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For the Nationals, New Home Turf

The new Nationals stadium is beginning to look more like a ballpark with the addition of fresh sod, which was grown on a farm in New Jersey.
The new Nationals stadium is beginning to look more like a ballpark with the addition of fresh sod, which was grown on a farm in New Jersey. (Photos By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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By Daniel LeDuc
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 10, 2007

Think back to childhood and the first time you were in a ballpark, walking out from under the bleachers and seeing that wide spread of fresh, emerald grass.

It was like that yesterday at the Washington Nationals stadium under construction in Southeast. Strips of sod were being placed, and, amid the bulldozers and cranes and hard-hatted construction workers, the makings of a real, honest-to-goodness ballfield unfolded. Despite the chilly rain, it felt like spring.

Off and on over the past week and a half, crews have been spreading grass in long strips, unrolling them like swaths of carpet. They have been getting ready for the official unveiling of the playing field next week by the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, the stadium's landlord.

About 900 construction workers have been working 10-hour shifts, six days a week, to complete the stadium for the team's home opener in the spring. Electrical wires wind through the concourse, the whining of power tools echoes off concrete, mortar is spread on bricks.

In the midst of the organized chaos, senior project superintendent Ronnie Strompf waves his hand at the new sod: "This is the whole purpose for the stadium. Everything is built around it."

The days of artificial grass in the nation's ballparks have gone the way of Rollie Fingers's handlebar mustache -- back to the annals of the 1970s. We now know: Real grass is better, and finding the right kind matters.

With its move from RFK Stadium, the team is shifting from Bermuda grass to Kentucky bluegrass. Bermuda is far better suited to soccer (for D.C. United) and is cut to about five-eighths of an inch. Bluegrass is trimmed to about an inch and one-eighth and slows the ball.

Also, said Nationals head groundskeeper Larry DiVito, "it stripes up well. It looks better under the lights."

The sod for the new stadium was planted 13 months ago on a farm in New Jersey, where the climate is similar to Washington's. The sod company, Tuckahoe Turf Farm, has also furnished Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., Fenway Park in Boston and Citizens Bank Park, the Philadelphia Phillies' new home.

The Nationals' ballpark sod was sliced in strips of 4 feet by 62 1/2 feet, and the rolls were trucked in to be spread as weather permitted. Yesterday, crew members were wagering on how many rolls will be left when they finish laying 100,000 square feet of grass. Strompf was betting on 13. He'll win a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon if he's right.

The infield was laid last week. Since then, the rest of the field has been watered and leveled by laser-guided graders. Crews from Carolina Green Corp., the North Carolina company in charge of building the field, worked on left field yesterday morning. From the back of a tractor, the sod unrolled like Christmas paper, and workers trimmed it by hand with machete-like knives.

"This is just the beginning of the field," said Chad Price, Carolina Green president. "It's a baby right now."

As traditional as the old-fashioned natural turf is, a lot of modern engineering sits under it. The sod is taking root in 10 inches of soil that is 92 percent sand. Under that is a layer of pea gravel to drain rainwater into a maze of pipes under the field. Gravity carries the water into a 30-inch diameter pipe that runs under left field to a filtration system, draining the field quickly.

"If we have a thunderstorm until 6:15, we should be able to play by 7 o'clock," DiVito said.

That system is separate from one that keeps deeper, contaminated groundwater -- vestiges of the ballfield's earlier life as an industrial site -- drained to a separate filtration area. The layers are separated by a heavy vinyl liner.

A turf protector will cover the field for the winter, making the grass feel as much as 8 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature. More than 150 built-in sprinkler heads will keep the field irrigated.

By Tuesday, the ballfield should look like a ballfield. Work continues on the pitcher's mound. DiVito wants to put bases down for the festivities and will begin fertilizing it next week.

The infield has already been mowed.


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