Fields of dreams grow blue and white

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- If you get a chance to watch a game of the Little League World Series Aug. 20-30 -- on TV or in person -- you'll quickly notice the high-quality of the fields at both Howard J. Lamade Stadium and Little League Volunteer Stadium, in South Williamsport, Pa.

Like many of the highest-profile sports playing surfaces around the world, they have been entrusted to a Penn State Turfgrass Science or Turfgrass Management graduate. New Little League International groundskeeper Rob Guthrie is a 2007 graduate of the turfgrass management program in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Guthrie's professional journey to South Williamsport, about 130 miles northwest of Philadelphia, is unique, to say the least. After graduating from Penn State, he worked as a spray technician at a Pennsylvania golf resort and conference center, followed by jobs as assistant golf course superintendent at two Pennsylvania country clubs.

Then, in April of this year, Guthrie -- currently a student in the Penn State turfgrass management master's program -- saw the opening for the head groundskeeper position for Little League International. Despite his background in the golf course side of turfgrass management, he applied and was subsequently hired.

"I had worked on two NCAA regulation baseball fields at Penn State," Guthrie said. "I was kicking back and forth whether or not I wanted to go into the sports turf or golf side. I ended up going into golf course management. But coming from that golf side, a lot of things I was doing on those golf courses translate to this job.

"It's been a great step for me," he added. "Coming from a golf course as assistant superintendent and now running my own grounds crew, it's a step in the right direction as far as my career in turfgrass management."

Guthrie is just another example of the top-notch professionals turned out by Penn State turfgrass programs, according to Andrew McNitt, professor of soil science-turfgrass, who is director of Penn State's Sports Surface Research Center and coordinator for the University's Turfgrass Science undergraduate program.

"Our graduates are responsible for the care of some of the best and most important golf courses and sports fields around the world," he said. "The Little League World Series venues are in good hands under Guthrie's guidance."

groundskeeper working

Little League World Series complex groundskeeper Rob Guthrie, shown here lining a batter's box, is very hands-on when it comes to taking care of his fields, which will be featured during games televised Aug. 20-30 on ESPN.

Image: SportsFieldManagement magazine

Grass isn't the only aspect that golf course management and sports field management have in common, but it's perhaps the most obvious. Learning about different types of grass on golf courses helped prepare Guthrie for this job, where he manages several grass fields.

"I learned a lot about how to take care of specific kinds of grass, ranging from grass on a green or on a fairway, or out on the rough where you'd have bluegrass or ryegrass," Guthrie said. "I'm very specific with my disease management and what chemicals I use when. That's a lot of what I learned on the golf course -- what to use in different situations.

"You have to be out on your fields daily to see how different chemicals are reacting. I'd walk the greens every morning on the golf course, seeing what they looked like, what they were doing and if they needed fertilizer. That's what I do here. You have to be on your turf to see what needs to be done."

Two venues host Little League World Series games: Howard J. Lamade Stadium and Little League Volunteer Stadium. Lamade has hosted games since 1959, while Volunteer opened in 2001 when the event’s field expanded to 16 teams.

"They're different fields, but Lamade is older and gets more recognition -- that's the one everybody knows," Guthrie said. "Volunteer is newer and the turf is denser, thicker and healthier. That being said, we treat both fields exactly the same, unless something is drastically needed on one or the other. The chemical/fertilizer programs are the same."

In addition to the championship fields at both stadiums, Guthrie is responsible for the property's three practice fields and three public parks and recreation fields across the street from the Little League complex.

"I have an overall management plan for each field that I implement," Guthrie said. "On each field, we do infield repair and grooming, patching of the pitcher's mound and home plate, mowing, etc. We have high expectations for our championship fields, and we maintain them at a high level all year-round."

Guthrie's staff includes himself and two interns. One, Andrew Woodlin, is a Penn State Turfgrass Science major. Also, a group of 30 to 40 volunteers arrive the week before the World Series starts to prepare the fields and maintain them during the event. The volunteers are organized by Jeffrey Fowler, a district director for Penn State Extension and a turfgrass educator in Venango County.

Little League World Series games are broadcast in high definition on ESPN, allowing much scrutiny of Guthrie's fields at Lamade and Volunteer stadiums. "There's some added pressure, with the games being shown nationally," Guthrie said. "This is my first Little League World Series, but I’m excited to showcase our fields on national TV."

Preparing a baseball field for championship play includes repairing the pitcher's mound and checking for the proper slope, "nail dragging," checking the home plate area, adding conditioner where needed in the infield, repeating any final edging around the infield skin and outfield warning track, checking the bullpen areas and pulling weeds.

Before the tournament starts, grounds crews increase mowing frequency and put in mowing patterns. "We'll also sod any areas that need it, and we'll make repairs. Any spot that's not up to par, we’ll go into our turf nursery and get what we need to make repairs," Guthrie said. "We'll utilize all of our volunteer help to detail these fields to make them picture-perfect."

But all of that prep work can literally be washed away by the weather, so Guthrie will monitor weather patterns extensively during the Little League World Series and keep a vigilant eye on any storm systems that could move in.

"You have to have a good handle on the weather to understand what's going on," he said. "A lot of our management practices are dependent on the weather. I ingrain that into my interns' heads, to look at the radar and make decisions based on that."

Regardless of the weather, Guthrie is confident the fields will look their best when it comes time to play ball, Little League-style.

"I have high expectations," he said. "I'm excited for the opportunity."

(Adapted from a story by Rob Meyer in SportsFieldManagement magazine.)

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Last Updated August 24, 2015