Perfect Pitch

Putting one's grass on the line with soccer groundskeepers
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This piece originally appeared in Issue 2 of the excellent, and for now print-only, Howler magazine. We're delighted to reprint it with the kind permission of Howler. If you haven't already seen a copy of Howler at a bookstore and been blown away, visit and pick up a copy.

They say it never rains in Southern California. They are wrong. Droughts end, and then it rains for days. Water pools, rivers and lakes appear, and slowly the state slips further into the Pacific. It has been raining like that all day now.

It’s three in the afternoon, and I’m at the Home Depot Center, home of the LA Galaxy, 13 miles south of downtown Los Angeles. In three hours, the Galaxy will play the Houston Dynamo for the 2011 MLS Cup. An hour ago, as I was sloshing down the freeway, I was near certain the game would be cancelled from flooding. But the playing field appears to be in fine shape—dewy and, under the stadium lights, so green it’s almost bioluminescent. Inside the lines it looks perfect.

The pitch is playable because it was engineered that way. It was seeded in sandy, loamy soil that drains well, so it can take on a serious amount of water. Beneath that grass lays 3,000 tons of sand, a full six feet of it just below the surface. The sand was meticulously tamped down, then scanned with a laser to ensure that it was flat as a glass tabletop. A carpet of grass was farmed in the desert, rolled into great spools, loaded onto a dozen semis, and then trucked here to be laid over that laser-flat, hard-packed, rain-sucking sand.

Rain isn’t the only thing trying to kill this pitch. Last week, the Home Depot Center hosted a rave, and its stage smothered the grass, killing a bunch of it, which is why—five feet behind one of the goals— there is a patch of new turf the exact size of that stage. It’s a good bet that the 30,000 people who will be in the stands just three hours from now won’t notice that huge patch of new grass. And that’s because Shaun Ilten is very good at what he does. This is his pitch. “I’ve been here since oh-five,” he says as we lean against a stadium railing, watching the rain pound his field. “I was flipping through the newspaper, and I came across an ad for the LA Galaxy—must have been for a game—and I was like, Someone’s gotta take care of that field. I don’t like working inside, I can’t stand sitting behind a desk. I want to be outside, in the elements.”

He called the number and left a message for the field manager, Kyle Waters. Shaun said he wanted to be an intern for the summer and that he didn’t have to get paid. Waters didn’t call back. After a week, Shaun called again, and again—for months without a response. And then Waters finally called back. “Don’t think I haven’t been listening to your messages,” he said. “I’ve just lost one of my crew—come work for me.”

Back then, Shaun says, “I couldn’t tell you dirt from grass.” But he stuck close to Waters and took night classes in biology, agriculture, and turf management. And he mowed enough turf to cover California.

Two years passed. Waters got promoted to oversee the entire Home Depot Center, and he put Shaun in charge of the grounds. Shaun now covers 10 fields—nine practice pitches and the stadium pitch. He has a crew of a dozen men to care for 125 acres and 1,800 trees. The day-today work involves a lot of mowing and aerating, which is as essential for a pitch as breathing is for you and me. The idea is pretty basic: poke a bunch of holes in the ground to let oxygen out and CO2 in. The aerifier is not much more than a cleated roller hitched to the back of a John Deere. Dragging an aerifier, the tractor can go only 1.2 miles per hour—no faster than a wobbly senior with a walker—so it takes five and a half hours to punch all those holes in a field. It is mind-numbing work to drive so slow in perfectly straight lines. “I use to have one guy whose sole purpose in life was to aerify,” Shaun says. “He loved being on the tractor, didn’t want to be around people. That’s all he did, on the tractor, 40 hours a week, from this field to that field...”

Shaun recently began using a device called a Shockwave. Instead of punching holes with fat round pegs, it plunges seven-inch-long vibrating blades into the turf, loosening up the earth and leaving the field looking nicer than when it gets punctured with the aerifier, which leaves thousands of pebbly turds of dirt in its wake. Shaun says you can’t much tell that a Shockwave has been at work on the field until you walk on it. Then “it’s like, Damn, that’s soft!”

“Ain’t nothing is perfect out here, you learn that real quick,” he says. “The funny thing is, anybody can manage grass; it’s about managing people, and people’s expectations of the way the grass needs to be, the way the grass needs to look.” He says coaches give him the most trouble. They usually think the field is too hard, and want Shaun’s crew to water it more. A too-hard field will wear on their player’s ankles and knees, they say. “If I make it soft,” Shaun tells them, “your guys are like horses out there. They rip it up.”

