The SportsTurf Interview with Paul Zwaska

This month in “The SportsTurf Interview,” we meet Paul Zwaska, director of education and strategic initiatives for Beacon Athletics, Middleton, WI. Paul has had a 30-year love affair with dirt and lots of grass stains on his pants to prove it. He learned the ropes at the University of Wisconsin and made his name while head groundskeeper for the Baltimore Orioles. Now he’s the guy at Beacon Athletics who makes life easier for groundskeepers across the country by helping them with the right tools to get the job done and with instruction and tips to get your field looking beautiful. His number one tool is free and called “Groundskeeper University,” a video series that lays out the fundamentals of baseball field maintenance.

ST: Do you ever miss being a groundskeeper?

Zwaska: I never really stopped being one! It’s in my blood. After I left the Orioles at the end of May 2000 and moved back home to Madison, WI to work at Beacon, I stopped managing a ballfield for about two summers. Then my son started playing Little League in the summer of 2002 and the league somehow knew who I was and instantly approached me for help with their facility. And the rest, as they say, is history. I have donated thousands of hours over the past 16 years helping them upgrade their facility, their financials, their long-range planning, teaching groundskeeping to young teenage and 20-somethings and much more. I can honestly say, I have gotten so much more satisfaction in my life doing that the past 16 years than I did working in Major League Baseball for 15 ½ years. Why? Because the parents and kids never expected the great improvements to the facility and the fields. It blew them away, and the kids learned what a good ballfield is. They would often come back from playing in a tournament and tell ME what was wrong with other fields. In MLB, it was expected to have a first-rate field. It’s very rewarding to see the looks on parents’ and players’ faces when they see for the first time how we manage that facility. So many kids have gone beyond our league to play high school and college ball and have later come back to tell me that they never played on better fields than ours, which in a way is a sad comment on the conditions of fields that this country’s children and young adults are playing on.

ST: What are your main responsibilities? And what does a regular working week, if there is such a thing for you, entail?

Zwaska: One of the great things about working for a smaller private company versus a big corporate setting is that you often have your hands in a lot of departments. So, not only am I working chiefly in education, I also work on product development, product evaluation, sales, marketing, and production and warehouse operations, as well as other areas. It all depends on where they need my talents the most on any particular day. There is some repetitive work, but usually I’m doing something different on most days. I’ve been at Beacon for 18 years now, and I’ve done many different jobs for the company. I guess I’d say I’m a well-rounded employee.

ST: Any advice for turf managers who are considering a move into the vendor segment of the industry?

Zwaska: Well, first of all, you get a good chunk of your life back with weekends and holidays commonly off. So, the family life is way better. But let me tell you where I have struggled ever since leaving my work on the field. As a groundskeeper, I would go in in the morning, look at the field and the schedule, and then knew what had to be done that day. My crew and I would get right on it and just do some good hard labor and really produce, so that by the end of the day you could stand back and look onto what you did and say, “Look at all we accomplished today and how beautiful it is.” Well, I found that on the sales side of things, I wasn’t getting that daily fix of being able to look at all of my accomplishments at the end of the day and go home feeling good about what I did that day. In sales, and related things like marketing and whatnot, things usually take longer to accomplish, projects can take days or even weeks. I can’t tell you how many times in my early days at Beacon where I would be leaving for the day thinking “what did I do to earn my paycheck for this company today?” I still struggle with that today, but much less frequently. It was a totally different mindset for me.

ST: You have a passion for educating turf managers, through the Groundskeeper University video series and the Field Maintenance Forums, for example. What elements of turf maintenance have you found most people need help with?

Zwaska: I am passionate about teaching because I remember when I was coming up in the turf industry in the late 70s and early to mid-80s, I was hungry for any information on maintaining ballfields and there really was nowhere to turn to get that information. So I have always wanted to make sure that I made myself as available as possible to pass on my knowledge of field maintenance to anyone who wants it or needs it. When it comes to ballfield maintenance, infield soils, and their make-up and maintenance, is still by far where most groundskeepers struggle and/or make mistakes. For decades it was believed that maintaining infield soils was an art, but we have proved that it isn’t. There is a lot of science that goes into infield soils, both in the blending and the maintenance of them. Back in the 90s, nobody tested their infield soils. That’s when I began educating groundskeepers to use testing to help diagnose problem infield soils. Many now do, but still, most groundskeepers don’t yet understand soils enough to know when they are making critical mistakes in the soils they choose to blend or amend their infields with and the consequences that may follow. It’s my personal mission to help more groundskeepers fully understand infield soils, their makeup, and how to fix them and how to use the amendments and topdressings that should be used in concert with those soils.

ST: What are the biggest differences in sports turf management today compared to when you were working for the Orioles?

Zwaska: Well, first and foremost would be the demands on the Major League groundskeepers today, which are far and above what they were when I was in MLB. I worry about the demands of the job on them today. It is so much more than what I dealt with. It is quite a bit of strain on them mentally and physically, and for their families and personal lives. This is a very tough profession, in season.

Otherwise, I am blown away today in the changes in technology in everything groundskeepers use, from the turf construction and maintenance equipment, to the grass varieties, fertilizers, and chemicals. I am truly jealous of the men and women managing fields today with all the fabulous tools and technology they have at their fingertips to do their job. What I could have been able to do with that, back during my time! The sports turf managers today build and maintain such phenomenal playing surfaces now. I applaud them all.

ST: How do you think the profession and industry will change in the next 10 years?

Zwaska: New technology will continue to help sports turf managers do their job better and faster. Of course, the downside to that may be even more overscheduling of facilities. Education will continue to spread amongst active sports field managers, which will further raise the bar of professionalism. However, the dwindling number of colleges and universities that offer degrees in sports turf management in the past 10 years has slowed the flow of fresh young talent entering the industry. All sports turf managers MUST seek out youth that are searching for a future and let them know that this is an exciting and fun profession to consider. Many youth and young adults who grow up playing sports are often looking for a way to stay involved in sports, and managing sports fields is the perfect opportunity. Be a mentor.

ST: How has your career benefitted from being an STMA member?

Zwaska: The networking and friendships are probably the biggest benefits. There are so many great people in our industry that you’ll never meet unless you belong to an organization like the STMA. As a young up-and-coming sports field manager, you will learn more about your profession and your passion in a week at the STMA conference than you will learn in a semester of school, thanks to all of the real-world experiences that are shared in the education sessions and the socialization during the conference. There are so many great groundskeepers with successes and challenges to share with you. I continue to learn at every conference every year.

ST: What are your passions and interests outside of work?

Zwaska: I recently purchased a 24-and-a-half-acre property way out in the country (40 minutes from Beacon) where I just enjoy the peace and tranquility. Since I was very young, my parents always said that I should have been born on a farm because I loved physical labor so much. Now I spend my time away from work taking care of my property, tending to the woods that were planted by the previous owner to grow for lumber purposes and wildlife refuge. There is plenty of work to do, and that satisfies my mental health, as I like to stay busy and see the fruits of my labor. But I also find the time to decompress while enjoying the sights and sounds of the large amount of wildlife that inhabit the area. I’d have to say it is the happiest I have ever been, living out there. It’s where I was meant to be.