Cooler by the Lake

By Lynn Grooms

Miller Park, home to MLB’s Milwaukee Brewers is “cooler by the lake” in more ways than one. Less than 5 miles from Lake Michigan’s western shore, Miller Park is generally (and literally) 5-7° F cooler than Wisconsin’s more inland areas. Figuratively speaking, Miller Park also is “cool” with its stunning convertible roof, impressive architecture and colossal matrix scoreboard.

Then, there is that expanse of rich green grass. The field looks cool even when Milwaukee’s summer temperatures (and humidity) rise, thanks to the work of Michael Boettcher, Eddie Warczak and their grounds crew. In fact, they resurfaced the field in 2013 ahead of the 2014 season.

The almost 100 percent sand field was sodded with a blend of four premium Kentucky bluegrass varieties. “We select varieties based on several traits, including shade tolerance, wear tolerance, color, disease resistance and the ability to withstand lower mowing heights,” says Boettcher, Miller Park’s grounds director.

Boettcher also has instituted an aggressive overseeding program. Areas receiving heavy traffic are overseeded every week during the playing season. The entire field is overseeded three times each year. “We receive seed shipments throughout the season and do the blending ourselves,” Boettcher says, adding that sometimes perennial ryegrass is used in addition to the bluegrass. Rotary spreaders are used to overseed the field while drop spreaders are used along the edges.

The field’s sand base handles just about any rain event, even as much as 1 inch of rain in a half hour. With its modified rootzone and sub-drainage system, the field was built to last. Boettcher credits his predecessor, Gary Vanden Berg, “for doing several things right from the start.” Vanden Berg passed away from cancer in 2011, after managing the grounds at Miller Park and Milwaukee County Stadium before that for more than 20 years.

Last year was only the second time that the field has been completely resurfaced after Miller Park opened in 2001. “Each time, we have improved the grass surface. We pay attention to research and take advantage of new opportunities,” Boettcher says.

Roof pros & cons

Because Miller Park’s right field is generally shaded by the ballpark’s massive roof, the grounds crew uses high pressure sodium grow lights. The lights’ wavelengths are appropriate and beneficial for growing grass when the Brewers play out of town.

When the roof must be closed during rainstorms, high temperatures and high humidity can create just the right conditions for fungal growth so Boettcher has developed a preventative fungicide application program. “We must prepare and protect the field from disease,” he says. Boettcher and Warczak also develop fertilizer and herbicide programs at the beginning of each season, but closely monitor weather patterns and adjust applications with the conditions. “We get lake effect snow and rain. But sometimes, we’re also lucky in that storm systems coming from the west are knocked out by cool breezes coming off the lake,” Warczak says.

Wisconsin winters can be the stuff of legends. The winter of 2013-2014 was particularly harsh, the coldest winter Milwaukee had experienced in 35 years. The National Weather Service reported that Milwaukee had 27 days at or below 0° F. To protect the field from the elements as well as preserve moisture, a breathable woven plastic cover is used from the end of November through the end of February each year. In addition, all of the field’s clay surfaces are covered with 2-inch thick insulated boards to prevent frost damage.

The roof and Milwaukee’s climate definitely present challenges. “But every park has challenges and the roof here serves its purpose,” Boettcher says. Because of the roof, Brewers fans, some who drive several hours to get to Miller Park, know that they will get to see a game even on a cold or rainy day, he explains. “Regardless of the challenges, the roof is important for our organization and baseball in Wisconsin.”

Another benefit of having the roof is that it allows the grounds crew to get work done in inclement weather, says Warczak. Rain or shine, Boettcher and Warczak understand that they are responsible for managing a high quality field for players and fans alike. In addition to managing the MLB field, the groundskeepers are responsible for managing Helfaer Field, which hosts as many as five Little League games a day during the baseball season.

Steve Ems is the grounds supervisor at Miller Park; and Joe Ranthum, landscape manager, is responsible for the venue’s 60 acres of landscaping as well as assisting with field activities. During the peak season, the grounds crew is made up of approximately 40 part-time employees.

“We hire interns and part-time staff as a team. We look for good attitudes and the ability to work hard,” Boettcher says. Interns are generally students who are working on a 2- or 4-year degree in Turfgrass and/or Landscape Management, or individuals who have recently graduated from such a program.

Warczak sheds light on what the crew does on a typical game day. Beginning at 7:00 am, they check the condition of the field covering to make sure it is still providing the appropriate level of moisture; walk the field to repair divots; and patch the pitcher’s mound, home plate, bullpens and other areas. During the game, the field is dragged three times. The crew also does a variety of “housekeeping” types of jobs in the grounds maintenance shop.

Tools: from equipment to education

To keep Miller Park, Helfaer Field and the landscaping in top condition, the groundskeepers have a number of tools available to them. This includes four greens mowers, three riding mowers and several walk-behind mowers, all made by Toro. They also use a Pro Core 648 aerator, a Gehl skid loader, a 5800 Multi-Pro sprayer with a 20-ft. boom, several utility vehicles and three John Deere utility tractors. Toro Sand Pro equipment is used to groom clay surfaces and warning tracks.

Boettcher and Warczak also draw upon their educational and career experiences in managing Miller Park. Boettcher received his BS degree in Horticulture from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2006. His studies focused primarily on sports turf and landscape management. Boettcher served an internship with the Milwaukee Brewers when he was a student and another internship for the Boston Red Sox just before graduating from UW. He then took a job as a landscaping foreman at Wisconsin’s McKay Nursery. He worked as a herd manager for a purebred Angus farm before returning to sports turf in 2009 when he landed the second assistant landscaper manager position at Miller Park.

Originally from Osseo, WI Boettcher grew up on a family-owned beef cow/calf operation. “I grew up loving the land and agriculture. I like natural grass because of the connection of working the land and cultivating a crop. The smell of the soil is incredible after we do an aeration,” he says of the field at Miller Park.

Warczak grew up in Oshkosh, WI and got his degree in golf course management from Anoka-Hennepin in Minnesota in 2006. He played baseball in high school and began working for free for the Midwest League’s Wisconsin Timber Rattlers at the Fox Cities Stadium in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Warczak was eventually hired as assistant groundskeeper, and at the end of the 2007 season, became head groundskeeper of the Neuroscience Group Field at the Fox Cities Stadium. In 2008, his field won the Sports Turf Managers Association Professional Baseball Field of the Year. Warczak was hired by the Brewers as grounds manager at Miller Park last February.

“It’s nice working your way up from high school to the minor leagues and then to the major leagues,” Warczak says. There are many more resources available to grounds managers in the major league, he notes. “In the minor leagues, you have to be creative and use the same equipment for multiple purposes.”

There is another benefit, and Warczak smiles as he says, “With the roof at Miller Park, there are not as many tarp pulls.”

Boettcher and Warczak belong to both the STMA and Wisconsin’s STMA. Membership in these organizations, they say, enables them to share knowledge, successes and failures with their peers; and to stay abreast of the industry’s latest research findings and innovations.

Lynn Grooms is an independent writer living in Mt. Horeb, WI. Like Michael Boettcher, she is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.