Growth industry enjoys field day Groundskeeper: Paul Zwaska works at a furious clip to leave lush Camden Yards grass a cut above.

April 03, 1997|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Three hours before game time, Paul Zwaska, the Orioles' groundskeeper, inspects the field to make sure he has covered all his bases.

The field has been seeded and sodded, rolled and raked, watered and whipped into shape. It has been aerated, edged, fertilized, limed, sprayed for weeds and mowed five times over, in that nifty checkerboard pattern. The turf even had its temperature taken.

Zwaska nods, satisfied there is nothing left to do to the diamond -- except play on it.

"The trick to Opening Day is getting all the work done before the press gets in the way," said Zwaska, braced for the pre-game hoopla that would trample the field.

The field survived that stampede; the grounds crew groomed it well. The grass is thick, dark, lush -- "the best I've ever seen it this early," Zwaska said. There are more bare spots on team owner Peter Angelos' pate than on the rug at Oriole Park. The turf beats that of most homeowners, including Zwaska, who has been too busy of late to fuss with his own lawn. Not that it bothers him.

"My grass won't be seen by thousands of people in the stands or by millions on TV," he said.

Prepping the field for the first pitch is a daunting task; there is no room for error, said Zwaska, 36, in his seventh year as Orioles turf boss. Fans may forgive a Mike Bordick miscue, but woe be the groundskeeper who misses a pebble or weed. "If there's one little spot of wear out there, somebody's on top of you for it," Zwaska said.

It's a sign of the times, he said. "We're in the entertainment business now. When people come here, it's like going to a theme park."

The Orioles preach aesthetics, down to the grounds crew's attire. Gone are last year's Navy-ish outfits -- black pants and white shirts with gold-and-black epaulets. "Too militaristic," said Zwaska. Now, it's gentle green shirts and pleated tan trousers.

"We softened the image," he said. "Besides, white isn't the best color in this dirty business."

It's a business that beckoned Zwaska from childhood. A native of Madison, Wis., he grew up a Cubs fan, hanging out at Chicago's Wrigley Field. "I can still see the sun hitting the grass and the ivy blowing in the wind," he said. "I fell in love with the place." During batting practice, while his friends got players' autographs, Zwaska photographed the grounds crew.

He attended the University of Wisconsin, earned a degree in soil science and joined the Orioles in 1985. Zwaska got his feet wet on Opening Day.

"We rolled out the tarp for a snow squall," he said.

The nylon tarpaulin weighs 2,600 pounds dry, though dragging it is less a chore since the grounds crew started using the Orioles' weight-training facilities last year. "The rowing machine made a huge difference for me," said Zwaska, who felt his staff deserved to muscle up. "We have the second-most physically demanding job on the club."

Last week, Zwaska held "spring training" for the Orioles' tarp crew, a group of 17 teen-agers recruited from area high schools. Zwaska drilled the team in covering and clearing the field.

"Rookies can get run over during gully-washers," he said. "We've had guys get caught under the tarp where we had to stop and pull them out."

Zwaska leaves nothing to chance. His job? Create a Monet every day. "A groundskeeper is like an artist," he said. "Each morning, you're given a canvas to paint the perfect field."

Daily, the outfield is mowed to within an inch (and a quarter) of its life. Orioles fans assume their world is flat; Zwaska demands proof. Routinely, he checks the field with a surveyor's level. Four times a day, his crew plunges a soil thermometer into the velvety grass. The reason? Fungicides are best applied at exact temperatures, Zwaska said. One assumes they would never be spread during a ballgame.

The outfield grass, cut in a checkered design, will look slightly different next week. Mowing patterns change each homestand, said Zwaska. "Otherwise, the grass 'leans,' grows long and sideways, and affects the roll of the ball."

Despite their attention to detail, the seven-man grounds crew takes flak for Orioles errors. "We're a pincushion for the players," Zwaska said. "Have I gotten into heated arguments with them? Yes. Have I lost? Most times -- but not because I was wrong."

With Jimmy Key's first pitch, Zwaska retreated to his office in the right-field corner and watched the game out his Plexiglas window. Mostly, he eyeballs the pitchers, studies their ease on the 10-inch mound.

"If anything needs to be perfect, the mound is it," he said. "You watch the pitchers to see if they kick or scuff the dirt. If [the height] is off by as little as one-half inch, they'll know it."

Sure enough, Kansas City Royals starter Kevin Appier dug himself into a hole in the fifth inning, bringing the grounds crew running to beef up the mound.

Zwaska's office is filled with weather-related paraphernalia, computers and a high-tech tote board that relays current meteorological conditions, from temperature to wind chill. Bob Turk could forecast from here. Outside, Orioles fans fawn over a new display board that flashes the type and speed of the last pitch thrown. Zwaska's board flashes the current dew point. He's as engrossed as they are.

Zwaska needs every advantage. It's not Kansas City, but a higher opponent he's playing.

"Every blue moon, the good Lord throws you a curve," he says. Most times, Zwaska guesses right on the pitch.

Pub Date: 4/03/97

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