There is No Offseason for… Gary Vanden Berg

In our first post, John and I attempted to dispel the myth of baseball’s offseason for members of the Brewers Front Office. I got to thinking that I ought to expand on that and had the idea for a new series, the goal of which is to explain more about what’s going on right now at One Brewers Way.

I decided to start off with Gary Vanden Berg, Director of Grounds. Gary’s been working for the Brewers since 1981 and 2010 will mark his 30th season with the Club. That means he’s worked the field at both County Stadium and Miller Park and has seen the fields though various events/milestones such as the 1982 World Series, the great flood at County Stadium, a tractor pull, the 2002 All-Star Game, the 2008 NLDS, two strikes, various rock concerts, bowling tournaments and much, much more. Gary’s son, John Vanden Berg, was even drafted by and played for the Brewers for four years and got as high as Double-A Huntsville.

Marketing doesn’t have the opportunity to work with Grounds Crew very often, so first, I had to look up Gary’s extension.

“Hi Gary, it’s Caitlin Moyer from Marketing, how are you?”

“I’m good,” Gary answered, and before I could start in with the reason for my call, he continued.

“I’m coming to the party.  I know, I need to bring in my RSVP card.”

I’m on the Employee Events Committee. We’re in the midst of planning our holiday party, but…that wasn’t why I was calling.

“That’s great.  You’re not late. But hey, listen, that actually wasn’t why I was calling… I don’t know if you heard, but John Steinmiller and I have this new MLBlog? We’re writing about stuff that goes on in the Front Office.  Our first post was yesterday and we wrote about how you know how people always ask us what we do in the offseason and then we say ‘There is no offseason’?”

I paused as Gary chuckled knowingly.

“Well, so anyway, I thought it would be a neat idea to do a weekly series called ‘There is No Offseason for… {Insert Front Office Name Here}’ where I follow a different member of the Front Office and write about what they’re doing right now. I thought I’d start with you, so, like, ‘There is No Offseason for… Gary Vanden Berg’. What do you think? Could I interview you for the blog?”

“Sure! That sounds like a fun idea,” Gary said.

“Cool.  Thanks a bunch!  So, uh, Gary…what do you do in the offseason? I mean, I’m not really sure what Grounds is up to right now and all. Is there anything interesting that I could come observe and write about?”

“Well, we’re actually going to be covering and sandbagging the field on Tuesday, why don’t you meet me down there at 9am?”

“Sounds great! Thanks a bunch!”

So that’s how I ended up down on the field this morning, where I got my crash course in turf management.

The Grounds Crew staff was already hard at work when I met up with Gary for our “interview” and he filled me in on everything they’d been working on this offseason.

Thumbnail image for Gary.JPG
Gary Vanden Berg, Director-Grounds

“We spent a lot of time outside this fall. We are responsible for the entire grounds. There are 265 acres here.  A lot of our job is landscaping. Mike Boettcher is our Landscape Manager. We try to make it as close to a Disney-atmosphere as you can out there, but our staff is pretty small so we try to keep adding a few new things all the time.”

The Grounds Crew staff consists of just three full-time employees-Gary, Mike and Miranda Bintley, Grounds Manager– and several part-time and seasonal staff members. This fall, the Grounds Crew moved 15 trees and over 150 rose bushes in order to prepare for projects that will be done in the spring. They were also involved in removing the ivy from the batter’s eye.

The bulk of their time as of late, however, has been spent getting the field to be ready to be what Gary calls ‘put to bed’. 

“We’ve rebuilt the pitcher’s mound as well as both of the mounds in the bullpens. We’ve also made sure the field measurements were accurate. We did all of our resodding this fall as well, putting replacement grass in the area between the mound and home plate and some of the player spots in the outfield. Then, we top-dress the grass–that’s adding sand to the surface of the grass. It helps to smooth and level out the grass a little more and protects the crowns from the winter.”

