By Stacie Zinn Roberts
David Mellor says he’s the luckiest man in the world. And if all you knew about this lifelong Boston Red Sox fan was that he works as the Senior Director of Grounds at Fenway Park and is responsible for the sports field for the BoSox, you’d probably very quickly agree.
But the Green Monster, the breaking of the Curse of the Bambino, and the fated World Championship that resulted are not the reasons why Mellor says he’s the luckiest man in the world—and his reasons may surprise you.
As a young man in 1981, Mellor’s prospects were good. He was a star athlete. A scouted pitcher in high school with scholarship offers, he set his sights on the pitcher’s mound at Fenway Park. Then, one night, he was crossing a parking lot heading into a McDonald’s restaurant. He heard a car rev its engine. He stopped to let the car pass. The driver waved him on, then the car lunged forward and hit him straight on, throwing him 20 feet across the parking lot, landing him in a crumped heap against the wall of the McDonald’s building. He heard the engine rev again and the car lunged forward for a second time, pinning his leg. In that moment he knew his dreams of pitching at Fenway were over.
Mellor had to find a new dream.
“When I got hit by the car and realized I couldn’t play anymore after my third surgery, my family urged me to find a career that I would love to do because so many people don’t like their job. I thought, ‘What do I like? I love being outside. I grew up taking care of people’s lawns. Science was a subject that I enjoyed in school. And I loved baseball.’ I thought, ‘Somebody has to take care of the field.’ My brother Terry lived in Milwaukee at the time and he told me that if I could get a job with the Brewers, I could live with him to save money to make ends meet,” Mellor says.
But how do you get a job on Major League Baseball crew with no experience?
“I wrote the Brewers many letters, followed with more letters and phone calls, to express my sincere interest to be an intern on the crew. I was thrilled when they hired me and gave me the opportunity,” Mellor says.
After he graduated from Ohio State with a dual major in horticulture and sports turf management, the Brewers created a full-time position for him. He had finally earned a job in baseball.
In 1995, Mellor and the crew were resodding the Brewers field at the old County Stadium (the facility was replaced by Miller Park in 2000). As he stood with a rake in his hand on the warning track, he heard the sound of a car engine. He knew the gates of the stadium were open to allow for sod trucks and equipment to move freely. But the sound got louder. He looked up and saw a car coming right at him. He put his hands up and yelled for the lady driving the car to stop. She stepped on the gas and came straight at him. His body hit the windshield, bounced to the ground. The driver lapped the field and came at him again, swerved and missed him by inches. He later learned she’d had a history of mental illness and was under the delusion that she was a stunt driver in a movie.
One more trauma would hit Mellor hard. His brother Terry and his wife lived on a lake south of Milwaukee, and Mellor and his family would often go to visit. In July 1998, Mellor and his family spent the weekend with Terry and his family at the lake. “We went fishing and had a wonderful weekend. On that Sunday, we said our normal goodbyes, saying hey, I’ll see you later. He gave me a hug.”
On Tuesday evening, his sister-in-law called to say that Terry had died suddenly. He was 43 years old.
More than a decade later, Mellor received a service dog to help him with the nagging injuries following the car accidents. Born in Slovakia, the dog is named Drago. He goes everywhere with Mellor and is a constant fixture at Fenway. Terry often joked that if he died, he’d come back as the family dog. The day after Drago arrived, Mellor took him to the vet and he learned that Drago was born on Terry’s birthday.
How is it possible that Mellor could endure not one but two horrific episodes of being hit purposefully by someone driving a car, recover from his brother’s sudden passing, and heal through more than 40 surgeries to repair the damage to his body? Not very well, it turns out. For 29 years, he suffered nightmares every single night. Even the smell McDonald’s French fries could trigger a flashback.
Still, he suffered alone, never expressing his physical pain or sharing his mental strain because he didn’t want to burden his family. To deal with the nightmares and the pain, he often isolated himself. Through it all his wife, Denise, and their two daughters, Cacky and Tori, stood by him through every surgery, every ordeal. He focused on work, grew his resume and developed a winning reputation. He earned jobs with the Angels, the Giants, the Packers. In 2000, Mellor was negotiating for a groundskeeper position with the Cincinnati Reds organization when he received a call from Joe Mooney, the legendary groundskeeper who managed Fenway Park for 31 years. Mooney told Mellor he was ready to retire but he’d only do so if Mellor would succeed him. In January 2001, Mellor became Director of Grounds for the Boston Red Sox.
Then in September 2010, Mellor was reading an article in Smithsonian magazine during an acupuncture session. In the article about a new treatment facility for post traumatic stress disorder, Mellor read the list of 12 symptoms associated with PTSD. He checked them off, one by one. He had 10 of them.
“I only thought you could have PTSD from the horrors of war. Now I know anyone can have PTSD from a life-threatening trauma. While it scared me, it also gave me hope that if I did have this, I could get treatment, and hopefully I would be a better dad and husband. If counseling helped me, it was a bonus,” Mellor says.
He went home that afternoon and talked to his wife. They went to the hospital the next day and he began counseling.
“On February 23, 2011, I slept through the night for 7 hours for the first time in 29 years without a nightmare. I’m superstitious, didn’t tell anyone. I slept through the night 3 nights in a row. After that, I realized it was time to share with my wife and my doctor the incredible news that the counseling was helping. I went over 4 years—1,719 days to be exact—without another nightmare. I knew that a nightmare triggered by an old trauma, or a new trauma may happen again someday, so instead of letting the newest night terror pain fester, I called my doctor the next morning to work through the nightmare to desensitize it and not let it influence my life as (it would have) before,” Mellor says.
