Since you know all, I’m sure you know what happened to the “Curly W” in the outfield of Nationals Park? Do we need more talented lawn mowers?
— Karin, Arlington
The W is G. As in “gone.” It’s not a matter of lack of talent that spelled its demise, but rather a shortage of that most precious resource of all: time. If you’re a groundskeeper with limited time to get the field ready for play, you might not want to spend it creating massive cursive letters.
Such was the decision made two seasons ago, just as new head groundskeeper John Turnour was coming aboard with the team. “Our philosophy is not to tie up too much time with the mowing pattern,” John told Answer Man. Instead, John directs his crew to focus on the places where most of the game is played: the dirt areas, such as the mound, the base paths and the warning track, as well as the bullpens.
There’s another reason, which we’ll get to in a bit, but first let’s look at how a pattern is created. Many people think groundskeepers make a design by adjusting the height of the mower. In fact, the mower is left at the same height. What you see is a variation in color caused by which way the blades of grass are bent when the mower and its rollers pass over them. The grass looks lighter where the mower was going away from the viewer, darker where it was moving toward the viewer.
The outfield at Nationals Park rotates among three designs, John said: checkerboard, diamonds (the current design) and what’s called “Up the Middle,” which are straight lines from the infield to the outfield calculated off a center line of home plate.
There is skill in creating a pattern. Of the eight full-timers on the grounds crew, only three — including John — are entrusted with mowing. The lines must be precise. When the team is at home, the grass — Kentucky blue grass — is mowed every day in at least one direction.
Answer Man misses the Curly W, but here’s the other reason the fetching letter bit the dust: Patterns can affect how a ground ball acts. “The more you mow these patterns, a grain develops,” John said. “When that ball is rolling across that grass, it will ‘snake.’ ... Any time you put a pattern in a field — whether it’s checkerboard, Up the Middle, anything — your ball’s going to react differently as it rolls.”
It’s this sort of unpredictability that big league manager Buck Showalter was referring to when he told USA Today that he thought some ballparks were going overboard with complicated grass designs. “Players are taking an uncomfortable charge toward the ball,” he told the paper in 2001. “It’s like they have to read the outfield grass like they do a golf green.”
Boston’s Fenway Park is known for the elaborate patterns created by head groundskeeper David Mellor, who in his time with the Red Sox, and before that the Brewers, has created plaid designs, curved designs, as well as bats, balls and socks. In 2007, center fielder Coco Crisp, then of the Red Sox, told the Boston Globe that he preferred simpler designs, such as the one Fenway was then sporting. “The cut’s straight up the center,” he told the Globe. “It might not be as beautiful, but it’s more productive for a defensive player not to have all the beauty out there.”
The Nationals’ John Turnour learned his skill at North Carolina State, where a summer spent working at a golf course persuaded him to switch majors from landscape architecture to turf management.
What pattern, Answer Man wondered, does he like to have in his yard at home? None. John lives in an apartment.
“Thankfully this is my only yard I have to take care of,” he said.
No complicated designs in the rolling greenswards of Camp Moss Hollow. Nature provides enough beauty there: trees, clouds, a pond, a dancing campfire.
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