“Next, every year, we try to make the infield dirt better. This is the same infield dirt that came from County Stadium. It’s been modified every year. It’s a unique blend. You couldn’t buy anything like this. It has an awful lot of calcined clay mixed in which helps to give the field body and when it’s really wet, it helps to make it play well.”

“About five weeks ago, we rolled and tilled it all up, added more clay to give it more body and then we had to laser-level it so she is completely flat again. There is a lot of work involved, trying to get all the edges done and get everything back to the way it is supposed to be.”

Thumbnail image for DSC04201.JPGToday signified the end of those preparations. It was time to tuck the field in and put it to bed. The Grounds Crew spent the morning covering the field with special turf covers (which help keep the grass from turning yellow, keeps the grass a little warmer and, in times of sunlight, can act a little bit like a greenhouse) and placing sandbags down to keep the covers from coming loose. They also placed 2″ insulation over the infield dirt to help make it more playable come spring; the insulation prevents the frost from going as deep.

Once the Crew tucks the field in for the winter, it won’t take them the covers off again until spring.

Thumbnail image for Grounds 2.JPGUntil then, Gary and staff will check the covers each day and keep a close eye on the weather.

Every winter, says Gary, is different. Last year, Gary was able to close the roof during the months of January and February because the grass was completely dormant. If the grass is completely dormant, then it doesn’t matter if it gets any light and keeping the roof closed and the snow out is actually a benefit to the grass.

If it isn’t completely frozen, even if the grass isn’t growing, the grass still needs to have light and thus, Gary has to keep the roof open until that happens.

The amount of snow that falls also plays a role in the care of the field–and also factors into how busy the Grounds Crew gets during the offseason because the Grounds Crew is also responsible for all snow removal around the grounds, including the concourses and parking lots for employees and year-round venues like Friday’s Front Row and the Brewers Team Store by Majestic.  

When they’re not braving the elements, the Grounds Crew has some administrative tasks to take care of, from hiring their next crop of interns to ordering and storing all of the products to be used during the 2010 season.

Gary is also looking forward to attending the Sports Turf Management Association Conference in January, where he’ll have the opportunity to get together with other Major League Baseball groundskeepers for three days and discuss things that are happening around the League. 

Before he knows it, it’s time for the season to start again.

“We have exhibition games this year, so it is always a little more difficult. The grass in Wisconsin doesn’t like to be played on too early. It’s just too cold. It’s hard to get the ground temperatures up to where the grass will start to grow again. Part of what these covers do is help me prepare for the spring,” Gary said.

Gary says that each year, he also meets with the Manager because every Manager wants to run the field a different way. Gary takes his cue on how to prepare the field based on what the Manager wants to do. 

“Some Managers want the grass a little longer and some a little shorter. Some want the area in front of home plate a little harder or a little softer. Those are all things that we have the ability to change and still stay within the rules. ”

As for current Brewers Manager Ken Macha?

“Ken is the one of the easiest I’ve had to work with. I don’t remember him saying much to me about the field last year at all. For him, he wants the players to be comfortable when they’re out here playing and as long as they’re happy, I think he’s okay with it,” Gary said.

After we finished up our interview, I stuck around to take some photographs and even tried my hand at helping the Grounds Crew by placing a few sandbags.

Thumbnail image for Caitlin.JPGI figured out rather quickly that I’m more cut out for Marketing–those bags are heavy!  I returned to my desk and my “real job,” feeling very glad that I don’t have to do heavy-lifting or be exposed to the elements on a daily basis, especially on a chilly November morning like today. I will definitely leave all of that to the pros!

At lunchtime, I went back out to check on their progress and the quick-working Grounds Crew was already finished.  

Thumbnail image for Put to Bed.JPGThe field has officially been put to bed for 2009. 

“This has been one of the busier offseasons we’ve had,” Gary said to me during our time together. I would have to agree. Not just for Grounds Crew, but for Marketing and the entire organization. And it’s only November.

Stay tuned for the next installment of “There is No Offseason for…” and have a Happy Thanksgiving!


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