Missouri athletic department turf specialist readies snowy baseball field for Tigers

Saturday, March 9, 2013 | 9:55 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — From his seat in the press box, Josh McPherson could admire his work, the green baseball field he had created. Just five days removed from the second snowiest February in Columbia’s history, the Missouri baseball team had just taken the field for a home-opening doubleheader.

“When you’re down in the middle of the baseball field it just feels like spring,” McPherson said. “And then you get up there and you’re like, ‘Oh wow, there’s snow everywhere else. This green glowing thing in the middle is the baseball field.’”

McPherson is the turf specialist for the Missouri athletic department. He spends his days tending to the various athletic fields that make up the MU Sports Park, meeting with individual coaches to ensure the playing surfaces are to their likings and working with Missouri’s medical staff to ensure player safety.

The SportsTurf Managers Association recognized McPherson and his staff in 2011, naming Simmons Field at Taylor Stadium one of 11 Field of the Year winners. In August 2012, McPherson’s team replaced the previously existing Kentucky Bluegrass with brand new Bermuda Grass, called Latitude 36.

McPherson knew he was in for a challenge. He would have to clear the field of heavy snow without harming the new surface he had labored to install.

“You spend a lot of time and effort and money to put in a new surface,” McPherson said. “You don’t really want to destroy it before you get a chance to grow it in.”

McPherson and his staff stretched a white vinyl tarp over the infield, a crucial decision in hindsight, and braced themselves for snow removal.

After the Storm

By the time the second round of heavy snow hit Columbia, the Missouri baseball team’s home opener, scheduled for March 1, was a mere three days away. After measuring 7.5 inches of snow in the outfield after the previous Thursday’s pummeling, McPherson was greeted by a fresh 6 inches, which had accumulated on top.

“We’re more equipped for like a four-inch snow than the one we had,” he said. “I’ve never had this much on a field.”

Snow-blowing the field proved inefficient and potentially harmful to the grass. Even with the entire baseball team shoveling by hand, the snow was too heavy and thick to remove. With snow still covering most of the field, Missouri announced the next day that the home-opening series against Northwestern was off. Even so, the Tigers’ next game was scheduled for the following Tuesday, forcing McPherson and his crew to make a big push over the weekend.  

“The focus changed to how do we get the Eastern Michigan games in,” McPherson said.

For the first time in his ten-year career in college athletics, McPherson called in reinforcements to help remove the snow. He turned to Gaines Landscaping, a Jefferson City-based company experienced in and equipped for removing snow. By Friday, the heavy artillery had arrived in the form of three Bobcat compact tractors.

“They were more skilled at driving those than we were, so I just hired his guys too,” McPherson said. “And they were able to keep the blade about an inch off the ground very consistently, so we didn’t dig into the ground.”

The process was simple, yet effective. One of Gaines’ Bobcats would push the snow into large piles all over the field. The other two, at different sites on the field, would scoop snow from the piles into the back of McPherson’s smaller all-terrain utility vehicles. He estimated that he and his staff of seven interns would haul about a thousand loads of snow off the field before it would be playable, leaving him concerned about field damage resulting from such constant traffic.

No Rest for the Weary

Southeastern by conference affiliation only, early March isn’t too kind to the Tigers. Even with the field clear for Tuesday afternoon’s game, the baseball team pushed its home opener back to Wednesday, to be part of a doubleheader, due to below-freezing temperatures.

McPherson watched from the press box Wednesday, waiting to see if his field would pass the real test: games.

“I don’t want someone to take, you know if they’re in the outfield getting ready to field a groundball and it bounces up and hits them in the face,” McPherson said. “Or a guy twists his ankle going back for a ball.”

The first game of the afternoon went off without a hitch, with the Tigers scraping out a 1-0 win over the Eastern Michigan Eagles. But doubleheaders are always tricky for McPherson, especially when it comes to the pitcher’s mound.

“After every game there’s holes near the rubber, and then the landing spot where the foot lands, so every day we repair that and remake it smooth up to regulation,” McPherson explained. “So when we have a doubleheader, we have 30 minutes to do what we usually take an hour or so to do.”

Looking on during the first inning of the second game, he knew something was wrong. McPherson could see Missouri pitcher Keaton Steele was slipping.

“Just through it being so cold, the clay didn’t quite have time to stick and dry out, so it was a little slick there in the first inning of the second game,” he said. “That’s how a pitcher gets hurt.”

After watching Eastern Michigan’s starting pitcher show similar body language in the bottom of the inning, McPherson made his way down to the field. He approached the home plate umpire at the end of the inning. After a brief dialogue, McPherson grabbed his tools and scurried out to the mound.

“I can’t explain it,” McPherson said. “I just did what I do, and it was fine.”

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