Keeping the field dreamy
Groundskeepers committed to making sure Suplizio Field stays in tip-top shape
Suplizio Field is Grand Junction’s field of dreams.
From future Hall of Famers to soon-to-be major league stars to college players with big dreams and high school kids with bigger dreams, it is the grandest stage for baseball on the Western Slope.
Baseball will always be about the players and what they do on the field, but it’s the diamond that needs to shine just as bright.
For the Suplizio Field grounds crew, it doesn’t matter if it’s Todd Helton at first, Jon Gray on the mound, Kiel Roling in the batter’s box or the wide-eyed youngster with big-league dreams shagging fly balls in the outfield — this field will be as close to perfect for everyone who’s on it.
“We don’t care if it’s a high school game, college game, JUCO game or a (Grand Junction) Rockies game, we’re going to make it the best we can every day,” City of Grand Junction Parks Supervisor Eddie Mort said.
Of course, that’s what management is supposed to say, but what about the guys who work the field every day?
“It doesn’t matter if it’s Little League or the Grand Junction Rockies, we want it to be the best every time.”
That’s the completely unscripted comment from assistant groundskeeper Bill Johnson, who’s been roaming the dirt and grass of Suplizio Field since 2007.
He loves his job — loves it.
He smiles when he talks about his job, and like a proud dad, his smile grows bigger when he looks around the field.
It’s his job, and the job of two other full-time workers and three seasonal workers, to make Suplizio Field the place where dreams live and die for ballplayers
For decades, Suplizio Field has been home to the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series, but it’s also the home of the Grand Junction Rockies, Colorado Mesa University and District 51 high school teams.
A special field for all
Johnson said the best days come when he sees the wow factor in the faces of kids and college players when they take Suplizio Field.
“When the high school kids come in or the college kids come in, we know we’ve done our job when their jaws drop, and they go ‘I can’t believe we’re playing here,’ ” he said.
Some JUCO teams arrive in Grand Junction to play in front of 10,000 fans after many games during the season when they see crowds smaller than an average family reunion.
It’s the job of the grounds crew to make the field pristine every time there’s a “Play Ball!” on the agenda.
“If we do it perfect, I love the looks on their faces,” Johnson said.
This year will be the busiest in the history of Suplizio Field, with more than 160 games.
JUCO is the busiest week of the year without a doubt.
Johnson said the real chaos is the week leading up to the week-long, 19-game tournament. Preparation makes the job a little easier once the first pitch pops the glove.
“It’s always busy, busy, busy, we just keep our heads down and get the job done,” Johnson said.
The first day of JUCO has four games and the crew has only 30 minutes to turn around the field between games.
Busy, busy, busy.
Mort said they prepare the field the same for every game.
“We try and keep it at a real high level all the time,” he said. “We do the same thing for JUCO that we do for the Rockies, college or high school.”
Duties aren’t just limited to the field though; the grounds crew also empties trash, cleans the stands and the Hospitality Suite in the Lincoln Park Tower.
Mort, who graduated from Fruita Monument and played second base and outfield for the Wildcats, says the key to handling so many games is to never let the preparation or quality drop.
Once the Grand Junction Rockies arrived in June 2012, the grounds crew got busier. A lot busier.
“We’re busier than we anticipated,” Johnson said. “It’s 38 games but we didn’t know how busy we’d be during practices.”
The Rockies also use the field for their practices and that means the field must be in prime condition every day throughout the day.
“If they want to throw a pitcher (at practice) at 11 a.m., we have to have the mound ready for them,” he said.
One of Johnson’s main duties is taking care of the infield, and he does it with the care and expertise of an artist. The Suplizio Field infield is his masterpiece and he’s meticulous and obsessed about its care.
There’s a couple of words he never wants to hear and even winces when he utters them.
“Bad hop,” he said. “You never want to hear that.”
A perfect game to a groundskeeper means no complaints and no bad hops.
“If no one mentions us, that’s the perfect night,” he said, smiling.
When former Colorado Rockies first baseman and possible Hall of Famer Todd Helton came to town to rehab his injured hip, it was a special time for Johnson.
“That was a big deal. He’s a legend,” he said. “When he was here, I was like, ‘Wow, I just raked where Todd Helton is standing.’ “
Mound of work
The pitching mound is a vitally important part of any baseball field, so it takes meticulous care, too.
They “laser grade” the mound before JUCO to make sure it’s indeed 10 inches high and 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate.
Every two or three years, officials from Minor League Baseball will visit to audit the field, Mort said.
The mound obviously takes a lot of work because of the wear and tear that 160-plus games have on it. But Mort said the better the pitcher, the less damage the mound incurs.
“When Jonathan Gray was here, he had two little spots, a takeoff spot and a landing spot, that was it,” Mort said. “When (Colorado Rockies pitcher) Jorge De La Rosa came here for a rehab stint two years ago, same thing, two little spots.
“But when high school kids get out there and they just tear it up, and they don’t have to,” he added.
Leaving a lasting impression
Not a lot has changed over the years when it comes to maintaining the field. But Mort said there have been a few advances, like special high-tech goggles they wear to detect dry spots on the field.
Once the Tower was built in 2011, the grounds crew heads up to the Hospitality Suite daily to check out the field and see how it looks from above.
Mort said the field is in overall good shape, even though the outfield was last replaced in 1998 and the infield in 1994. Any major renovations in the future will depend on the city budget.
There’s one thing that remains the main priority for this crew.
“The goal is to leave a lasting and satisfying impression of Suplizio Field for all the fans and players,” Mort said.
For Mort and Johnson, taking care of Suplizio is a fun job, but only Mort takes the job home with him, so to speak.
Until recently moving into a condo, the lawn at his previous home was the envy of the neighborhood.
“All my neighbors used to be mad at me,” he said.
They wanted to know why his lawn was the greenest, he said with a grin.
He said he gets the same kind of fertilizer at the store as everyone else, but he just knows what to put in it to make it even better.
One of his former neighbors decided to take a short cut to having the greenest lawn in the neighbor — he bought Mort’s former house and property.
For Johnson, he admits his yard could use more care.
“My wife is always asking me why our yard doesn’t look better,” he said, laughing.
Johnson, who grew up in the area and graduated from Central, said he only played baseball in Little League, but JUCO has always been the defining moment for baseball in the area.
“Ever since I grew up here, it’s always been the biggest thing in town,” he said.