Throughout his career, Mellor has shared his professional experiences. As a sports turf professional, he’s authored two books on lawn care (“The Lawn Bible: How to Keep it Green, Groomed and Growing Every Season of the Year”) and on athletic field striping (“Picture Perfect: Mowing Techniques for Lawns, Landscapes and Sports”). He’s also co-authored or contributed to 12 additional books on landscaping, including books with the Scotts Company.
In 2013, ESPN did an E:60 feature on Mellor that revealed the physical and mental traumas he’s overcome in his life.
“I was very humbled and moved hearing from so many people who thanked me for having the courage to share my journey. Many people shared their own powerful challenges with me. They said they were now going to start counseling and/or stop drinking as a result of seeing the E:60 piece,” Mellor says.
The documentary drew the attention of television personality Glenn Beck, whose publishing company is now helping Mellor to write his memoir. The book deals as much with how he has learned, through counseling, to manage and overcome PTSD, as it does with his career in baseball. He says he’s writing the book to “give people hope and let people know they are not alone, and that help is available. Whether you are dealing with physical or emotional pain, I want to encourage people to not give up. I want to help others release the stigma of PTSD and seek treatment. My family and myself feel if sharing our journey helps one person it is worth sharing,” he says. “Everyone has their own challenges. I don’t want anyone to suffer in silence like I did.”
At Fenway Park, Mellor manages a crew of three full-time staff, with up to 40 seasonal workers who rotate shifts. Along with more than 80 home games in the 2016 schedule, he and his crew prepare the field for concerts, events and fan tours. He says he’s fortunate to have great communication with and support from the front office, which is critical to coordinate enough downtime to keep the field in top shape at all times.
Fenway Park is grassed with Kentucky bluegrass sod grown by Tuckahoe Sod Farm in New Jersey. The sod is laid over a soil mix of 90% sand and 10% Profile Porous Ceramic soil amendment. “Adding Profile to our rootzone is an investment that has certainly paid off, greatly enhancing rooting and quicker recovery from wear combined with improved drainage to have a better playing surface,” he says.
Mellor says Fenway is unique in that it has three microclimates. Most ballparks have two; the upper deck shade and the sunny part of the field. Fenway’s Green Monster creates a third microclimate. The 30-foot-tall green wall creates a heat island, driving temps up as high as 150 degrees, stressing turf. The outfield can have as much as a 40-degree temperature difference as compared to behind home plate in the upper deck shade. Mellor uses wetting agents and moisture meters to monitor soil temperatures. The heat created by the Green Monster can “also be our friend” to melt snow plowed from the field and piled high against to the big green wall.
For the past 4 years, he’s also added a new machine to his equipment rotation called the Air2G2 from GT AirInject (winner of the 2015 STMA Innovative Award) to help ease compaction and reduce stress near the Green Monster, and other areas of the field. The Air2G2 fractures the soil by inserting three probes up to a foot deep into the soil and injecting air (oxygen) at 6 to 7 inches deep, and again at 10 to 12 inches deep, with each drop. Injecting air laterally through the soil profile creates pore space for water to drain and increases the gas exchange in the soil.
“I think the machine is literally one of the most unique and innovative machines in my 32-year career,” Mellor says. “We use it before and after concerts, we use it around our tarp before we dump our tarp (to allow water to quickly drain), we use it for general maintenance, and as a part of our turf management program of regular aerification. It truly aerates the soil versus poking a hole in the ground and hoping air goes down in that hole. It relieves compaction and improves pore space. It helps with drainage. You know, roots grow in the pores of the soil. If you think of marbles in a jar, if there are little marbles and they’re too tight, there’s no pore space. I think of it kind of like fracking in the gas or oil industry, how it laterally creates pore space. This helps the grass breathe, it helps flush out gasses, reduce compaction, improve drainage and helps you have healthier turf. And what’s great is, you can do it today and play today.”
Although Mellor still aerifies in the spring and fall by pulling cores, with the Air2G2 “you don’t have the labor and manpower issue of cleaning up cores or maybe being too aggressive on the turf in the heat of the day. We just had 7 consecutive days in the 90s and we used the Air2G2 and didn’t have to worry about localized dry spots or stressing on turf. It’s an important tool in our rotation of equipment.”
Mellor says his wife Denise knew when Joe Mooney called that they would move to Boston. The Mellors were Boston natives. His two older brothers, Chip and Terry, spent many summers at Fenway with their parents watching the Red Sox. Before he was born, the family moved to Ohio. When he was 3 years old, his father died, and Terry, 7 years older, and Chip, 12 years older, became his father figures. They encouraged him to grow up a rabid Red Sox fan. Now, with his job at Fenway Park, Mellor walks past the row of seats his family shared all those long summer nights ago. It’s a visceral connection to his family, to this place. The gravity of it all is not lost on him.
“It’s an honor to be behind the scenes. It was certainly my dream to stand on the pitcher’s mound at Fenway with a stadium full of people. I do that in a different way now,” Mellor says.
If he had never been hit by a car after high school and had made it as a pitcher in the Majors, Mellor says he probably would not have met his wife, had two beautiful daughters, spent more than 30 years as a sports turf manager achieving the highest level of his profession. When he looks back, he is grateful for all he’s experienced, both good and bad.
“I am thankful, blessed and lucky to have my wife and daughters in my life. Their love and support means more than words can describe. I also appreciate my friends and colleagues for their help and support, too. I’m extremely fortunate to have an incredible support network.” Mellor says, “I think I am one of the luckiest people in the world.”
Stacie Zinn Roberts is president of the What’s Your Avocado? Marketing Agency, Mount Vernon WA, WhatsYourAvocado.com.