Here for the players: John Turnour of the Washington Nationals
By Stacie Zinn Roberts
John Turnour, who played baseball in Little League and sports through high school, found his affinity for team sports continued into college—this time as a student volunteer for the sports turf management team while studying turfgrass management and horticulture at North Carolina State University.
“Ray Brincefield and his staff were more than welcoming and allowed me to shadow them. They paved the way for me and provided a great introduction to sports turf management,” Turnour says. “During football season, it was exciting prepping the field and painting it. Ray and his staff were very helpful to me. They really were the ones who inspired me to pursue this as a career.”
Upon graduation, Turnour found a job as an assistant groundskeeper for the Durham Bulls, (AAA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays), and then went back to NC State for 2 years as a sports turf employee.
When he felt he was ready for the “Big Leagues,” he sent his resume to every MLB club in the nation.
“I had one team in mind that I wanted to work for and they were the one team that called me and offered me a job. Completely luck,” Turnour, a member of the Sports Turf Managers Association, says.
The Baltimore Orioles hired him as an assistant groundskeeper and he worked with them for three seasons. From there, he went to the San Diego Padres for four seasons as an assistant. At the end of his fourth season with the Padres, he saw a listing for a Director of Field Operations with the Washington Nationals. By then, he had the training and confidence necessary to manage the big show. He applied.
“I went through the interview process and things happened to work out,” Turnour says. That was six seasons ago.
Is it luck, persistence or tenacity that takes a sports turf manager to the highest level of the profession?
“It’s certainly not going to be presented to you. It’s something you have to work for, like anything else in life. Hard work, dedication, taking initiative and knowing what your career goals are,” Turnour says. “I think it’s a matter of putting yourself in the right situation and pursuing that goal. Pick your path and go after it. I really don’t know what it was that drove me to pursue a job in Major League Baseball. I enjoyed my time working at the university level and I enjoyed my time working in Minor League ball. Since I’ve been in Major League Baseball, there hasn’t been a day I’ve looked back and second-guessed it.”
At Nationals Park, Turnour’s crew consists of himself, three full-time assistants, 15 tarp crew members, and six interns from turf programs all over the United States.
“Our ultimate goal for interns is to set a foundation for them as they start thinking about their career and which path they may want to pursue upon graduating. We encourage our interns to take initiative, ask questions, and get involved. We have been extremely fortunate over the past six seasons to have a great group of interns and we look forward to continuing that moving forward,” Turnour says. Hosting interns gives him the opportunity to teach others and pay it forward, the way Ray Brincefield did for him at NC State.
Nationals Park supports 81 home games a season. In between home stands, and during the off-season, the stadium hosts one to three concerts a year, as well as non-baseball events like the NHL Winter Classic on New Year’s Day 2015.
Preparing the field and keeping it in good shape takes year-round effort and planning.
Located just south of the capital in Washington, DC, Nationals Park sits in the southernmost region of the transition zone. While the weather there could have supported a warm-season turfgrass, instead the field was planted with a cool-season grass. Nationals Park consists of a four-way blend of Kentucky bluegrass: P-105, Moonlight, Bewitched and Ginney. It’s grown from seed at Tuckahoe Turf in New Jersey. The field has only been completely resodded twice since it was originally installed during the fall of 2007. Areas of wear are either seeded or resodded, as needed.
“The growing season for grass mirrors the months of the baseball season here in the Mid-Atlantic area, and with us being located in the transition zone, we have the ability to grow either a cool-season or warm-season grass. Both options have their challenges; however, our experience with Kentucky bluegrass has provided a consistent surface that we are comfortable with presenting for play,” Turnour says. “Growing a cool-season grass in the southern portion of the transition zone allows us to be fairly aggressive with our cultural practices during the spring and fall months. Summer months are a little more sensitive which results in us managing the turf based off of current weather conditions in conjunction with the baseball and non-baseball event schedule.”
Managing a cool-season grass in his region allows him to forego overseeding, which he sees as a benefit. “From the start of the season to the end, we are playing on one variety of grass,” Turnour says.
Height of cut varies throughout the year, from as low as 7/8 inch during the season on up to 1-1/4- inch in the winter. The turf is mowed every day when the team is in town. When the team is on the road, Turnour says he backs off to mowing “as needed.”
The infield dirt mix at Nationals Park is conditioned and topdressed with calcined clay. “We topdress the surface with a calcined clay product that enables us to manage the moisture to provide a safe, consistent playing surface,” he says.
Turnour has used a calcined clay infield conditioner from Turface Athletics, and other brands, as a “moisture management tool.”
Day games pose a special challenge in keeping the playing conditions consistent from the beginning of the game through the last out. Any combination of dry air, wind, and sun will dry out an infield much quicker than a cloudy day or a humid night. Preparing the infield surface and managing moisture during the pregame hours of a day game will ultimately have an effect on improving the playing conditions in the later parts of the game.
“For a day game, we’ll apply a little more conditioner, which is our calcined clay product. One of many things I learned out in San Diego is we’ll get as much water on in the morning as we can, and we’ll come back over top of that water with what we call a “mulch layer,” putting out dry conditioner over top of a wet surface. It acts kind of like a mulch layer to trap that moisture in and then we’ll continue our watering practices after that,” Turnour says.
Depending on the amount of conditioner already on the infield, as well as the environmental conditions for that day, Turnour says they’ll apply another 10-20 bags of calcined clay for a day game.
“It would certainly be more of a challenge to manage moisture without a calcined clay product,” Turnour says. “It holds moisture up on the top and it gives the players a nice, consistent surface to play on. It prevents it from being muddy or sloppy when it’s wet. It provides traction.”
When it comes down to it, playability is Turnour’s main focus.
“At the end of the day, for the game, we know what kind of a field we want to present to the players so anything we can do to get it to that, we do. Our main goal is making sure that we provide a safe, consistent playing surface for them day in and day out,” Turnour says. “Ultimately, we are here for the players. We want to make sure when they come out on their home field they know what to expect. They can rely on the field that they are going to be playing on. For half of their games they are here at Nationals Park and we want them to feel comfortable out here. We want them to feel at ease. When the ball is rolling across the infield we want our infielders to know how that ball is going to react. The more consistent we can make that for them, it makes their job a lot easier. Aesthetics, certainly we all strive for an aesthetically good-looking field. But on the list of priorities, it’s down past safety and consistency.”
Stacie Zinn Roberts is a writer, speaker and marketing consultant. Her company, What’s Your Avocado?, is based in Mount Vernon, WA; she is the author of “How to Live Your Passion & Fulfill Your Dreams.”