By Stacie Zinn Roberts
The week after the 2016 Chicago Cubs season ended, Manager of Grounds Justin Spillman and his crew of 75 planned to rip up the turf at Wrigley Field. There wasn’t anything wrong with the grass, the field played great this season. Rather, they tore out every blade of bluegrass to make way for construction crews renovating the 102-year-old stadium.
“The week after the season ends, we’ll tear all of the grass out and the construction companies will come in and they’ll overrun the whole field with trailers. They’ll actually mat the whole field with material that’s almost like butcher block to protect our drainage and irrigation. In the spring, we’re going to have to put it all back together,” Spillman says. “It will continue over the next two to three years where, going into the off season, we’ll tear out the field and put it back in the spring.”
While some cities choose to knock down their stadiums and start fresh, the Ricketts family, owner of the Cubs, decided to invest $750 million to restore and expand Wrigley Field and develop the area around the stadium, all without taxpayer dollars. The renovation plan, known as The 1060 Project, which started at the conclusion of the 2014 baseball season, includes structural upgrades, improved player facilities, new fan amenities, outfield signage including two video boards, new premier clubs, expanded concessions, new and improved restroom facilities, and much more. To accommodate the construction around the edges of the field, construction crews, their trucks and equipment need access to the interior of the stadium and use the playing field surface as their staging area.
To build an MLB playing surface once is a challenging enough task. To have to do it over and over and over again seems almost overwhelming. But for Justin Spillman, who has had a hand in building more than 70 sports fields under the tutelage of famed Chicago White Sox groundskeeper Roger Bossard, inventor of a patented drainage system now used by 19 of the 30 MLB teams, perhaps the task isn’t so daunting.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why I was brought in, honestly. They knew this was going to take place and needed someone onboard with a little more experience,” Spillman says.
Spillman originally set out to be a golf course superintendent. He worked at a golf course and earned an internship at the St. Louis Cardinals. It was there that everything changed. He says, “I fell in love with 2.5 acres.”
From St. Louis he went to Jupiter, FL and built a 13-field complex for the Cardinals and Expos. He never looked back. “Glad I switched to grounds,” Spillman says. He was immediately taken with the process of field construction. “Seeing a field come to fruition from just bare ground or a cabbage patch, leveled out and then erecting a field, drainage, irrigation, growing media, laying of the sod, infield mix, soil conditioners implemented into the infield mix, building of the mounds.”
It was on that first job in Jupiter that Spillman met Bossard who became his mentor and “like a second father” to him. In the off-season, he worked with Bossard to build fields from Pennsylvania to Arizona. He even assisted in the 2007 renovation of Wrigley Field, but at the time, he never even considered that one day he’d be maintaining the home of the Cubbies. Bossard was grooming Spillman to become his successor at the White Sox when he got a call in 2013 from the Chicago Cubs. They asked for a recommendation for a new assistant manager of grounds. Bossard gave them Spillman’s name.
“It was a shock, honestly,” Spillman says. He and his wife, Tanya, and their two children, Shay and Spencer, had “set down roots” in Arizona. “I was content to stay there until Roger retired.”
Spillman got the call from the Cubs on June 20, 2013. He reported for work as an assistant groundskeeper on July 15. Two years later, he was appointed to the big job.
Even with the renovation at Wrigley Field, some elements will not change. The outfield ivy wall, a fixture of the Chicago Cubs psyche, remains. It takes up to three crewmembers to trim the ivy along the brick wall. One person is lifted in a bucket, pulls the ivy away from the wall and trims it with hand sheers, while the others on the ground gather up the clippings. Spillman watches for cooler temps that might make the ivy go dormant and drop leaves prematurely, which could be a hazard to players.
On game days the field is mowed, patterns designed into the turf to wow the fans. While the patterns are impressive, it’s on the infield clay that most of the crew’s time is invested. “We may have 10 guys on the clay and only three guys on the outfield,” Spillman says. Time is spent on moisture control, dragging the clay with a cocoa mat, and following that with another coat of dry material put overtop to seal in the moisture below.
Although the look of the stadium may be kept retro through the renovation, Spillman says it’s important to keep up with technology in field maintenance. He networks with the 29 other MLB head sports turf managers to share tips and compare notes. “Every day there’s new technology in turf and you have to stay up with new fungicides, new fertilizers. You have to keep up with that. If you don’t, your field will start to decline. You’ve got to always stay ahead of the next new thing,” he says.
This spring, the Chicago Cubs invested in an Air2G2, an aerification machine that injects air below the soil surface at six-inches and 12-inches deep, fracturing the soil laterally without disturbing the turf above. As the Air2G2 does not damage the turf, is possible to aerify and play on the field the same day. The Cubs bought the Air2G2 in April and by October they’d already logged 100 hours on the machine. “It takes about 9 hours to do the whole field,” Spillman says.
“With the Air2G2 we are seeing less compaction. It creates porosity in the soil. It’s a little bit different than a regular aerifier. It’s pushing air. You can see the sod heaving in certain areas,” Spillman says.
Along with using the Air2G2, Spillman also deep tines the field as often as possible when the team is at away games so that the procedure doesn’t interrupt play.
Spillman says aerification is critical for turf health.
“We are always trying to find different ways to decompact it. We have so much activity, foot traffic. We probably have well over 1 million-plus people on the field a year for events and concerts. Aerification is huge in order to save your filed from compaction. Compaction is the number one issue of dead turf.”
Along with innovations in equipment, Spillman says he’s also rethinking his fertilization program.
“We are leaning more toward less aggressive on nitrogen and more of a nutrient package, rather than years past. I think everyone was pushing nitrogen all the time, and now we’re leaning more toward a nutrient package with manganese, calcium and numerous other minor and macro ingredients rather than just pushing the heck out of the plant with nitrogen,” Spillman says. He’s been using this program for the “past two, three years and seeing a lot greener, darker, more dense plant.”
In addition to the reduction in N, this past year Spillman added in Legacy, (a combination of Cutlass and Primo), a plant growth regulator (PGR) into his program.
“Trying to incorporate that with a multitude of other ingredients to try to combat all of the stress of the plant from traffic, heat and wear tolerance. The PGR is tillering the plant out more laterally than upward so you’re getting more of the leaf tissue. The plant seems to tiller out more where you’re getting a stronger and more dense plant. It’s had a tremendous value to us, having that incorporated.”
Now that Spillman has made it to the Majors, he hasn’t forgotten the help he received along the way, especially from his mentor, Roger Bossard. “He took me under his wing and taught me what he knew from his father and grandfather, and made me the groundskeeper than I am today.”
Spillman mentors other sports turf managers, guys who’ve interned or worked for him, the way Roger Bossard brought him along. He revels in the success of the professionals he’s helping to succeed in their careers “because you know you were there at one point looking for guidance. To give back means a lot.”
With the renovation of the more than a century old Wrigley Field underway, the history of the place, and his role in that history, is not lost on Spillman.
“It’s a pretty prestigious thing, too. There are only 30 of us in the whole country,” Spillman says. “Sometimes I have to step back and realize where I’m at and how far I’ve come.”