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MU student seeks a perfect pitch on the turf of Taylor Stadium

Wednesday, April 30, 2008 | 11:40 p.m. CDT; updated 7:07 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008
William Pipp pours conditioner on the pitcher's mound at Taylor Stadium on April 6. The groundskeepers repair the mound both before and after the game.

COLUMBIA — William Pipp kneels down in the bright green Kentucky bluegrass, sharply contrasting the gray April sky overhead. He’s meticulously measuring, looking and then remeasuring. It’s not rocket science, but it is an exact one. As Missouri’s baseball players toss warm-up throws in Taylor Stadium before their game against Oklahoma State, it’s Pipp’s time to shine. And he’s got dreams of the big leagues, too.

Pipp is a senior plant sciences major at MU with an emphasis on turf grass management. His dreams of the big leagues are in the often-misunderstood profession of groundskeeping.

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“The biggest misconception is that we go out there and mow patterns into grass,” Pipp said. “People see that on ESPN.”

The aesthetic grass designs in Taylor Stadium’s Kentucky bluegrass field are less than five percent of his duty, Pipp said. He and the maintenance crew create the pattern of light and dark strips in the outfield by mowing and flattening the grass opposite ways. The light reflects off those blades of grass in different directions and provides the illusion of different color shades.

The designs give spectators visual proof of the groundskeepers’ work, but providing a safe playing surface is the real priority. Several hours before each home game, Pipp and two other groundskeepers prepare the field for play, checking for divots in the outfield and obsessively smoothing the infield dirt made up of calcined clay, which is absorbent clay that has been heated to a certain temperature and won’t stick to cleats.

“You may think in that large time span there isn’t anything to do, but in all honesty there’s plenty to do,” Pipp said. “Once you get the field where it’s safe and playable, then you focus on your attention to detail.”

From there, one crew member will rake debris from the grass and use a broom to smooth the pitcher’s mound to the liking of that night’s pitcher. Another will tie a string from home plate to the right field wall and paint the straight white foul line. Then there’s hauling out the industrial-sized hose, a few inches in diameter, to soak the infield dirt. After hammering the bases in and setting up the batting practice equipment, Pipp and the crew might have time to touch up the outfield walls with some fresh green paint.

“It’s a pretty standard routine; I could do it with my eyes closed if I needed to,” Pipp said.

It’s the minute details that the groundskeepers need to worry about, and that’s what Pipp loves. How much moisture you put on the dirt and the height of the grass are a few of the details that could easily change the play of a game.

“A bad hop can affect one play in the game, which could mean national championship or go home for the summer,” Pipp said.

The Division of Plant Sciences at MU uses experiential learning through in-class labs and requires an internship before graduation. The degree requires basic science classes such as biology and chemistry. Eventually students delve into specialized courses such as turf grass management in order to learn different grass species, fertilizing techniques, watering habits and mowing heights in relation to each type of grass.

The turf grass management students have managed Missouri’s baseball field since 1992 and took on the softball and soccer fields a few years later.

“School is your books and your know-how,” Pipp said, “But really, a lot of this stuff comes from the experience I’ve gotten the last couple years.”

His experience includes a summer internship working on the field for Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park and helping the Washington Nationals christen their brand new Nationals Park on opening night. His enthusiasm will take him back to Washington, D.C., this summer to work as an intern for the Nationals. While being on baseball’s biggest stage is fun, it’s all the same to him.

“It won’t faze me, whether I was working for the Atlanta Braves or working for Mizzou here,” he says. “It really is a passion ... I’m in love with my job, I tell people that. It’s a feeling. I think it’s relaxing.”

MU’s turf program has graduates working for Kansas City’s Wizards, Chiefs and Royals, as well as various other professional clubs across the country. Brad Fresenburg, the MU Turf Club faculty advisor, has nothing but positive feedback about his student interns.

He said he hopes that students can continue to make it to the big leagues. Pro-level jobs, with salaries reaching six figures, are limited, but Fresenburg is confident in the students graduating from MU’s program.

“I can tell you right now that when our students graduate and are ready to move on, I have no doubt that any of them can go on and manage a professional team’s field straight out of college,” Fresenberg said.

Back at the stadium, the lights have come on, and Pipp has put in a day’s work. The game hasn’t even started yet.

And the crew will be out working long after the stands empty, too, repairing the pitcher’s mound and preparing for the next day’s game, but that’s all right with Pipp.

“A lot of people go to work for the paycheck,” Pipp said. “But I love coming to work.”

The stands are filled now, and all eyes are on the players. As the first pitch is thrown, Pipp retreats into the shadows and takes in the view.

“Someone once told me, ‘Your field is like a canvas. However you do your art, everyone else sees it as well, so that’s a direct reflection on you.’”


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