This month in “The SportsField Management Interview,” we meet Stephen Lord, CSFM, head groundskeeper, Great American Ball Park (Cincinnati Reds). Lord also serves the STMA Board of Directors as Professional Facilities Director. He is a 2008 graduate of Michigan State University with bachelor’s degrees in both turfgrass management and general management. Before he joined the Reds, Lord spent the previous six seasons as assistant director of MLB grounds with the Texas Rangers. While in Texas, in 2010 and 2011 Lord was part of the club’s first ever trips to the World Series. In January 2015, Lord obtained his recognition as a Certified Sports Field Manager (CSFM) from the STMA. In December 2015, Lord and crew were awarded the Ohio SportsTurf Managers Field of the Year Award for that season.
SportsField Management (SFM): What attracted you to the sports field management industry?
Lord: I played high school golf and baseball – not particularly well at either – but loved both sports. Obviously, I noticed major differences in watching pro sports on TV versus the baseball field I played on in high school. Growing up in northern Michigan, my father was a national forest ranger, so I spent most of my childhood outside. I’ve always been a bit of a science nerd (I say this positively); so, when the time came to head to college I knew one thing – I was going to Michigan State University. When I researched majors that included work outdoors, the Turfgrass Management program at State caught my eye over and over again. To think I could golf and get paid to take care of the course intrigued me. From there it was only a matter of time before I figured out that sports field management was another side of the industry – one that appealed to me even more. I spent the summer of 2005 as an intern at AAA Round Rock (Texas), and have been hooked ever since.
SFM: What would you say are the biggest accomplishments of your career and/or what are you most proud to have achieved?
Lord: From the standpoint of my career, I list obtaining my CSFM as one of my greatest accomplishments. Adding professionalism to our side of the industry has always been an important goal of mine, so this was a major step for me personally. At the same time, becoming a mentor to future industry leaders has been something I have preached to my staffs for a decade. I have operated a hands-on internship program since 2010, and am happy to give time to any and all of my former/current interns whenever needed. Our ability to mold future leaders during our careers will be what ensures the future success of this industry. I hold this standard for myself, as well as my managers at my facility. It is a total group effort to ensure that all interns are given the opportunities for daily hands-on learning, while also making ourselves available to discuss the agronomics and their individual development before they enter the workforce.
On the field, I am honored to have had back-to-back opportunities (2010 and 2011) to host the World Series twice in Texas and to have hosted the All-Star Game in 2015 (in Cincinnati).
SFM: What are the biggest challenges you have faced in your career, and what advice do you have for other sports field managers when it comes to facing similar challenges?
Lord: To me, bridging the gap between what has been sold for on-field special events (non-baseball) and what can be delivered has been a major challenge. Obviously, every facility over the past 20 years has come to the realization that they need other non-core events to improve the financials of their organization. My job as the groundskeeper has become, “How can we make all of these non-traditional events successful, while maintaining the integrity of our surface for our core competency?” This can certainly be challenging, as our sales staff obviously does not have an agronomic background. My advice to anybody struggling with this would be the following:
1. You cannot control every factor on your playing surface all of the time. Things will not always be perfect, but your ingenuity and flexibility will be key to your success during these imperfect situations.
2. Communication is paramount. Learning to explain concerns or limitations of your surface in concise, non-technical terms will give you the best weapon for developing understanding of expectations versus reality.
3. Use your network. Our membership is often our greatest strength with this organization. Find ways to get in touch with those locally and nationally to ask questions and learn more on different tactics that were deployed in similar situations.
SFM: Who are your mentors, and what is the best advice you received during your career?
Lord: Dennis Klein (Texas Rangers), Tom Burns (formerly of the Texas Rangers), and Harry Helsel (Advanced Turf Solutions). None have provided any specific advice that has impacted me all at once, but I respect all three for the time, effort and interest in my career they have all provided. True mentorship extends beyond the cliché one liners. It is the time that a true mentor takes to pick up the phone every time you call – to talk about anything with you, career or otherwise. Developing a true care for that person beyond the professional setting down to the personal level is what resonates most with me. Those are the people that give you the day-to-day utmost support. They are the people who will call you out when you over step, but also the ones who will help you talk through all angles of tough situations. I thank all of them for their support every chance I get.
SFM: What are your passions and interests outside of work?
Lord: I love spending time with my wife Katie, my son Breslin (6), and my daughter Sophie (2 months). We love to spend time with our extended family with trips back home to Michigan when we get the chance. I am an avid cook at home and spend tons of time trying different recipes out on my family. Follow me @TurfSpartanLord on Twitter for our (at times daily) #FoodiesOfTurf arguments – “A hotdog is NOT a sandwich.”
SFM: You serve the STMA Board of Directors as Professional Facilities Director. What is the best part about being so closely involved with STMA?
Lord: Serving on the board has given me great insight as to the time and energy that is spent developing our organization and steering its future. The board truly has the best interest of all of our membership in mind when we develop all opportunities for organizational and professional growth. Service with the board has also given me a new level of understanding of just how much work our small staff in Lawrence, Kansas is tasked with each year. They are a small group who carries this whole organization on its back daily. Kudos to Kim and her whole staff!
SFM: What advice do you have for other sports field managers with regard to being active in the industry – either through their local chapter or through national STMA?
Lord: The activity of each member in this industry will become paramount in the years ahead. At the local level especially, we need every member to be active within their community to educate end users of the benefits of safe, playable surfaces. If you are able to get involved at the chapter or national level, that is great as well. We need to take advantage of the platforms afforded to us (small or large) to champion the importance of our industry and its tie to the well-being of its participants.
SFM: What is your vision or hope for both STMA and the sports field management industry overall during the next five to 10 years?
Lord: At the core of this, I see our development of individual professionalism to be the greatest driving force that we as a membership must succeed in producing. We need a membership of educated, hardworking professionals who cannot just manage our facilities on the day-to-day, but can also lead at the community level and make effectual change to public policy before we become victim to under representation. Our membership should understand that this will take work, but will be required to keep each of us in the important conversations locally as we aim to shape the future of this industry nationally.