How Giants maintain Oracle Park's grass in massive outfield every year


If you go down to Oracle Park right now and take a lap around the ballpark, you'll see very little to indicate Giants baseball might be played there anytime soon.

The players' lot, usually overflowing with trucks and Audis, is empty. The merchandise store is closed. The centerfield gate offers a glimpse of construction on the bullpens that was abandoned when coronavirus led to an entire city sheltering in place.

But walk around to McCovey Cove and peer through one of the arches and you'll see a comforting sight. The grass is as green as ever, cut short and well-manicured. The infield dirt is pristine. You can close your eyes and picture Mike Yastrzemski running down a fly ball, or Brandon Crawford backhanding a grounder deep in the hole.

Last week, I took a look behind the scenes of the marketing department and asked how the Giants decide which bobbleheads to make. This week, the focus is on the field. How do the Giants keep their outfield in perfect condition during a season? Not surprisingly, it is a massive undertaking. 

Head groundskeeper Greg Elliott leads a team that includes three full-time employees and about 60 part-timers. For every home game, about 25 of them do some sort of work on the field, with some starting at 6 a.m and others working late into the night to fix the damage done by nine innings. 

If you look around between innings, you'll see more than a dozen members of the grounds crew subtly keeping the field playable. They rake the dirt and water down the infield and tweak the mounds, but the biggest chunk of real estate between the lines doesn't actually get much care during a game. That's because the grounds crew is working on the grass at all other times. 

"It's the first thing we do every day, mow the outfield. It's really labor-intensive," Elliott said. "We have two outfield mowers that you ride and two walking mowers. It takes about two and a half to three hours every morning."

When the Giants are in town, the grounds crew cuts the grass in two directions every day, fertilizes it, and uses plant growth regulators to stimulate and grow the roots. During road trips, the routine is done every other day, with occasional breaks for the many concerts that boost the organization's income during the summer. Those are often followed by the addition of growth regulators to make up for damage. 

While you can watch the grounds crew water the dirt before and during games, the outfield is taken care of by an irrigation system -- and it certainly helps that the air is so damp at the ballpark. The outfield is built like a massive golf green, with a sub-base of soil, a drainage system, four inches of gravel and 10-14 inches of sand. The actual blend of the grass has changed over the years, with the Giants recently switching from Bermudagrass to Kentucky bluegrass. 

That's something you would never notice from your seats, but you certainly have seen that the Giants keep it simple with their design. Unlike many MLB teams, they don't have a pattern in the grass. There are no stripes or logos mowed into their outfield.

"It helps with the playability for the players," Elliott said. "The ball doesn't snake in our park as much. I'm sure it happens, but it doesn't happen as often."

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Playability, is not, however, the reason for the lack of design. The late Peter Magowan wanted the outfield to be reminiscent of the Polo Grounds.

"Back then they only had pull mowers, so there wasn't really any kind of striping like you see (in parks) today," Elliott said. "The goal of this is to remind us of our heritage and remind us of where we come from. And there are a lot of positives that come out of it from an agronomic standpoint as well as baseball standpoint."

While that decision came from the top level of the organization, the grounds crew often takes cues from the man in charge of the players. Oracle Park's outfield is considered to be on the "slower" side because of the height of the grass, and that's a determination that can come straight from the manager and coaching staff. 

During the championship runs in 2010, 2012 and 2014, the Giants generally had an older outfield. The preference of the coaching staff was to leave the outfield grass a bit higher, keeping balls from shooting through the gaps. That allowed the older outfielders to rely on their arms rather than foot speed. 

Elliott hasn't had that conversation with Gabe Kapler yet, although, given Kapler's reputation for being over-prepared, there's little doubt he has some idea already of how he wants the outfield and infield grass to play. The Giants already have two experts on the infield in-house. It's common to see longtime coach Ron Wotus and shortstop Brandon Crawford talking to members of the grounds crew before batting practice. 

"The nice thing about it is it's a conversation. It's not 'the field is playing poorly today,' it's 'do we do something here, or there,'" Elliott said. "Usually after I have a conversation with Brandon it's after multiple day games where it's harder to keep the moisture in. He'll let me know if it's firming up or getting harder."

There are two different kinds of conditioner for that, and the grounds crew can adjust depending on how much moisture they want retaining on the infield. That part of the park will be new whenever the Giants play a game. They pulled up their infield dirt recently and changed to a new mix that's about 60 percent sand, with the rest made up of clay and silt. 

The outfield will be new, too. The Giants use a company called West Coast Turf that also provides the sod for The Coliseum and Dodger Stadium, among many others. It comes in rolls that are 42 inches wide and 40-50 feet long. They treat it multiple times a day in hopes of keeping the field for multiple seasons, but the entire outfield is typically resurfaced and adjusted every year. This year might be different, though. 

"I think it's pretty evident that given what's happened, we're definitely keeping it for next year," Elliott said. "That'll be something that's new for us."

The Giants certainly won't have 81 home games to worry about and it's possible that all of this year's concerts and events -- they regularly host corporate Christmas parties in the outfield and now have an annual TopGolf event -- will be canceled. 

Nobody knows when Oracle Park will be back to normal, but the grounds crew is staying prepared. A small group, practicing social distancing, mows the grass on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays, and managers often go in on Tuesdays or Thursdays to check for trouble spots and spray fertilizer where it's necessary. 

[RELATED: Pences view quarantine time as double-edged sword]

The organization in the tech capital of the world decided to go modern before knowing any of this is coming, and Elliott can monitor the irrigation system and soil system online. Soon he'll have a drone that can get overhead shots of the playing surface and provide information about the health of the grass. 

Whenever players are ready to return, a beautiful field will be waiting for them. 

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