It's no secret that preparing a baseball field for early April games in northern climates can be a major challenge. Coming off one of the coldest and snowiest winters in recent history, Major League groundkeepers in Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore and Minnesota are facing the daunting task of battling Mother Nature while meeting Major League Baseball's exacting standards for field quality.
We caught up with Minnesota Twins head groundskeeper Larry DiVito, who discusses what it takes to get the field and stadium ready for the season in one of the nation's harshest climates.
Can you walk us through the process of getting the field ready for a Major League season?
At this point, we've completed two of the three phases that go into preparing the field. The first phase is snow removal, which was completed about two weeks ago. The second phase involves getting the grass ready. We remove the agricultural tarps and turn up the field heat to about 50 degrees to make the grass come out of dormancy. The final phase is the detail phase, when we get the field "MLB ready." We could play a college game on it now, but we need this field to be up to MLB standards. From here, we work on perfecting the mounds and the warning track, and we'll start painting the logos on Saturday.
This being one of the worst winters in recent memory, is it more difficult to prepare the field this time around?
It's actually easier. Last year was much worse because we had more ice damage. The extended snow cover actually helped us, as it's good for the grass. It required more snow removal, but actually worked to help insulate the grass throughout the long winter. We had an excellent fall, with good weather all the way up until Thanksgiving. Then we got some good light snow that never melted, turning into ice. Ice is a problem.
What advantages does the underground heating system at Target Field give you? And how does it compare to other Major League Baseball ballparks in cold-weather cities?
The technology is out there to get fields ready for Opening Day, it's just that every team doesn't have it, so we're fortunate to have a heating system. There's growth lights, there's translucent tarps that lets light and air through … the technology is there for extending the season on both ends, and we're fortunate that we have that. There's no reason that that couldn't be done in other cities as well, it's just changing the infrastructure in those stadiums. I would say Chicago and Detroit have the biggest challenges, more so than we did.
What's the biggest challenge you're facing in getting the field ready for April 7?
The air temperature is the biggest challenge. We can control the temperature of the soil, but not the air. We need some consistent days in the 40s and we need sun. Obviously we can't control the sun.
How have previous years helped you prepare for what you faced this winter?
Our efficiency of snow removal has improved greatly. Thanks to our partners at Toro, who are celebrating their 100th anniversary this year, we've been able to remove the snow more quickly with less traffic on the field.
The field is divided into five zones. The zones in left field and center field, we just turned up the field heat to melt those, because they get more sun. There was anywhere from eight to 22 inches on the field. In right field, we had to remove 22 inches of snow. By the time we got to the infield to shovel, it had about 16 inches of snow. On about half of the field, we physically removed the snow. And the other half, we let our heating system take care of it.
This year, it only took us four days to get the snow off the field.
In addition to the field, what are some of the other areas you need to prepare? What does that entail?
Our building maintenance department had a huge challenge in getting this building up and running, in terms of getting water running to concession stands and bathrooms. We have to clear the seating bowl of snow. We have a hot water system that has 120 degree water coming out of our hoses to melt snow and ice in the seating bowl. The snow in the shaded areas tends to stick, and we normally get to a point in mid-March where we need to start removing layers of ice. The last week or so, we've had a lot of people working really hard on that.
In addition, my staff is in charge of clearing Target Plaza and all areas adjacent to the building. We clear all of the snow, put it into our snow-melter -- which is like a giant Jacuzzi -- or haul it out of here in trucks.
So will you be ready for Opening Day one week from today?
We'll be ready. The only thing that would throw us off is a giant blizzard.
Chris Iles is director of corporate and digital communications for the Twins, and Rachel Strobel is a social media intern for the club.