Slugger Field Keeps the Grass Growing with Help From Award Winning Groundskeeper Tom Nielsen


Slugger FieldTo help promote our customers and show our appreciation to them, we occasionally put the spotlight on one of our customers and feature them on our blog, promote them on social media, and highlight them in our newsletter.  The spotlight customer for this month is Slugger Field in Kentucky, home of the Louisville Bats baseball team and Louisville City soccer team.

The stadium, which opened in 2000, has a seating capacity of 13,000 with a natural grass playing surface.  However, for soccer games, artificial turf is used to cover up the clay on the baseball field, meaning soccer games are played on a field consisting of both natural and artificial turf.  That’s just one of the many unique challenges facing head groundskeeper Tom Nielsen, who has held that position ever since the stadium opened.

Tom has proved himself more than capable of meeting those challenges, as demonstrated by the numerous awards and honors he has achieved during his career.  He’s won two of the three Founder’s Awards from the Sports Turf Managers association that he is eligible to win—the Dick Erickson Award in 2016 (given to those who, among other things, use “creative and innovative ideas to enhance the field management program” at their facility), and the George Toma Golden Rake Award in 2011 (which “acknowledges the superior performance of a sports turf member in on-the-job activities and in community service”).

Tom has also won awards for Professional Baseball Field of the Year in 2002, International League Field of the Year in 2003 and 2009, Sports Turf Manager of the Year in 2003 and 2009, Professional Baseball Field of the Year in 2004, and was named as one of the Green Industry’s Most Influential People in 2012.  Just to mix it up a bit, he even won the Andrew Carnegie Hero award and the Kentucky Colonel award for pulling a woman out of a burning car.

Tom was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to speak to Kenney Machinery about what it’s like to be head groundskeeper for a minor-league baseball stadium.  Here’s what he had to say in response to our questions:

What type of grass do you use for the baseball field?

We use Bermuda grass for Slugger Field and over-seed it with Bluegrass.  We’re actually going to keep the Bluegrass in there all year, hopefully.  We’re in such a hard place to grow Bermuda grass—it’s something of a transition zone, where there really isn’t a perfect grass that’s easy to grow.  It’s either too hot or too cold for either one of the grasses to do really well. 

Ryegrass or cool season grass does great in the spring and in the fall, but it doesn’t do very well during our hot and humid summers, because downtown Louisville is especially warm—even more so than outside the city.  We’re going to try to keep the cool season grass in as long as we possibly can, and then when it really starts to struggle, hopefully the Bermuda grass will take over.

What kind of challenges do you face as far as the schedule for games, given that you have both a baseball team and a soccer team using the field?

We not only have the two teams playing on the field, this year we also have the ACC tournament to worry about, so there’s always something going on.  So, we’re hiring more people, and we’re going to run a split crew.  That is, we’ll have a day crew that will work from 7:30 to around 3:30 depending on weather conditions, and a game-day crew that will take over at night.  However, it will still be a challenge. It takes two days to get the field set for soccer, and at least 3-5 hours to get it turned back into a baseball field, which is especially challenging when you have a 24-hr turn-around with a soccer game one night and a baseball game the next night.

What’s involved in the transition process to convert the field from baseball to soccer, and visa-versa?

Because we have a smaller field, the soccer field needs to go over the mound.  So we actually have a retractable mound, which sits on electric screw jacks.  It goes down into the ground, and then we put a plug in the hole and put AstroTurf over the top. Then of course we have to paint the field.   It’s an easier process than removing the mound by taking the clay out and rebuilding it each time, but it’s still a time-consuming process. 

How unusual is it to have a field that uses both natural and artificial turf?

There’s more and more stadiums that are doing it, although there aren’t too many that have a retractable mound.  Usually, the fields are big enough that they don’t need to use the area of the field with the mound when using it as a soccer or football field. 

Our field, on the other hand, is very tight.  In fact it’s a little short.  The players don’t like the distance, and they don’t like the AstroTurf.  It’s slippery when wet, and the transition from artificial grass to natural grass isn’t always perfect because the clay changes shape throughout the year. 

In your 18 years as head groundskeeper, what accomplishments are you most proud of?

I think the thing I’m most proud of is all the guys I’ve put out into the business. It’s like a proud parent: having kids and then teaching them and then pushing them out of the nest and them being very successful in this field.  I’ve got guys all over the country, working for teams like the Chicago Cubs, Toledo Mud Hens, the Richmond Flying Squirrels, Eastern Kentucky University, and many others.

Not all of them have stuck with turf. Some have gone into other things like even coaching or teaching, but they’ve always kept in contact to say how much I made a difference in their lives. That means more to me than anything. I think that’s why I do what I do because I feel that this is the one way I can make my mark.

What do you wish fans who visited the stadium knew about the work you put in behind the scenes to maintain the field?

I wish they knew how many hours we have to put in.  Even in the winter, we might not be outside, but we’re still doing things like getting equipment ready, working on our budgets, planning the calendars, etc.  We stay really busy all year long, and people just don’t realize it. 

Even the ball players will ask things like, “Are you going to take off this whole week when we go on the road?”  It’s like, “No, I’m not. I’ll be here every day.”  I think that if people were aware of how many hours we actually worked to keep the field looking good, they’d be amazed.

What advice would you give to someone just getting into the sports turf management business?

Well, other than telling them to come work for me…I’d just tell them to volunteer for things and participate in industry groups like the STMA, and do a lot of networking.  We’re all connected, but if you’re not doing anything to get your name out there, you’re going to be passed over. 

I’d also try to get them to understand how critical good communication skills are in this business.  You have to be able to communicate well with the coaching staff, the front office, and most importantly the guys on your crew.  If you come across as difficult to work with or hard to get along with, it will be really hard to motivate someone to work the kind of hours we need to work in this business.  You really need to be able to pick your battles, and you have to learn how to motivate people.

How has Kenney Machinery supported you and the staff at Slugger Field?

All the guys from Kenney have always gone out of their way to make me feel like I’m not just a guy that mows grass. They’ve always treated me like I was something pretty special. It’s always nice because, again, it’s more like family—like when they have you over for a Christmas party and you want to hang out there with them because they are treating you well and they’re truly interested and happy that you’re there, that’s special. You can go to a lot of different places and you get the same type of equipment and service, but not every company will make you feel like you’re a part of the family, and I really felt like they’ve done a great job with that.

Many thanks to Tom for sharing his experiences as head groundskeeper with us!  We wish him and his crew at Slugger Field all the best in this upcoming season.