Protecting his turf Groundskeeper: Paul Zwaska doesn't let crab grass grow under his feet at Camden Yards or at home.

June 10, 1998|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

When Paul Zwaska moved into his new Timonium home four years ago, the first thing the head Orioles groundskeeper did was kill his lawn -- on purpose.

The patchy "developer's" grass was driving him crazy, he says. After all, this is a man who cultivates the emerald-green, picture-perfect ball field at Oriole Park at Camden Yards for a living.

"When the grass is kept right it looks beautiful," said Zwaska, explaining his love of turf. "I just like to look at a well-manicured lawn."

But these days, Zwaska, who works about 100 hours a week when the Birds are in town, is resigned to cutting his own yard on the fly.

"I still love going home and taking care of the lawn when I have a chance," said Zwaska, 37, who started with the Orioles as assistant groundskeeper in 1985. "But instead of the 7,000 square feet I've got at home, I've got 100,000 square feet at the ballpark to worry about."

At Camden Yards, Zwaska has a grounds crew of a dozen or more employees to help. At home, he has Trish, his wife of 10 years.

"She bails me out," he said with a chuckle.

"I cut the grass when he can't," acknowledged Mrs. Zwaska, 36, who already has pushed the red Toro mower around the 80-by-120-foot lot a few times this season. "I feel bad for him. When he's worked 13 straight days, the last thing he feels like doing is coming home and cutting the grass."

Of course, neighbors snicker over the irony of the situation, she said.

"It is the joke of the neighborhood when they see me cut the grass," said Mrs. Zwaska, a technician for an ophthalmologist. "It's like the cobbler's kids don't have shoes. The groundskeeper never has time to work on his own yard."

From March to November, Mr. Zwaska, a year-round employee, is consumed with grooming and primping the high-visibility ballpark. Still, his own lawn beckons and, when he can, he steals home at lunchtime to trim the turf, he said.

Tan and fit from spending numerous hours outdoors, the affable but quiet Zwaska cuts the grass high -- 3 inches. Depending on whim, "Some days I mulch, some days I bag," he said of the clippings.

Bob Welsh, who lives near the Zwaskas, covets the lush lawn of his neighbor in West Timonium Heights, a close-knit community of 80 homes near Timonium Road.

"He's dedicated to his grass," Welsh said. "He's very meticulous. Crab grass does not grow on his property."

Welsh said there is no competition to keep better lawns among neighbors. In fact, he said, many residents were unaware of Zwaska's involvement with the O's when he came to the neighborhood.

The Zwaskas moved into the cream-colored bilevel house in 1994 with their children Melissa, now 8, and Eric, 5. The family was drawn to the house on a dead-end street that backs on a suburban thicket populated with deer, red fox and groundhogs.

But Mr. Zwaska, who earned a degree in soil science at the University of Wisconsin, couldn't wait to get rid of that awful new grass.

The August baseball strike that year could not have come at a better time. With rare free days, Zwaska exterminated the offensive patch in the front and side of the house with spray designed for that purpose. He reseeded the plot with turf-type tall fescue and some blue grass.

"It's what anybody in the Baltimore area should be planting," Zwaska said. "It takes the heat and drought stress we have around here."

Zwaska also planted a swath of garden with low-maintenance shrubs and ornamental grasses so there wouldn't be as much grass to cut. An old, twisted box elder occupies a corner out front.

Now, he can only wish he had time to tackle the potentially ankle-wrenching back yard, which he describes as "undulating" and a "hodgepodge of crummy grass."

But don't look for a vegetable garden anytime soon. He tried to nurture one at his previous home in Parkville and gave up.

"The problem is, I had less and less time to work on it," said Zwaska, who took over chief groundskeeping duties at the ballpark in 1991.

He also squashed the tomato fervor that blossomed when retired O's groundskeeper Pat Santarone and former manager Earl Weaver waged much-publicized contests at Memorial Stadium over who could grow the biggest fruit.

It is a legacy Zwaska did not continue at Camden Yards, where Orioles management had set aside space for tomatoes. Zwaska was adamant that he didn't want to grow the summer bounty.

"With all due respect, it's a legend that belongs to Pat and Earl," Zwaska contended.

Zwaska, a native of Madison, Wis., knew early on he wanted to care for a major ball field, he said. When he was around 10 and an avid Cubs fan, his father took him to Chicago's Wrigley Field.

While other children scouted for autographs and hot dogs, Zwaska was enthralled with the turf.

"I thought it sure would be great to take care of this," he recalled.

Today, Zwaska -- who also is the team's unofficial weatherman -- knows he made the right career choice.

"It keeps you young," he said. "I may be 37, but I feel more like 25."

Pub Date: 6/10/98

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