Over the spring and summer months of years past, countless people have stepped onto the field at Haymarket Park. This summer only one will.
Lincoln Saltdogs groundskeeper Jeremy Johnson takes care of the park every day, despite the fact there are no baseball games being played.
“At the end of the day, grass is still a living, breathing organism. It’s gotta be maintained like our home yards,” Johnson said. “Now I’m not so much worried about the appearance as much as just keeping and maintaining healthy grass.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and the loss of a baseball season have resulted in big changes for Johnson. He no longer has to take care of the infield clay and is working alone as the only member of the Saltdogs groundskeeping team. He says the shift to working alone has been the biggest change.
“It’s much easier when you’ve got four people that are like-minded and know what needs to happen around here,” he said. “When it’s just you, first and foremost, you’ve got to address emergencies. If you’ve got bad irrigation or some other problem that’s come up, you have to address that first before you even get to the routine maintenance.”
Despite all of the new challenges in his job, Johnson stays positive.
“You just try to keep your mind on other things than being by yourself, being alone,” he said. “I’m not the only one going through this, you know, we’ve all had to adjust and do the best we can with what we’ve got. I just try not to dwell on the negatives.”
While the work of Johnson and his crew typically goes unnoticed by fans, the American Association has noticed. The Saltdogs and Haymarket Park have been awarded the “Playing Field of the Year” for 19 straight seasons. Johnson credits this to his crew’s attention to detail.
“Keeping the edges sharp and straight, making sure we’ve got good coverage on our clay, we go that extra mile, we put extra detail into everything,” he said. “We make sure the mound is perfectly sloped, the field is nice and level and not to say that others don’t do it, but they probably don’t do it to the degree we do.”
One of the things Johnson and his crew like to do during a typical season is put designs in the outfield turf. Lines and checkerboards are the most common and they work because of the way the light reflecting off the grass blade is perceived.
“When the grass blades are rolled down and pointed away from the fan they’re gonna look like a light stripe, and if they’re pointed toward the fan it’s gonna look like a dark stripe,” Johnson explained.
His team tries to look online for ideas of what to put in the outfield on game day.
“We get pretty crazy, we’ve done sunbursts, spiral patterns. Whatever we see from other major league facilities, other college facilities, as long as it’s universal we try to put it in our fields at least once.”
Even though the Saltdogs won’t be on the field this season, the American Association will play a shortened season with six teams in three league stadiums. This likely means a different stadium will win “Field of the Year” for the first time in 19 years, but Johnson doesn’t see it that way.
“I’m absolutely gonna call it a consecutive streak [if the Saltdogs win next year],” He says jokingly. “Whoever wins it this year if there even is an award will definitely have an asterisk, no question.”