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Cards and City SC keep the fields green during summer heat

Aug 22, 2023

Keeping St. Louis' outdoor professional sports playing fields in tiptop shape is a big job when the weather is nice, and a more challenging task during sweltering St. Louis summers.

This year, the Cardinals changed their strategy at Busch Stadium. They ripped out the bluegrass growing at the stadium since 2006 and replaced it with Bermuda grass.

"Just because we were tired of dealing with disease management, the heat stress," said Head Groundskeeper Bill Findlay.

The tougher grass is paying off. Findlay says the field has already bounced back after three concerts this season. The bluegrass would be struggling to recover, especially at this time of year when it's fighting just to survive.

Findlay oversees a crew of roughly 40 seasonal, part-time and full-time workers. They are constantly mowing, watering, fertilizing and handling all the other tasks necessary to maintain an outdoor professional athletic field.

The amount of fertilizer and water depends on several factors, including the weather that started with rain this season and then transformed into a recent string of triple-digit temperatures.

The crew is also responsible for cutting the Gateway Arch into the outfield. Many fans wonder why the image isn’t there for every game.

"That's the most famous question that I get asked," Findlay said. "We got to a point though that we were finding that we were doing it too much and we were starting to get a little bit of a rut in the grass. "

He compares it to people developing tire ruts in their home lawns if they mow the same way all the time. So, the image only returns to the outfield for special events like Opening Day.

The crew at Busch pulls off the Arch and everything else without many bells and whistles.

"We're pretty much down to the basics," said Findlay.

The workers use irrigation and drainage systems and other tools like special blankets.

"Lightweight and woven for lack of a better word. Just plastic that allows light to permeate through and also air and moisture that it traps in enough heat," said Findlay.

A more modern approach is used a few blocks away at CityPark.

The new pro soccer stadium has grow lights, a high-tech heating system and moisture monitoring equipment. Like Busch Stadium, CityPark has Bermuda grass, which does well in the heat.

"The overall size of our pitch is 83,000 square feet," said St. Louis City SC Director of Stadium Grounds Josh McPherson, adding they give the field "just what it needs" in fertilizer.

He also monitors how much the grass grows each day and how much mowing is necessary to keep the pitch smooth.

"We may use sand to kind of fill in the low spots. We might do rolling. We might do some aerification to try to put some holes in it to try to help level it out," McPherson said. "Think of it as a giant golf green. We want the ball roll to be consistent every day."

McPherson came to City after being in charge of the athletic fields at the University of Missouri.

He's also helping the next generation of athletic groundskeepers, including Associate Director of Stadium Grounds Maritza Martinez. It's her first year working with a soccer pitch; she previously worked on baseball diamonds.

The science behind everything is one of the reasons Martinez is attracted to groundskeeping. She's constantly testing to make the field better and safer.

"We test for hardness," she said. "We specifically test ball roll and ball bouncing, things that would affect the playability for a player."

Martinez and McPherson use the testing data and top-notch equipment to keep the soccer pitch at a professional level during the sweltering St. Louis summer.

But McPherson holds himself to lofty standards.

"I've maybe been happy with a pitch three days in my life," he said. "It's an obsession. It's an addiction of perfection that's almost impossible to achieve."

He has time to get the pitch to that impossible point. City's next home game is Aug. 20.