazing job. (He also does training sessions for other groundskeepers all over California, and has an infectious love for his work and the fields.)
I always immediately feel at home at Playfields. Part of that is the community of softball and baseball players in the Davis area. When you go to see a ballgame at a great park, like Raley Field, Pac Bell Park or Dodger Stadium, there is a distinct and palpable change in your view of life when you go see the field. That exact same feeling hits me every time I go to Playfields. Even if my knee hurts, it's 109 degrees for a 6:15 game, and I fought through three hours of traffic to travel the 48 miles, everything washes away when I start to stretch out on what is always impeccably kept grass.
If you're within an hour of Davis, and you're not participating in baseball or softball programs that allow you to play at Playfields, you should be. Jerry McKean is an artist, and Playfields is his canvas. At the very least, go by during the evening and catch some local softball action. For those of you more distant, here's a brief photo album. Sorry the photographer doesn't do the subject justice.
This is Field #1 (the baseball diamond) at Playfields. It's 360' to center, but picking up the ball out of the pitcher's hand is no mean trick. Plays as a pitcher's park.
This is Field #3 (softball). The fence is a 300' radius on both Fields #2 and #3, but the ball travels considerably better on Field #3. I've never hit a ball out of Field #2 during a game, and only once in several dozen practice sessions. On Field #3, I've hit a number of homers, seemingly never when I was trying. It's a Coors Field Thang. It's not a fun place to play third base, though. You face directly into the setting sun from about 6:15 to 8:30 during the season. That's not a pleasant prospect if you' re playing against a Tommy Jones or Marc Hicks. Sorry about the bad photo. Field was about to be watered.
This is Jerry McKean, making sure of box placement, and showing amazing patience with yours truly. Note the shaded dugouts, maturing trees, light towers with adequate height, and actual living grass in the background. Jerry Rocks. And I owe him lunch.
The kids' area. When I was young, my mom and dad paid good money to bring me to places that weren't this nice. Anyone else remember "Frontier Village"? Or those deathtrap fiberglass slides that you cruised down on a burlap sack in 103-degree weather? I miss those.
Some tools of the trade, and a nice view of Field #2. You can kind of make out the batting cages in the background. I desperately need time there.
The template for the Playfields logo, hung in a remarkably organized groundskeeper's office. I was hoping for something along the lines of Carl's place in Caddyshack. Instead, it was more along the lines of a well-organized shop.
The plaque is on a post at the kids' area as you enter the park. The real work to make Playfields happen wasn't necessarily done by those who get the credit. In particular, the second City Councilperson down, Julie Partansky, is pretty much a nut case. In all seriousness. She once proposed that Davis police officers dress up as vegetables to work at the Farmer's Market. (Sanity prevailed; there was no incident where DPD Officers ran around like fugitives from a twisted Fruit of the Loom ad.) And yet, she walks the streets.
I wish I could convey and share how much real joy this place brings me. If you've driven by a place like this near you, and glanced over as you loosened your tie or cursed your cell phone, take the time to call your local Recreation and Park district. There are good people everywhere who want to help you have a great time, and you're already paying them for it. Make the time to find someplace like this for you, your family and friends, and the people in your town. You won't regret it.
See some of you tonight at the Roadhouse in Sacramento.