04/11/04 — Tommy Walston earns recognition as K-Tribe groundskeeper

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Tommy Walston earns recognition as K-Tribe groundskeeper

By David Williams
Published in Sports on April 11, 2004 2:00 AM

KINSTON -- Tommy Walston was recently given quite a recognition.

The groundskeeper at Grainger Stadium for the past nine years, Walston was recently honored from among 163 teams as Sportsturf Manager of the Year for all of Class A baseball.

He learned his craft at Wayne Community College in its highly-praised Turf Management program. After graduating from Mount Olive College with a business management degree, Walston began as the Grainger Stadium groundskeeper.

A two-time Carolina League Groundskeeper of the Year, Walston will be the first to tell you that high honors such as this do not come from sitting behind a desk.

"We're on that grass like a golf superintendent is, looking for hot spots, for disease, for insect trouble," Walston said. "Were on it 365 days a year. That the only way to have a playing surface like that.

"We're essentially maintaining a two-and-a-half acre golf green. It is very high maintenance."

Walston does use his desk, however -- to watch the local weather forecasts. He knows the region's TV weathermen on a first-name basis as he keeps an eye out for what Mother Nature may be packing for his yard.

"I know we've got a clear day today, but our guys want to work out tomorrow," Walston said. "So I'm fixing to watch the weather to see what it will do tomorrow, the next day, and the next. I have to plan three, four, five days in advance."

Walston is a big part of why the Grainger Stadium playing surface is one of the finest in minor league baseball. He was the expert on hand when the City of Kinston and Indians part-owner North Johnston decided to renovate the field in 1998. The surface was replaced, using a 10-inch sand base with top-quality sod on top of it.

"We used major league specs -- sand base, golf green, high perk rate -- so when the rain stops, within 30-45 minutes, we can be ready to play again," he said. "But the flip side of that is that it's like a golf green -- it can't take a lot of use. So when we have tournaments such as Conference USA, the CAA tournament, AAU nationals, we take a beating. It can't take three or four games a day for four or five days. It is going to look like we had a four-wheel convention out here."

To keep the surface in shape, Walston and his crew have to invest a lot of time. The crew consists of Walston and a full-time seasonal assistant that is usually from WCC's Turf Management school. He also has six other part-time workers that have day jobs and come out evenings to help with game preparation. Walston usually schedules two of the six to work, giving the other four time off.

"We're by 7:30, 8 a.m. on game days," Walston said. "We water, repack the bullpens to work out wear spots, edge out anywhere where dirt and grass meet. We'll mow around 10:30 or 11, depending on if we are cutting or catching the clippings and stuff."

His crew has to have the field ready by 2 p.m. for the players to work out and take batting practice for that night's game. "We go back to doing the odd things, like drag the warning tack," he said. "Or we just eat lunch and catch our breath."

Walston gets the field again at 6:05 p.m. he has 45 minutes to get the field back in playing shape, including lining off the foul lines and batters box.

" It's run for our lives for 45 minutes," said Walston. "Drag, chalk, water, broom the edges, water again. I may water it three times before the game. It's kind of like taking a drink -- you don't come in and gulp down a whole drink. You drink some, wait a bit, then drink more."

At 10 minutes until game time, the field is ready. Walston can watch the game for awhile, going back to work when he and his crew do the fifth-inning drag of the infield. Walston and two helpers pull field drags around the infield, doing the entire area in 90 seconds.

During that time, Walston is listening to the players, taking their feedback on how the surface is playing.

"What kind of conditions does the first baseman want to play in?" Walston said. "The second baseman? The shortstop? The third baseman? Do they like a soft field, a fast field, a dry field? I try to tailor each position to my guys. If we have a fast middle infield, I may not put as much water on it so out guys can cover more because they like it fast. It helps us in return when we get to bat. If we are against a team that's big and slow that can crush it a mile, then I'm going to water that baby down and slow that ball down and let the infield grass grow up.

"That's the home-field advantage. I start looking at that when I go to spring training and see what kind of team we are going to have."

At game's end, Walston and his crew take 45 minutes to get the field ready for the next morning's schedule. They usually leave the park around 11 p.m.

"We live in the ball park," Walston said. "I basically kiss the wife my son goodbye, and say, 'See you in September.' "

Walston is in constant conversation with Kinston Indians manager Tory Luvollo, coordinating schedules and planning around the weather.

Walston takes his part of the team's success seriously. His first priority is safety -- the safety of the Indians players.

"We're a service industry -- just like a waiter or waitress. We serve these guys," he said. "Cleveland's got an investment in these kids. I don't want the field to be a factor in them getting hurt or losing their confidence and not making it to Cleveland -- I want to put the field of play out of their element.

"Our guys know I can't do anything about the rain. But I can do something about bad hops, tall grass, wore-out spots."

Despite the hectic schedule and long hours, Walston is truly a man who loves his work.

"I've been very blessed to be where I'm at," he said. " It's been nine years now. I gave myself five years to fix this place up, and then move to somewhere bigger. But after my fifth season. I saw that I have what every groundskeeper dreams of in a sand-based field. So the grass underneath my feet got greener than on the other side of the fence."

And Tommy Walston is a man who knows green grass when he sees it.