Another key to a great field is seed. The Center hosts football and soccer and concerts and X Games and strongman competitions, which means that for about 80 nights a year, someone is walking on the grass and destroying it. But Shaun is ready for all of them. In the five days leading up to a big game, Shaun and his crew throw pounds upon pounds of seed on the pitch. After the stage at the rave suffocated that patch of grass, his crew tore up the dead stuff, tossed 7,500 tons of green sand on the field to level it, then hammered it with seed. They then threw growth blankets— sheets of semipermeable polyurethane that trap the heat—over the field, creating a mini greenhouse. After a week, the patch was green again. He can make even a trashed field immaculate in a week and a half. “Ten days off and it’ll look like it did on day one. People tend to forget that it needs time. It’s just fucking grass, they say. But it’s a living thing. You gotta treat it as such.”

Shaun’s cell phone rings, and he starts speaking quietly, nodding. I can’t hear what he says, but it’s clearly about his field. It is now an hour before kickoff. He ends his call and walks out to the middle of the pitch, where he bounces on the balls of his feet, testing how fast the turf springs back to see how dry it is. He walks over to inspect some soggy lines his crew repainted hours ago and confirms what he already knows: his field is ready.

Just before the game begins, I wander over to the tunnel the players will soon spill out of. In the bowels of the arena, I pass a small wooden sign mounted to the cinderblocks that reads: “Grass grows by the inch, but is ruined by the foot.”

A field’s condition changes the game. On a muddy pitch, the idea is to keep the ball off the ground as long as possible. In the classic English style—kick and rush, Highway 1—goals could be scored after two passes. The idea was to just get it up there and get it in. Such imperfection made for players who reveled in chaos, big, physical guys who excelled at winning the ball in the air.

A perfect field alters play, too. The game is cleaner, more technical, and a player’s size and physical might is made less relevant. Xavi, the metronome of Barcelona’s nearly unbeatable tikitaka style—short, precise ground passes—is the greatest example of such technical play. Highly engineered turfgrass is a prerequisite for tiki-taka, and when the grass isn’t to his liking, Xavi complains bitterly—about its length, its density, its dryness. A random quote among many: “The fact that they didn’t water the pitch persecuted our dynamic and fluid play.” Persecuted. If the universe is just, Xavi will be reborn a groundskeeper.

This is not simply Xavi’s paranoia or a Spanish obsession. Former coach of the Netherlands Bert van Marwijk complained that the grass was too long after his team lost to Denmark this summer at Euro 2012. “Only by a few millimeters,” he told reporters, “but that can make a big difference.” A bit of irony there: at the 2010 World Cup final in South Africa, Spain whined that the “long” grass slowed down their game and helped the Dutch. That World Cup, by the way, was played on ryegrass. Kikuyu, a variety native to South Africa, had been grown on just about every field and lawn in the nation up until then, but its faded shade of green didn’t look good on television, so it was pulled.

Ryegrass is now used in Jo-burg and L.A. and most every major stadium in between. That’s because it’s pretty and it grows fast. To understand how that seed became a universal favorite, you must first appreciate the American turfgrass industry in all its vastness. The product—high-quality, specially grown sod and seed—covers more land than all of Nebraska.

Most of that great green sea is lawn, but a lot of it is golf course. Golf has always been the industry’s driver, so to speak. The turf industry generates $60 billion a year and employs about 800,000 people, more than half of them in golf. In the 1950s, golf-course designers began consulting with USDA turf scientists and found that sand-based turf provided better drainage and superior greens and fairways. The industry boomed in the 1980s, as more and more real estate developments were built around golf courses. “Suddenly, they needed to sell houses faster,” says John Foster, who started West Coast Turf in 1990. “So they needed the golf course to get greener quicker.” Which meant a huge new market for quality grass, year-round.

Turfgrass came to stadiums because of the 1993 NFC Championship Game between the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers. Ten days of rain in the Bay Area had turned the Kentucky bluegrass at Candlestick Park into a swamp. A week before the game, the grass was torn out, and Foster installed a thick sand-based Bermuda. It was the first time in NFL history that an entire field was replaced before a playoff game. It played well, and sandy soil has been the play ever since.

