By Eric Schroder
After winning his fourth consecutive Southern League Groundskeeper of the Year Award last year, Ray Sayre of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos received his reward: college football on his field.
Last fall the University of West Florida Argos kicked off their inaugural gridiron season playing at the city-owned stadium that was built with multiuse in mind; the left field fence can be pushed back 17 feet to accommodate football, and goalpost anchors had been buried into the field when it was built 5 years ago.
“We’ll be hosting football for at least these first few years,” says Sayre, “but they could be playing here forever, it’s yet to be decided.”
Like all minor league baseball groundskeepers, Sayre’s facility hosts plenty of events and since he works for the main tenant, the MiLB team, he was in charge of changing over the field, which now has bleachers in right center field.
“The third base foul line is one sideline. We had to remove the mound and put sod where all the dirt was,” he says. “We took out 100 tons of clay to make room for the sod.”
Being on the west coast of Florida meant Hurricane Matthew didn’t touch the field, and Sayre says his weather this past season was a typical summer. “It’s been dry the past month (October); we had a rainy March and April, and drier May and June, and then as always around July 4 you get the pop-up showers just about every day,” he says. “It might not rain at the stadium but it’ll rain somewhere around Pensacola so we have to keep on the lookout.
“Not every shower is tarp-worthy. It depends on what time of day and if there’s a game; on game days we’ll tarp if it rains after 12 noon, but we need to be game ready by batting practice at 2:30. And here the sun comes out after a shower, and we’re near the bay so there’s usually a breeze as well to help our drying conditions,” he says.
“We hardly ever tarp overnight unless we’re expecting the rare all-day rain.”
Mother Nature has been kind to Sayre in his 5 years in Pensacola. “We dodged a big tropical storm that came up from the Gulf several years ago when it went east and hit Tallahassee, and in May 2014 we got 20 inches of rain in 24 hours but otherwise we’ve been lucky,” says Sayre.
New this year
“We’ve always been aggressive at aerifying, pulling cores or using solid tines to poke holes; we try to do it every time the team is away during the season. This past summer we added verticutting, followed by dragging with a broom unit we built, to keep the grass standing up,” Sayre says. “The bermudagrass grain can get out of control when you’re mowing patterns.
“We also began using growth regulator more regularly to keep the grass tighter and limit top growth that can lead to that grainy effect. These practices did a good job for us knowing that football was coming,” he says. “And it worked for baseball, too.”
Sayre graduated from high school in Lexington, KY without knowing what career he wanted to pursue, went off to college undeclared, and then got a job with the fields crew at the University of Kentucky. There he discovered you could get a degree in turf so he enrolled at Eastern Kentucky University and earned his horticulture degree with an emphasis in turf management. And, importantly, he interned with Tom Nielsen, head groundskeeper for the Triple A Louisville Bats, and one of most respected professionals in the country. Upon graduation Sayre spent a year on Nielsen’s crew before taking a job with the Greenville Single A Boston Red Sox affiliate in South Carolina, where they had just built a new stadium. His next stop was back home to Kentucky, where he again inherited a new Single A stadium (and new team) in Bowling Green.
“I was hired at Bowling Green soon after construction had begun, and I’d been part of conversations about the new stadium before I’d actually starting working there,” he says. “I mostly was involved to be made aware of what was happening rather than have major input; they were paying a consultant to make the big decisions.”
Sayre did have input on what materials were to be used in building the infield, he says, but adds that in the end, the field in Bowling Green wasn’t build that well.
“The 3 years I was there the field just didn’t drain that well; we discovered the gravel used was improper. When we pulled the tarp water would sit in the outfield for 2 or 3 hours before it would drain. We ended up renovating down 24 inches and fixed it. I had more input at that time,” Sayre says.
Sayre saw an opportunity in Pensacola in December 2011 and hasn’t looked back.
While he enjoys living and working in Pensacola, Sayre does occasionally wonder what other opportunities might be presented. “I don’t necessarily aspire to work in Major League Baseball but I’m not against it either,” he says. “I have a wife and young daughter and if an opportunity comes along, we’ll have to consider it. But Pensacola is a great place to be and I’m not seeking anything. I’m thankful to be here.”
“Ours is now a football field and there are a few more games to be played before we’ll know what we’ll be facing heading into this spring,” he says. “We’ll have to renovate some areas, and most likely will re-sod where the bleachers were. And after we remove the sod from the infield dirt areas, I want to continue to improve our mix. We started with a local mix that was naturally high in sand, and it didn’t hold together as well as I would have liked. So each year I’ve been incorporating more and more clay into the sand.
“I would like to have a good standard mix and start fresh; if you have a good one out of the gate it’s easier to be consistent year to year than when you mix it in every year,” Sayre says.
“One day I’d like to do a full renovation, perhaps if there’s no more football. I would like to re-grade and add some drainage; we know now from experience where we’d put more drains.”
Sayre made sure to give a shout out to his crew. “You don’t win awards by yourself; it’s a collective effort,” he says. “Wes Baldwin, my assistant, does a great job. Head groundskeepers can have great ideas but your crew needs to buy into what you’re doing to make it happen. That’s why it’s so important to recognize all the crew, including the front office people that help pull tarps. It’s hard work.
“The Southern League should call their award “Field of the Year” rather than “Groundskeeper of the Year,” Sayre says.
Eric Schroder is editorial director at SportsTurf magazine.