By KEVIN TREVELLYAN
Baseball fans take their seats by the hundreds during any given summer evening at Melaleuca Field to watch the Idaho Falls Chukars play.
The announcer lists batters’ names as they step up to home plate. Foul-tipped balls arc in the warm air into the parking lot while players stand watching the game with their arms hanging over the dugout railing.
Elsewhere, usually behind home plate and anonymous to fans watching baseballs skid across the closely trimmed outfield grass, Ryan Coleman sits in the grandstand — likely one of the sport’s youngest professional head groundskeepers.
For Coleman, 24, game days usually run from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.; he’s there long after fans go home and pitchers have begun strapping ice packs to their arms.
The field requires rehab of its own. Gouges taken out of the infield dirt after a runner slides spike-first into second base need filling; the pitcher’s mound has to be smoothed over.
Maintaining every aspect of the field, from home plate to the dirt warning track, takes immense attention to detail — and an even bigger affinity for the game itself.
“The field, she’s kind of tricky. And if you’re not constantly thinking of ways to improve it, or make it safer and better for the players, I think you’re just going to fall behind,” Coleman said. “We have long days and short nights. You have to love baseball to do it.”
This is Coleman’s second year managing the Chukars’ grounds, and like the players laboring for a chance at the bigs, he too has an eye on advancement within baseball.
Coleman played infield at Feather River College in California, and Concordia University in Portland, Ore. In the summers between he managed fields for Oregon-based Athletic Field Design.
“He showed interest and passion. Usually when I hire someone they’re just there to get money; they don’t want to get into the industry,” said Coleman’s mentor, Athletic Field Design owner Mike Hebrard. “I think he’d do anything he could to keep playing, but this is the next best thing.”
Hebrard recommended Coleman for the Chukars job after hearing about it from an old college baseball teammate.
“He had no girlfriend, no dog — he was perfect, because it’s a lot of hours,” Hebrard said. “You have to throw the clock out the window. There’s no clock in baseball, and there’s no clock in groundskeeping.”
Coleman, post-playing days, enjoys talking to Chukars’ coaches or golfing with some of the players, “just being around baseball really.”
He developed a perfectionist’s eye working on Little League Softball World Series fields with Hebrard.
“We’re on ESPN, so that field has to look perfect every time,” Coleman said. “That was one thing my boss always harped on. I know we’re not on TV here in Idaho Falls, but I still try to take what I learned from him and teach it to my guys now.”
Coleman works with intern Bryan Duffy. It’s just them when the Chukars are away; Coleman has a few more interns working for him before home games.
“When he got here he didn’t have a significant amount of experience, but he’s done an exceptional job, especially for the lack of help I provide him — a lot of Minor League ballparks have entire grounds crews,” said Chukars General Manager Kevin Greene. “It might seem thankless at times because you’re out there by yourself busting it, but you get a couple years experience and you work your way up just like a player might.”
Eastern Idaho presents unique maintenance challenges compared to the damp Pacific Northwest where Coleman grew up; he’s contradicting nature’s course every time he pours a soil additive into the outfield at Melaleuca.
“We have real poor soil here for growing grass,” said Brad Clayton, Falls Fertilizer consultant. “Especially when there’s a baseball game there almost every day in warmer months between high school and the pros.”
Coleman works with Clayton to figure out which materials the field needs — which fertilizers and nitrogen supplements will strike the proper pH balance to allow Idaho Falls’ clay soil to accept grass roots.
“It’s always hot and always windy; that’s the toughest part,” Coleman said. “You have to keep the infield dirt moist when it’s 90 degrees outside and winds are blowing 20 mph; it sucks the water right out of the ground.”
Coleman expects to work for the Chukars at least through next season, but he’s keeping his eye on the possibility of another job higher up the professional baseball hierarchy, possibly for an A or AA team.
“If I can make a field look perfect in Idaho Falls with the little resources I have, when I have more supplies at another job I can make that field even better,” Coleman said. “The attention to detail is the biggest thing to me.”
Coleman’s age and lack of formal field management education is unusual in his field.
“A majority of our members — 72 percent — has either a degree or certificate in some sort of turf grass management, most of them have studied agronomy or turf grass science,” said Kim Heck, Chief Executive Officer of the Sports Turf Managers Association. “And at 24, he would definitely be one of the youngest heads groundskeepers in Minor League Baseball.”
Though he doesn’t have a degree, Coleman’s education is ongoing, whether its leafing through the newest issue of SportsTurf Magazine, or picking the brain of the Kansas City Royals’ head groundskeeper.
Wednesday afternoon while the Chukars were in Grand Junction, Colo., Coleman worked on the field with Duffy.
Away stretches give groundskeepers time to properly fix the spots they had to bandage during the previous home stretch.
Sprinklers sprayed water throughout the field while Coleman and Duffy worked on a gash near third base.
“Did they win last night?” Duffy said.
“They lost, Luna threw seven good innings then they gave it up to a lefty,” Coleman said, shoveling clay and soil onto the infield.
Afterward they dragged a rectangular wooden frame full of downward-facing nails across the home plate area, leveling out a hump where the umpire stands.
Little holes pockmarked the ground where batters dug their feet into the earth. A record of innate player tics common from Little League to Major League Baseball can be found all over the field.
“It kills Bryan and I to see it sometimes,” Coleman says with a smile. “Most of the batters are righties, and the hole next to home plate gets gnarly.”
They wet the hole and packed it with fresh clay; just like you would in a pottery class, Coleman said, as he scored lines in the clay and added another layer. He pounded the repair with a heavy, flat-bottomed tool, and squatted to run his hands across the material. The only record of his work was the wet spot left on the smooth ground.
During games, Coleman’s available in case there’s an emergency. Though he usually takes a seat behind home plate, he’ll meander around the grandstand. Knowing that they’re unaware of his presence, Coleman enjoys hearing people talk about how the field looks.
After playing baseball since childhood, making a career of the sport hasn’t hampered his enjoyment of it.
“It makes me love baseball more, knowing what goes into it. My uncle manages a golf course, and the last thing he wants to do after work is play nine holes. As long as that doesn’t happen to me, I’m stoked,” Coleman said. “I get to watch baseball during my break, what’s better than that?”