Washington Nationals’ John Turnour keeps the field perfectly manicured

The grass at Nationals Park has brought John Turnour to his knees.

Eight hours before the first pitch on a brilliant morning last week, halfway through the Washington Nationals’ first homestand, he’s just mowed his first pass along the checked pattern in the outfield.

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How patterns in baseball fields are made.
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Now he’s on all fours, nose to the turf, squinting at individual blades of Kentucky bluegrass, looking for flaws.

When you cut the most prominent lawn in Washington (now that football is over and the White House Easter Egg Roll is behind us), you don’t just mow and go. You get down on the ground and seek perfection.

“This is what you want,” says Turnour, 32, the sun casting his hunched shadow across center field as he squints at a green shard cleanly beveled at the tip.

“But not this.” He holds up a second, slightly more jagged tip, the sign of a steel blade beginning to lose its ideal razor’s edge. Too many cuts like that, Turnour knows, and the high-definition green luster of the field will dim by some tiny degree on widescreens all over town.

“We will change those blades this weekend,” he declares, wiping his hands on his khaki shorts as he climbs back on the John Deere, inserting ear buds so that he and Kelly Clarkson can get back to mowing. Behind him, a crew walks by with the detached head of Teddy Roosevelt, one of the park’s Racing Presidents.

There may be no more carefully coiffed patch of grass in the city than the 2.2 acres of lawn within these outfield walls. In a country that spends $40 billion a year on lawn care, this is sodding extreme. It’s a bonsai pasture, 100,000 square feet of landscaping Zen.

And Turnour is the deeply tanned Zen master. The stadium’s head groundskeeper for the past two years, Turnour thinks constantly of the thousands of eyes on his grass each night, not to mention a few highly paid feet.

He considers the field a 10th player, obliged to perform at big league levels every night. The words he fears most are “bad bounce.” When a groundball is muffed during a game, he runs to the umpires’ reviewing room to watch a replay. If a divot or dirt clod played a role, he’s been known to go apologize to the player the next day.

“You cringe a little bit,” Turnour says.

And so he mows the grass himself, pretty much every day during a homestand.

Or maybe mowing isn’t the word so much as grooming. He shaves a few 32nds of an inch from already short blades, sharpens up the lines of an already distinct basket-weave pattern.

“Being out here every day like this gives me a chance to go over the whole field, look for bumps or worn patches,” he says.

Worn patches happen where cleats linger. Where the umpires stand behind first and third base, for example, and where the pitcher’s foot lands in front of the mound.

Turnour points to a barely perceptible flattened area surrounded by sunflower seed shells where the left fielders tend to camp out. They vacuum up the shells each day, but by mid-May or so Turnour and his crew will dig up the bare patch and replace it with grass now growing in one of the two bullpens, which serve as turf nurseries for the main field. The bullpen grass will be replaced with sod from a New Jersey farm.

If baseball is a game measured in inches, its grass is measured in fractions. Turnour keeps the grass at exactly 11 / 16 inches during the spring. He would never mow more than a half-inch inch at time. The slight grade in the infield dirt was calibrated at 0.33 percent by a laser.

Compared with these meticulous standards, the golf course fairways where Turnour and his two assistants got their starts are mere shaggy meadows.

“We’re pretty methodical here,” he says. Turnour admits that, at his Arlington apartment, where he has no lawn, his DVDs are in alphabetical order, his forks and spoons and cups lined up just so.

“Yeah, all the labels have to be facing forward in my fridge,” he says.

Turnour, a Massachusetts native who says he’s had no trouble transferring his citizenship from Red Sox Nation to Natstown, has a degree in turf management from North Carolina State University. After a few years at golf clubs, he got into stadium grass nine years ago, first with the Baltimore Orioles and then the San Diego Padres.

“We’re a pretty tight community,” he says of the baseball groundskeepers’ fraternity. “We share techniques, patterns.”

Ah, the outfield pattern. Probably at every home game, some homeowner in the stands could be heard misinforming his son about how they create that unmistakable crosshatch effect, and Turnour has heard them all: They adjust the blade height; they reverse the blade’s spin; they plant two varieties of seed.

No, no and no.

“It’s just these rollers,” says Turnour, pointing out the stainless steel tubes riding along behind the three reel blades of his mower. The rollers bend the just-cut grass in one direction, reflecting light at different pitch than from grass bent in another direction.

In earlier seasons, the Nats’ field featured a huge cursive W in the outfield. But Turnour erased the W because it was too time consuming and he worries that elaborate designs can make the balls bounce in squirrely ways.

Turnour has three or four basic designs that he will change several times during the season. Most of them include cuts along at least three different vectors, which will give his grass a little flash from almost any camera angle.

The one in place now he calls “diamonds,” an angled set of stripes running from the foul lines to the outfield walls. It replaced the “up the middle” pattern that he cut for the pre-season exhibition games against the Red Sox, a simple set of parallel bands.

“That one is pretty easy,” Turnour said. “You just run a string from homeplate to dead center field and use that as a guide for your first cut and then it’s just a matter of following the pattern every day.”

That’s what he does now, steering up and down with a practiced eye. His assistant head groundskeeper, Mike Hrivnak, cuts the infield grass with a push mower. Batting practice is only a few hours away, and the even more demanding work of grooming the infield clay and the pitching mound still awaits.

With the team leaving Monday for a week-long road trip to San Diego and Los Angeles, Turnour’s yard work is about to get serious. While the Nats play on somebody else’s grass, Turnour will fertilize his, fill in some minute low spots he’s been fretting over, brush out the diamond pattern and begin mowing in the “modified checkerboard” he has planned for the next homestand.

“We’ll have it all done within the first two or three days,” he says. “When they get back, it’ll be perfect.”

 
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