The Spokane Indians will run to their positions tonight in Seafirst Stadium with fans clapping and a guy named Nethercutt primed to toss out the first ball.
But one person off the edge of the field will be looking at what’s under the player’s feet, not at their faces or uniforms.
Chad Mulholland’s eyes will lock on the field, expecting to see grass that glows darker than a fresh-printed dollar bill or a perfect pool table.
Mulholland, the stadium’s head groundskeeper, wants the Indians to win their home opener. But he’ll be preparing tomorrow’s work list in his head: sod needing to be replaced, fertilizer applied, baselines edged tighter.
Although it’s a six-month job for Mulholland, opening night is special for a groundskeeper. This may be single-A minor league baseball, but Mulholland treats the event like the Super Bowl.
Like the players and umpires, the fastidious 25-year-old dreams of someday working in the major leagues. Tonight, he begins his second season at Seafirst Stadium.
Fans coming to the Indians’ 38 home games may not ooh and ahh at the lush sod he’s produced, or the fresh, crisp new layer of crushed rock on the warning track.
For Mulholland, it’s enough that the players know he’s delivered something they can enjoy playing on.
“The players in this league know this is a great surface,” he said. “I don’t think these guys will find a better field at this level of the minors anywhere.”
Those who know the game and other fields agree Mulholland’s work holds its own against bigger, higherbudget stadiums.
“He’s an artist, that’s exactly how I’d put it,” said Indians General Manager Andy Billig.
Mulholland would like to impress one other group of people: “I want other groundskeepers to come in here and say, ‘Wow, this guy has been puttin’ in his hours.”’
Seven days a week, he starts his day thinking about the right blend of nitrogen, phosphorus and lawnenriching iron.
He treats the Indians’ field as a child. He knows exactly where its slopes are imperfect, where the in-field dirt needs leveling.
He lets no one else give the grass a double-mowing on game days. “He’s the only guy in the stadium who can ride the mower and make sure the cuts (up and back) are exactly straight,” said team publicist Todd Doolittle.
Mulholland grew up in Arizona, a kid like millions of others who didn’t have the skills to excel but who wanted to be near the game.
One day a high school coach asked him to take charge of the team’s field. He discovered he enjoyed the game even more if he kept the field true and trim.
“That’s what the real goal is: making sure the game is played the right way,” he said. “The aesthetics come second.”
He then spent time as an apprentice with George Toma - the guru of groundskeeping, regarded by many in baseball as the Picasso of playing fields.
“He taught me patience,” Mulholland said. “He always says, ‘Do the best you can each day, and a little more.”’
Like Toma, former head groundskeeper for the Kansas City Royals, Mulholland won’t allow a machine to smooth the infield dirt between bases. “It kicks up dirt on the edges and creates an unlevel surface,” said Mulholland.
Not that every part of the field has to be perfectly level.
“Yeah, we might have modified the field just a bit this past year,” Mulholland conceded.
At the suggestion of team manager Bob Herold, Mulholland and his crew slightly tilted the baselines from home plate to first and third.
Having the base paths lean inward toward the pitcher’s mound, can theoretically help hitters bunt down the lines.
Mulholland won’t say that’s the reason.
“Let’s just say it might help runners going around the bases,” he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: A whole new ballgame The Spokane Indians have a few new twists for fans this season: A $5,000 computer sound system that stadium announcer Michael Lindskog will use to generate rapid-fire sound effects and audio bites, a lot like the system in place at the Spokane Arena. “You’ll hear a lot more stuff, everything from joke movie dialogue” to soothing harp music when centerfield Scott Harp steps to the plate, he said. About 3,600 general admission seats are now reserved seats. “We discovered people developed preferences for certain seats,” said Indian publicist Todd Doolittle. “They’ll come back asking for seats they really liked.” Espresso will be sold, giving a whole new meaning to the term bean ball.