By Jim McElhatton (Photo/Jackson McElhatton)
City groundskeeper William Douglas sits alone on a bench by the right-field foul line when the Alexandria Aces play home games during the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League season.
But before players and coaches arrive at Frank Mann Field, Douglas and his colleagues, Charles Brown and Willie Ruffin, are a whirlwind of activity. The trio can be found as early as 7 a.m. cutting, edging and trimming what’s considered the best natural turf field in the 12-team league.
“Bermuda’s a hot-weather grass,” Douglas explained between innings during a recent game, as the Aces neared the end of their season. “Other grasses wilt, but this one flourishes.”
Douglas has a keen baseball eye. He notices, for instance, when a visiting team’s shortstop double-pumps before throwing to first base. He’s watched just about every player and team since the franchise started six years ago.
And of all those talented teams, “these guys are the scrappiest,” he said.
But he’s not just taking in the ballgame. He’s studying the field. The groundskeeper’s work is easily taken for granted, but the sight of a well-kept baseball diamond can have a transforming effect.
As fans came into the park for a recent game during a two-week stretch of 90-degree days, their eyes immediately fixed upon the field. Faces relaxed. Moods lightened. Work worries were left in the parking lot.
When games end — win or lose — the gates open near the home dugout and a waiting line of antsy kids bolts straight past the players onto the field, tearing around the bases laughing and smiling.
All of that, which does not even take into account what happens on the field during the game, is because of what Douglas, Parker and Ruffin do each day — often in scorching heat. They’re far more than groundskeepers in that respect.
“These guys are artists out here,” said Aces co-founder Pat Malone. “Some guys might just go out and mow a field and that’s it, but these guys put in a lot of hard work and effort to make it what it is here.”
By all accounts, the field needed lots of work back when the franchise launched, but the city poured money into getting the ballpark into shape. There was a manhole cover in the middle of center field. A busted sprinkler head in right field left a hole so big that players had to keep an eye out while chasing down fly balls to avoid falling in and turning an ankle.
But these days the baseball diamond is in tip-top condition, thanks to Douglas, Brown and Ruffin.
“They take immaculate care of the field,” said Aces head coach Dave DeSilva. “They’re out here early laying down dirt, grinding, cutting the grass and lining the field. We’re playing here, and if we’re not, somebody else is. So somebody’s using it everyday, and it’s amazing it’s in the shape it’s in.”
Brown said he and the crew take great pride in the field’s reputation. It shows; Malone said it has been voted the best natural turf field in the league.
“We put a lot of work into it, so it’s nice to hear that,” Brown said on a recent morning.
The field was named after the late Alexandria Mayor Frank Mann, who brought the Alexandria Dukes minor league team to the city a generation ago. But people who played at the ballpark decades ago barely recognize it now.
“People walk by and they say, ‘Hey, the field looks nice,’” Douglas said. “But a lot of the older guys say, ‘Hey, I played on this field way back when, and it doesn’t look like anything that I ever played on.’”
As the groundskeepers worked to improve the field — finding just the right mix of clay and dirt for the infield, building the pitcher’s mound and designing the infield — they sought out advice on best practices from their counterparts at Nationals Stadium in Washington. And to learn about grass and landscaping, they took a few classes at Virginia Tech.
Douglas is a father of four, but come summertime, the field becomes a fifth child requiring constant care and attention.
“You have to keep it at half-an-inch,” Douglas said. “It’s constant watering; it’ll grow a few inches fast in this type of heat.”
When not cutting or lining the field, the groundskeepers scour the field for bare spots, moving grass from one place to another to fill in patches torn up by players.
“We put a lot of sweat into this field, a lot of long days,” Douglas said.
None of the groundskeepers are on the Aces payroll. They work for the city, but Malone said they’re as much a part of the staff as anyone else.
“The respect we get from other teams because of the field means a lot to us,” Malone said. “They’re part of the team.”