Grass is greener with Steve Horne on RailRiders side

Swiftly pulling a folding knife from his pocket, Steve Horne slices open a tall bag of fertilizer for a quick look-see.

He immediately determines it’s too clumpy.

So Horne, the director of field operations at PNC Field in Moosic, PA home of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (Triple-A/New York Yankees) grabs another, unopened bag of the stuff that will help grass grow and starts pounding it down on the back of a Gator truck while showing a couple of his interns how to break it up quickly.

It takes a lot more than a lawnmower and water hose to make grass grow in a baseball stadium.

“In general terms,” Horne said, “people look out and see the green grass and want to know how to make their own lawn look that way.

“It couldn’t be farther from your lawn.”

Aside from a huge shed in the bowels of PNC Field filled with lawn-maintaining machines and an endless array of tools of the trade is one simple fact.

The base in most baseball stadiums is composed of sand, compared to the clay base in your average backyard.

“It’s very difficult to grow grass on a sand base,” Horne said. “There are 12 kinds of soil beneath this. All the materials have to be spoon-fed into the ground in order for the plant to live.”

This past week, he was feeding PNC Field some unfamiliar food by laying down an organic fertilizer.

“It’s a product we’ve only used one time before, a product I don’t have a lot of experience with,” said Horne, who has been a baseball groundskeeper for 27 years and has worked on fields for the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals during past offseasons. “A lot of the stuff we usually buy are synthetics and they’re consistent.

“This is very inconsistent.”

That’s bad news for the hopper, a small truck that funnels the fertilizer from top to bottom before a spinning blade disperses it throughout the outfield. The chunked-up fertilizer starts clogging the release hole, making things difficult for RailRiders groundskeeping interns Stephen Valente and Cameron Walls and forcing Horne to turn to his bullpen for relief.

He reaches into his arsenal and pulls out an invention he doesn’t even have a name for, an instrument made of a heavily spiked sheath of metal blades at the base, topped by a heavy pole. He starts gently pile-driving it into the fertilizer to make it a little finer, but that’s not really the main role of this instrument.

The primary function of this tool is to open pores in the ground, allowing better reception for seeding and treatments. The idea came off the golf course.

“They use it for greens and areas for seeding purposes,” said Horne, a 51-year-old Mississippi native who had never traveled as far north as Pennsylvania until he was hired as Scranton/Wilkes-Barre turf guru in 2007. “Sports fields and golf courses are two different things. But they have a lot of good tools, and if I find one that will help in what I do, I’ll take it from them.”

Whatever it takes to keep to keep the prime home of the New York Yankees’ top minor league prospects in pristine condition.

“This is their office,” Horne said. “We’re the guys behind the scenes that make their office either really nice or really bad. We do everything we can to help them develop and become major leaguers. Sometimes, we can have an impact on that, an influence on that way the ball bounces or the way the ball plays.

“Which could be the difference in making that young man look good or look bad.”

It’s often a tireless, and often thankless, job.

Horne says the compliments are few, that the grounds crew mostly catches complaints. But he’s prepared for almost any scenario, working on average about 15 hours each game day while preparing the 2 1/4-acre field. He stays at the park from early-morning hours all the way through night games and cleans up afterwards with a crew of seven helpers – including his top assistant Paul Tumavitch along with six other interns and part-time workers.

When the PNC surface starts showing signs of wear and tear, Horne has a few tricks to magically mask it, starting with a green-colored sand he keeps in storage. He also keeps a grass farm outside PNC Field, which gets identical care as the stadium surface so he can easily pull up mounds of grass and transplant it into any splotches that begin to show on PNC Field until those areas can be re-seeded.

“Mother Nature will only grow so fast,” Horne says. “We have to assist it.”

The crew found no relief from a couple of unforeseen storms that pelted PNC Field during the past five years.

First came the horror that happened in 2011, when PNC Field’s drainage system malfunctioned and left puddles of water in the outfield for days – forcing Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s team (then named the Yankees) to play a few home games at Lehigh Valley’s Coca-Cola Park in Allentown. It all stemmed from installation of another drainage system during the changeover from an artificial turf surface to a grass field at PNC Field.

“It caused a lot of embarrassment for everyone involved,” Horne said. “Unbeknown to me, a lot of the things they were doing were incorrect. They cut a few shortcuts, thinking it (the drainage system) was only going to be there for a few years until they got a new stadium.”

But, Horne quickly points out, the resolution was a keeper.

“We re-did the field,” Horne said. “It was so good the second time around, they kept the field and tore the stadium down.”

When it rains, it pours, though.

Last year, the RailRiders were forced to suspend a home game when the grounds crew couldn’t pull the tarp through the outfield during a downpour in time to stop the infield dirt from becoming saturated. Of course, everyone blamed the guys.

“We were ready, but the umpires waited too long (to call for the tarp),” Horne said. “When it rains hard like that, there’s anywhere from 500 to 1,000 gallons of water on it. Once it’s stuck, it’s stuck. That’s only happened a couple of times.”

For the most part, though, Horne and his PNC Field grounds crew are having the time of their lives trying to create a perfect surface that will give minor league players a prime opportunity to advance to the big leagues.

“You love it,” Horne said. “You put so much of your heart into it, it becomes your own. When I came here, I said I didn’t want what the Yankees had in a field, I wanted a little better. People thought I was cocky. But I don’t even think of this as a minor league field, I think of it as being a major league field, very similar to the Yankees and the Phillies.

“Everything they have on their fields, we probably have on ours.”

Reach Paul Sokoloski at 570-991-6392 or on Twitter @TLPaulSokoloski