Every spring Kyle Waters, Shaun’s boss, drives out to the desert and buys 12,000 square feet of premium grass from West Coast Turf for $100,000. That’s enough to replace his main pitch and a few of the practice fields, plus a little extra for patch jobs.

Waters was once a baseball player at Oklahoma State University, where they test turf the way the folks at the Lawrence Livermore Lab test atoms. But after three shoulder surgeries sidelined him, he began to work the grounds to stay involved with the sport he loved. He enjoyed the job enough that he took classes in horticulture and landscape architecture and got a minor in soil chemistry and a major in turf management. He was so devoted that during away games, he’d travel ahead of the baseball team and work with their host’s field crew, just to see how they worked their turf.

His teachers at Oklahoma State, those PhDs in turf technology, engineered the seeds he uses now, and are working on the seeds he'll be using 10 years from now. Justin Moss, an assistant professor at at the university, specializes in sports grass for fields, not fairways. He tests how much abuse grass can take and still remain a perfect playing surface. Eight out of 10 NFL players prefer natural grass to the artificial stuff. It’s the feel, they say, and there are many more injuries on artificial grass.

The drawback, of course, is that grass needs sun, and not all stadiums have that. Even the Oklahoma State stadium, oriented east-west, has the fake stuff. Too much shade and too much traffic are grass killers, but Moss is breeding varieties that need less water, have fewer diseases, regenerate faster, and grow back even stronger. His obsession is the stress physiology of grass. It needs to be hardy, able to withstand weather both cold and hot. In the north, most fields use Kentucky bluegrass, cut with perennial ryegrass. In the south it’s Bermuda, which does well in the sweltering summertime. Even in the north, fields will have some Bermuda, mixed with ryegrass for the winter. “Usually, the sports fields blend four or five varieties,” Moss says. “And seed companies mix the varieties into ‘sports field blends.’ The advantage there is you have three or four types of grass,” he says—one that withstands foot traffic, another that’s disease resistant, and a third that grows back quickly.

Universities with turf departments tend to focus on specific varieties of grass, based on their location. At Rutgers, Penn State, and Michigan State, the agriculture departments specialize in cool-weather varieties. At Georgia and OK State, it’s warm-weather blends. Oklahoma State’s Patriot blend of Bermuda was used at the Beijing and London Olympics. Now they're working on one that will hold up well under cleats. To stress-test various grasses, graduate students tricked out an aerator by attaching cleats to it. To simulate the foot traffic of an NFL game, they fire up the aerator to “play” a game a week and monitor the results by studying the strength of the subterranean grass stems. Early on, though, the grass was so tough that the hard plastic cleats were wearing down too fast, so they pulled them out and replaced them with steel pegs. That’s how strong grass has become. A wrecked big-league field today is a rare thing indeed.

At the end of the first half of MLS Cup, six members of Shaun’s crew walk onto the field. They carry buckets of green sand, which they use to fill divots; they also collect the clumps of grass that have been gouged out of the ground, stacking them on one side of their buckets. I work alongside Ben Garcia, who has been at the Home Depot Center for eight years. When he’s done tonight, he says, he will watch ESPN to see highlights from the game played. “I like it when they show my field,” he says.

Our conversation stops and starts as one or the other of us veers off toward a divot. After throwing sand in each hole, we smooth it flat, using our hands to pat it down, even it out. Sometimes we stop and worry for a moment over an especially gory gash in the earth like parents standing at the hospital bed of our sick child.

As we finish our slow perambulation, I’m left holding one last handful of dislodged turf. I’m surprised by how delicate it feels, light and loamy and not muddy at all. Instead of tossing it into my bucket, I stuff the divot into my jacket pocket.

The Galaxy wins the game, and it ends with smoke bombs and fireworks and confetti, which Shaun and his crew will spend the next two and a half hours cleaning up. Tomorrow they’ll assess the damage to the field, throw 50 tons of sand down, hammer it with more seed, and cover it all with grow blankets. The California state high school football championship will be played here next week. The field will be ready.

The next morning, I remember the divot of grass in my pocket. Already, Shaun and his crew will be reseeding the turf at the Home Depot Center, feeding and worrying over this living thing. I ease the clump out of my jacket and it crumbles in my fingers, the delicate green blades falling softly between the couch’s cushions.

Ryan Bradley is a senior editor at Fortune. Find more of his writing here and follow him on Twitter here.

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