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The Sports Turf Managers Association awards are among the most prestigious accolades in the industry. Stadia caught up with Brock Phipps, head groundskeeper for the Springfield Cardinals, to discuss his win in the 2015 Sports Turf Manager of the Year – Double-A division, the third consecutive year Phipps has been recognized by the STMA.
Talk us through your job role and responsibilities
I am responsible for the playing surface at Hammons Field (Springfield, Missouri, USA), the surrounding landscaping of the stadium and ensuring the safety and the playability of the field. Additionally, I am responsible for the daily and seasonal maintenance of the HGT Bluegrass by utilizing the correct cultural programs. Other duties include reporting to the GM with any concerns regarding the playing surface, and oversight of the field and staff. Finally, I order all supplies and materials in a timely fashion.
Congratulations on your award – what do you attribute your success to?
Thanks, winning the Sports Turf Manager of the Year award really makes all of the work that is put in at the park and away from family worthwhile. I believe the success that we have is a result of the goals that I have every year and that the organization has as well.
I have been very fortunate to work for a great GM, Matt Gifford, the last 12 years at Hammons Field. He has been very supportive of what we are trying to achieve on a nightly basis as well for the entire season. Whether it’s staying updated on equipment to the renovation of the field, I know the support of the Cardinals will always be there. Another contributor to our success are the great relationships we have with our vendors. I know we can always count on them to help us out with any problem that might arise throughout a long season. I certainly owe a lot of my success to my assistant and the great crew that we assemble year in and year out.
What does a typical week involve?
A typical week varies depending on whether the team is in town or on the road. When the Cardinals travel that means we are doing the tasks that people don’t see. Some form of aeration is probably the most important practice we implement, especially early in the season. This is when we do our fertility maintenance to ensure the turf is in good condition before diving into the next homestand.
The day is more schedule-driven when the team is playing at home. We kick off the day by mowing the HGT bluegrass every day at 7/8. I like to mow the outfield to actually see how the turf is recovering and how the surface is playing. Watering the skin, or dirt, is crucial in our business. It is one of the most important things we do on a daily basis to insure the safety of the player, and playability of the ball. This leads to confidence in the player and how he reacts to the ball. Next, we edge the grass/warning track the day before the team arrives. This makes the transition from the turf to the material on the track seamless and lets each player know the distance to the wall.
Batting practice setup begins in the early afternoon depending on the team manager’s schedule. Communication is vital between the manager and I on how each day will be scheduled and how each component of batting practice will occur.
After batting practice comes the breakdown of screens and pre-game maintenance begins. During the game, the skin will be manually dragged twice with cocoa mat to smooth the infield surface. Once the game is over the staff will do the post-game routine of packing the mound and plate areas with packing clay and making any repairs to the field at that time. The infield is dragged to fill any divots before water is applied. Barring any weather conditions, a typical day will begin around 8:30am and ends at 10:45-11:00pm.
How many people are on your team and what is the scope of their responsibilities?
Derek Edwards is my full-time assistant; his responsibilities include scheduling of seasonal help throughout the season and controlling the budget for seasonal payroll. He is also in charge of the care and maintenance of the mound and homeplate, ultimately preserving them at a high standard. Derek also assists in daily maintenance of the field which includes mowing, aeration, and proper watering techniques to ensure the best playability for the infield area.
We also have 10 to 12 seasonal field crew employees that will assist in the breakdown of batting practice and pre-game preparations. On a typical game day we have five to six employees that will work approximately one hour prior to the game and then around 45 minutes after the game ends. They are responsible for post-game repair and maintenance of the playing surface and also the two bullpens. This includes raking out clods of clay around the infield edge of the grass and then repacking the mounds with mound clay. On a typical game day the field crew will work around 4.5 hours if there are no weather delays.
What are the key factors in ensuring a safe, high-quality surface no matter what the weather and so on throws at you?
The weather certainly dictates how we manage the playing surface each and every day. I believe doing the things when the team is out of town will ensure the safety and the playability when the Cardinals have an eight-game homestand. The cultural practices from aeration to a proper fertility program will set the standard for a safe field.
Technology is also another great tool that we use every day. We have installed a Baseline irrigation system with several sensors in the field that give us the temperature and soil moisture data we need throughout the day. Not only is this used in the turf, but also in the infield area of the field. To know the moisture on the skin is a huge advantage going through a season here in the Midwest.
What’s been the biggest challenge of the last year, and what were the biggest issues you faced in terms of maintaining the standard of your surface?
Our biggest challenge was switching from a warm-season Bermuda turf to a cool-season bluegrass surface. We went through our first full field renovation last fall. This meant changing a few of our cultural practices and how we manage the play of the field. I was very pleased with the transition and also relieved with not having to go from the transition from rye in the spring to the Bermuda in the summer.
One of the biggest challenges that I have is the NCAA Division I team that also calls Hammons Field home. The Missouri State Bears open the home part of their schedule in early March and usually play through late May. April and May are difficult to manage with Cardinals and Bears playing at the same time on the calendar.
If you could pass on a few words of advice to turf managers starting out, or who are beginning a new role, what would they be?
I am a believer in getting in there and doing the physical work that this job demands. Don’t think that you have to start at your dream job – work your way up through the ranks. See how professionals react in different situations and take note of how they treat their employees. Don’t be afraid to ask that one question that you would think everyone would know. It might be the same answer but the process could be very different for every unique situation. Try to work in different climate settings to see how the playing surface reacts and changes throughout the season. Understand the hours and the time it takes to become successful and the dedication we strive for every day to make our field the absolutely best it can be.
January 6, 2016