Grounds crew tested by Mother Nature
Opening series snowstorm caused tireless work at The Jake
CLEVELAND -- Brandon Koehnke, the head groundskeeper at Jacobs Field, knew his crew could be in for a long day the morning of the Indians' April 6 home opener.
Temperatures were in the low-30s and the forecast called for flurries. Sporadically having to clear snow from the field was a real possibility.
"What I don't think anybody knew, however, was the fact that the wind was going to constantly come off the lake and the snow was going to be nonstop," Koehnke said. "It just kept going and going."
Snow eventually postponed the home opener, the entire four-game weekend series with Seattle, and forced the vagabond Tribe to Milwaukee for their next series. From Friday through Monday, the perfect storm of relentless cold, precipitation and northwestern winds blowing off Lake Erie dropped 33 inches of snow onto the Jake. Yes, nearly three feet of snow. In April.
"Never before have I seen anything like this," said Koehnke. "You've got to keep your sense of humor."
So how exactly did they clear away this barrage of snow without damaging the field? How about a largely sleepless week, some ingenuity and a little bit of luck. Here's a behind-the-scenes look, from a groundskeeper's perspective, at the weeklong journey from the April 6 snow job to the first pitch of Friday's official home opener against the White Sox.
The tale begins with the crew's decidedly public performance during the original home opener and those indelible images of workers feverishly blowing snow from the outfield. But in many ways, Koehnke said it was the weekend's least eventful day. That's how bad things would get.
Following the game's postponement, snow continued to pummel downtown overnight and into the next morning, forcing Saturday's doubleheader to be called off, as well. When the snow subsided late Saturday morning, the crew was faced with its first big test; clearing four or five inches of snow off the field to prepare the field for Sunday's rescheduled doubleheader.
Koehnke had never faced such a scenario, but he quickly decided the best way to go about this would be using two kinds of plows, attached to varying machines about the size of a four-wheeler. One plow with a large blade would take off all but the top inch of snow while a pair of smaller-bladed plows would lag behind to scrape away the remnants.
This worked well enough. By early Saturday evening, the field had been cleared. The crew left in good spirits. The field still looked immaculate and Sunday's game was about to restore a sense of normalcy.
And then, well, "the bottom fell out," Koehnke said with a laugh. Only, "it wasn't funny," he quickly added.
From Saturday night through early Monday, more than a foot of snow fell on Jacobs Field. Drifts brought the total to an astounding 18 inches in places. While Seattle's players spent Sunday playing football and making snow angels in the white stuff, Koehnke and the grounds crew could only sit back and watch.
"What can you do when it doesn't stop snowing?" Koehnke asked.
He could worry. That's one thing.
"Oh yeah, you're worried about both the long-term and short-term damage to the field," he said. "You've got grass growing below the snow and temperatures in the 30s. I was cutting the grass every other day last week and now you're covering it up with a heavy, wet, moist blanket. You're potentially worried about the disease, lots of things."
And he could cycle through a number of ways the field, in retrospect, could have been better protected.
For instance, would covering the entire field with several tarps like some football stadiums do have made a difference? Perhaps, but the snow still had to be cleared. And this could only be done by hand, which would be nearly impossible.
Or how about an underground heating system? Would that have helped? Probably not, he reasoned, considering early April temperatures that reached the 70s raised the ground temperature to an unseasonably warm 55 degrees.
Then again, maybe it was best not to stress over the whims of Mother Nature.
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"You have to keep this job in perspective. You do what you can do and then at a certain point in time, if you can't do anything about it, that's it. You try and control what you can -- and what you can't, you just roll with it. There's too many other important things to think about."
On Monday, the snow showers having quieted, it was back to work. The crew arrived at the park at 6 a.m. with every intention of readying the stadium for a 4 p.m. game. Seven independent contractors and 40 or 50 extra hands were brought in for this job, one that made Saturday's snow removal seem like cake.
The crew used the same plowing strategy. How to get rid of all this snow was another question. At some points, snow piles on the warning track cleared the outfield fences. Of course, unlike football, the snow couldn't just sit on the sidelines. So workers were needed to shovel the white stuff onto several carts, which then hauled the snow to a nearby dump truck headed off site.
This frenzied work continued until a little after 11 a.m., when the game was officially called, partially because of Koehnke's input to the front office. The crew was confident it could have the field cleared by first pitch, and little rain was in the day's forecast, but pushing forward simply wasn't worth it. The hurried plowing put the field at greater risk, the stands were still a slushy mess, and the day's high temperature was in the low 30s.
In meetings that morning with team officials, Koehnke was also among those endorsing the idea of moving the next series to Milwaukee.
"A lot of things got factored into saying, 'Look, it would be best to give this place a couple of days to catch its breath.' And everybody just kept coming to the same conclusion."
So the Tribe was off to the Cheese State. Koehnke and his staff had three days to ready the field for the new home opener.
By all accounts, the field held up remarkably well. The only real problems were a few massive divots created by the plow blades and a torn up warning track. All things considered, the field had emerged splendidly.
"Sometimes you just get a little lucky," Koehnke said. "Our system turned out working really well."
He could finally sleep.
"Literally, it feels like I've gotten about 15 minutes of it in the last week," Koehnke said.
All that was left to do was re-grate the crushed lava rock on the warning track, top dress the outfield divots, replace a few sliced pads on the outfield wall and buy a new infield tarp.
"It looked like swiss cheese," Koehnke said.
It was time to play ball. And on Friday, Koehnke and 14 members of his crew were fittingly recognized in a pregame ceremony. All of them received a personalized No. 10 Tribe jersey. The number predictably stood for 10th man.
"There's not enough ink in your pen to write down the words to describe the guys that worked down here," Koehnke said. "There's just no way to put it into words."
David Briggs is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.