Playing field is a work of art

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 24, 2010 - 10:09 AM

At 8:30 a.m., it was already scorching, the hot July sun catching the silver numbers on Target Field's empty seat backs and wrapping the stadium in a piercing shimmer.

Head groundskeeper Larry DiVito stood at the mound with a hose, the sole figure on the quiet field, his profile casting a shadow against the glittering wave surrounding him.

Beyond the warning track, the center field wall gaped open, and Al Kuener mixed white latex paint in big white buckets.

"Being out here, first thing in the morning, it's the best time of the day," said Kuener, the assistant head groundskeeper, who has worked on a Minnesota baseball field since 1975. "It's kind of like being in a museum, in a way."

At this museum, the paint is sprayed with an electrical pump on wheels; the canvas is a living, ever-changing piece of land. A half-hour before the first pitch, Target Field is a flawless work of art, but it is a masterpiece that must be constantly recreated, and must turn out as brilliant as the edition before it.

Even on a pristine day like Thursday, that requires a lot of attention. The field must be mowed, watered and repaired daily.

"It's a delicate balance," Kuener said. He rolled his eyes a little to indicate the hassle, but the gesture could never be mistaken for a complaint. It seems when Kuener is on the field, he rarely stops smiling.

• • •

"There's the man," Nick Balistrieri -- who worked at Camden Yards last year -- shouted playfully as Kuener rolled the pump past. "Uncle Al [as they all refer to him] is a legend around here."

Kuener just grinned at the personable crew DiVito hand-picked from across the country, and walked over to home plate, where he and crew member Nick Wilz began to paint over the faded Twins logo.

Behind them, DiVito was still on the mound between the sheets of tarp, molding the hill. In a few hours, major league players would be toeing the rubber, ready to fling their bodies toward home plate with the force of a 90-miles-per-hour fastball. Beneath the noon sun, DiVito -- who won't give up his "secret" procedure to anyone -- worked to ensure that goes smoothly.

The procedure is a calculated one, a process designed from hours of quiet observation. During a game, DiVito sits in the camera pit, studying his work. He watches to see how the pitcher lands off his delivery, whether he stumbles, how he slides. Every ground ball is a testament to his artful composition. The slightest inconsistency could change a game.

"He could be out there for hours," said Tyler Carter, who went back to school a year ago for sports and commercial turfgrass management after working in a graphics sales office for two years, happily trading a cubicle for days spent inside a ballpark.

"He takes a heck of a lot of pride in it," Carter said. The sentiment seems to have touched every member of the team.

"Just an average day here is better than any day at an office," Balistrieri said.

• • •

As the White Sox took the field for some drills, the crew stood along the home dugout, like soldiers relaxed at camp, jawing back and forth but all the while keeping one eye on their general in expectation of a command.

Forming a line through the infield, White Sox pitchers stepped onto the mound, threw a pitch, then ran to cover first while the first basemen dived after a well-placed hit.

"Watching this, this is a groundskeeper's worst nightmare," Kuener said jokingly as he watched bits of grass uproot and scatter, as each pitcher cut the same path to first base. "It's like a cattle trail from the mound.

"I love to look out, just before the teams take the field, and see everything perfect. And then, it's play ball. It's like having guests in your house. You clean, and then you have to entertain them for a while, and do it all over again."

And they do, each day, with the passion of one who strives to give the guests perfection, at each party.

"I told myself the first time I feel like I have to go to work, then it'll be over," said Jared Alley, the groundskeeping supervisor. "But it never feels like that. I get to go to the ballpark."

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