Groundskeeping During a Pandemic: It’s the Same, Yet Very Different

At this time of year, groundskeepers across the country would normally be working around hectic game and practice schedules. But the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made this spring anything but normal. With Major League Baseball on hold and college sports cancelled, the players are gone — however, crews are still hard at work keeping the fields ready for their return.

New Field Has Time to Grow
For Mark Razum, head groundskeeper for the Colorado Rockies, the circumstances were already unusual. Coors Field had just wrapped up the sod work on a major field replacement project two days before news of the MLB shutdown. Razum’s team has been in grooming mode since then.

“We’ve gone from maintaining the baseball field to having the luxury of being able to grow the turf in,” he says. “It took a while to get used to the whole situation, but we’ve got a routine down now. We’re just taking advantage of the time we have and trying to make the best of it … getting everything rooted in and placed well so it’s in top condition for the team when they do return.”

As part of the recent renovation, the decades-old electrical heating system under Coors Field was replaced with a more energy-efficient hydronic heat system. “We basically dug it all the way down to the drainage and rebuilt it starting with the hydronic system, then a new root zone, new irrigation and new turf,” Razum explains. “The sod was custom-grown on plastic, so the root zone exactly matches the profile of the sod. It’s worked out really well.”

Right now, it’s just Razum and three other crew members, and they’ve been dividing up the week to maintain social distancing. They’ve done some extra sanitizing and cleaning during this time as well. For the most part, they’re still focused on doing what they can to get ready for the season, including getting more familiar with and fine-tuning the new equipment that was installed.

Not a “Work From Home” Job
It’s a similar situation for Tim Van Loo, director of facilities and grounds at Iowa State University. The majority of students have left campus to finish classes online, but it’s still business as usual for his crew. Van Loo manages 55 acres of sports fields and grounds with a staff of custodial employees, area mechanics and a grounds team. “Student labor has been cut in half, but all of our full-time staff are still reporting to work,” he says. “They can’t do their jobs from home.”

The biggest change for his staff is simple: There’s nobody in the way. Campus buildings are mostly empty, so custodial staff can get to things they normally can’t — like deep-cleaning carpets or locker rooms that usually have people coming in and going out all the time. Area mechanics are also able to perform their normal preparations a bit more efficiently. And the same is true for the grounds team.

Without the need to prepare fields for practice or for games, Van Loo’s crew has been able to focus on spring tasks like aerification, seeding, fertilizing and pest control. “We usually can’t do many cultural practices until after spring football and softball are done, but we’ve already overseeded and aerified everything within the last two weeks,” he says. “It’s nice in a way, but it’s also not natural.” For a seasoned pro who’s used to tending natural grass during the normal stress of constant play, that’s saying something.

As for the future, it’s still unknown, but Van Loo and his team are planning for a normal fall season. “We’re looking forward to it,” he says. “We’ll be ready, no matter when student athletes return to campus.”