Zwaska busy on his field of honor

BASEBALL JOURNAL

July 14, 1994|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

Oakland Athletics manager Tony La Russa was running out of pitchers. A good thing, because Camden Yards head groundskeeper Paul Zwaska was running out of patience, sitting in his darkened office in the right-field corner fighting sleep in the 15th hour of a 16-hour day.

And La Russa was at the mound again, changing pitchers for the fourth time in the seventh inning of a game in which he would use eight pitchers to win, 6-4.

"This is the kind of thing that makes a grounds crew want to shoot themselves," Zwaska said.

Perhaps that's a little much, but long homestands in July are times of extremity. Extreme heat, extreme hours, much stress on the hot turf and the grounds crew. This was the seventh night of a 10-game stretch and the game was 3 hours old and the ballpark in the thickening night air resembled a large bowl of steam. And it was only the seventh inning.

Members of the eight-man crew who were not assigned to posts behind home plate or in the bullpen puttered in the maintenance shop or lounged in their quarters beneath the right-field stands. Some watched a few innings with the part-time tarp crew from the fenced enclosure in the right-center-field wall known as "the cage."

He and his fellow crew members had started work at 8 a.m., taking to the field with rakes, tamps, wheelbarrows and shovels to begin repairing the usual post-game wear. Rough infield dirt, grassy edges a bit ragged along the baselines, ruts in the mound and batter's box patched hastily with clay the night before.

The temperature already stood near 80 at 8 a.m. and would climb to 97 by game time.

Rodney Lane worked around home plate, tamping the clay patches and smoothing the dirt. He wasn't complaining, but he was feeling the strain, having shown up for work this morning less than eight hours after he left.

"You can't get your proper rest," said Lane, in his ninth season with the Orioles. "This is one of those weeks where as soon as you get home it's time to go to bed."

The field also showed signs of wear in the outfield and behind the mound where the turf was thin in spots. But overall, the field is in better shape this year than last. Zwaska talks about 1993 as one might recall some emotional trauma.

There was the early-summer heat wave, the appearance of summer patch turf disease and the national spotlight of the All-Star Game. This year, the crew applied a fungicide to the field earlier in the season, and so far has averted the summer patch that last year damaged portions of the outfield.

"The field is responding well this year," said Zwaska, in his ninth season with the Orioles, his fourth as head groundskeeper. "That doesn't mean I'm happy about it. That doesn't mean I'm jumping for joy."

Zwaska doesn't appear to be the sort who regularly jumps for joy. He'll be 34 years old next month, looks closer to 40. Seems to carry on his shoulders the weight of more than 2 acres of turf that grow at Camden Yards. Zwaska has the task of maintaining grass in a part of the country where the climate is friendly neither to warm- nor cool-season grasses, and all turf grasses fall into one category or the other.

The crew is raising a crop of Kentucky bluegrass, a cool-season variety that does well in spring but suffers in heat -- sustained soil temperatures above 77 degrees can halt growth and eventually burn the roots. The day before the All-Star Game last year, the grounds crew spread ice over part of the field to cool the turf as air temperatures headed toward 100 degrees.

That's about as unconventional as Zwaska's methods get.

Gone are the days of fiddling with the field to give the Orioles an edge over particular opponents. Zwaska said the grounds crew no longer loosens the dirt around home plate when Rickey Henderson or some other jack rabbit is in town, no longer sculpts the visitors' bullpen mounds a different height or slope from the field mound to vex the opponents' relief pitchers.

"You don't see much of that anymore," said Zwaska.

You do see a more scientific approach to the job, as one look at Zwaska's office suggests.

On one wall is a control panel that looks like something out of a nuclear power plant: colored lights, digital displays. It's the irrigation and drainage system for Prescription Athletic Turf, the sand-based field built in layers of soil, sand and gravel almost like a fast-draining golf green.

On a table next to the control panel is a computer that displays weather radar pictures of the Baltimore area and readings from weather instruments on a right-field light stanchion. Next to the computer is a digital monitor wired to weather instruments on the warehouse roof. The television in his office is tuned all day to The Weather Channel.

Weather, said Zwaska, who studied meteorology at the University of Wisconsin, is "90 percent of my job. . . . I'm like a farmer. Everything is centered around the weather."

When storms approach Camden Yards, Zwaska watches the television and the computer screen and relays information by phone to the umpires and Orioles management about the prospects of a rain delay. In rough weather, he says, the office "is like Grand Central Station."

On this seventh night of the homestand the radar showed only a few scattered clouds and the game went on. And on. Three hours, 43 minutes after the first pitch, Brady Anderson struck out to end it, the grounds crew instantly took to the field once more, patching holes, covering the mound and home plate with tarps, smoothing and hosing the infield. It was midnight when the workers put the field to bed.

"Three more days," Zwaska said. "Three more days."

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