It's not uncommon for pitchers to meet up with their opposition before games and swap trade secrets: pitch grips, deliveries and ballplayer wisdom are all part of the secret language that hurlers share amongst themselves. But a pitcher swapping tips with the opposition's groundskeeper?
That's a little less usual, but simply par for the course (excuse the pun) for one of the Padres' many offseason acquisitions and new closer, Mark Melancon.
That's because Melancon -- a three-time All-Star and one-time MLB saves leader -- moonlights with his very own turf installation company, Diamond Turf.
"Arizona's grounds crew was great," Melancon told me in a phone call recently. "I've spent a lot of time with them. Toronto last year, spent a lot of time in Texas. You know, every field's done a little bit different. You can learn from each of those grounds crews that deal with that type of field.
"Obviously, they're trying to replicate something for 81 games that's perfect to a natural product," Melancon added. "And so they're very picky on the ball bounce and stuff like that. Depending on the infill that you use, yeah, it will bounce differently."
It's a strange confluence of events that led to this moment for the Padres' stopper. Landscaping wasn't a family business, and he didn't grow up with a deep obsession for turf and turf supplies. No, Melancon's mid-career extracurriculars came about because of two things.
First, Melancon asked his sister, Michelle, and brother-in-law, Gerardo, to move closer to his family on the west coast of Florida from their home in Colorado. While Gerardo could transfer his job, it would have involved an extremely long commute and employers that paid his previous rate were also scarce in the nearby area. Melancon wanted to help out since he was the reason for them picking up and moving their lives in the first place.
Second, Melancon had a putting green installed in his backyard and he wasn't happy with the results. So, with the kind of gusto that leads to garage bands and plans to remodel basements into swanky hangout areas, the two leapt into it. The only difference: They followed through on their dream.
"[Gerardo] and I just said, 'Let's do this,'" Melancon said. "This is something we're attracted to and we'll figure it out. And fortunately, he was on board and excited about it. So was I. We dove right in and started learning and went from there."
Diamond Turf was born.
They quickly got to work, first learning with on-the-job training on Melancon's putting green -- which Melancon points out is about as hard as any turf job gets. Just like pitching, nailing it involves a close attention to detail.
"Putting greens, there's simply nuances to it," Melancon said. "It's an art, it's a skill. And believe me, we've trained a lot of people and it's like any other major profession -- you can't just get anybody off the street. You have to really show them the way and they have to show you that they want to do it."
With help from Celebrity Greens, who have helped train the people in Diamond Turf's employ, the company quickly grew to about 20 members strong. Along with roughly 15 laborers, the main office features Mark, Michelle, Gerardo, an office administrator named Debbie Hertenstein and, oh yeah, another Major Leaguer in J.B. Shuck, who now runs sales. Shuck, who's married to Melancon's wife's sister -- making this a giant big league family -- had signed a Minor League deal with the Nationals last year. But when COVID-19 ended the Minor League season, Shuck joined up with Diamond Turf full-time.
"Those two guys," Melancon said about his two brothers by marriage, "work ethic off the charts and just quality people."
Since then, they've installed lawns -- some complete with trampolines in them -- intricate design and logo work and, of course, putting greens.
And then there's the really fun stuff. That includes a large, lumpy piece of turf in the shape of a turtle that Melancon’s children love called "Turtle Hill," and backyard mini golf courses.
"Clients just love it," Melancon said. "Every hole is different. It's a legit putt-putt course on the back of your yard. We put trinkets out there, a skull, a pirate ship, bridges, different color turf. It's been phenomenal. It's really well done. And that's my brother-in-law, Gerardo. His artistic ability just comes into play really well there."
It's not a new thing for ballplayers to have side jobs. In fact, it's a relatively recent phenomenon for players not to work in the offseason. Nolan Ryan was a gas station attendant as a young player, Richie Hebner dug graves and plenty of players through history have used their fame to help open up a side business. Lou Brock opened a florist's shop and Curt Flood owned a portrait studio.
But that's the opposite of what Melancon wants. He made it clear over and over throughout our time chatting that he's just happy to be a part of this company and has no desire to use his big leaguer status to boost sales -- even if he has been recognized a few times on the job. If you went to the website and didn't know it, you'd have no idea that Melancon ever played baseball.
And Melancon truly loves the job. Even during the season, he is constantly working, using Diamond Turf business as a nice release from the non-stop stress of baseball. Though he's mostly involved in an admin role, working on payroll and material orders, he's perhaps working more than even his co-workers enjoy.
"I'm heavily involved, but I'm involved in places that I don't have to be," Melancon jokes. "But I want to be and I enjoy being [involved, even though] things could still get done without me. It's the times when I'm in the hotel on the road that I can spend a lot of time on it. Fortunately, I have a good team in place that can take care of those things."
Still, even for someone who loves turf and works in turf and even espouses the environmental benefits that turf can provide, he still prefers to play on natural grass.
"From a professional standpoint, I think natural grass is always better," Melancon said. "I don't really care. It's more the infielders and outfielders -- I'll go with whatever they want. Playing in Texas in the playoffs last year was great. I thought that surface was awesome. To be honest, you didn't even really know it was artificial."
In the end, even though Melancon is a pitcher, you wouldn't know it from the way he talks about his side gig. He sounds perfectly at home running a turf installation company.
"Wanting the best for people -- that's been our motto," Melancon said. "We want to do the best job that we can do for people. We're there to make money, obviously, but we want to leave the customer with great customer service and quality, longevity. We specialize in putting greens because that's what's enjoyable, that's what gets us excited. And we feel like, if we can master the putting green side, we can really do anything because those are the hardest things. And we really feel like we produce one of the best putting greens out there."