When it began to look like Mississippi State might host an NCAA Regional, the first story I knew I wanted to do was on MSU’s grounds crew.
Every big event at Dudy Noble Field, people find their seats and immediately comment how great the field looks. So clean, bright, uniform and well-patterned. As it should be at the school formerly named Mississippi A&M.
A Regional, of course, is about as big of an event as The Dude will host, so I called Bart Prather, the superintendent of sports turf on campus, the resident playing surface expert and the man in charge of Dudy Noble’s Dude-ness.
I asked if I could follow him and his crew around as they got ready for the big weekend.
“Sure, we’re getting started around 7 a.m. on Wednesday.”
I’m not sure what my coffee-saturated brain expected to see when I walked out onto the field. Lots of mowing, maybe? There were plenty of machines capable of cutting grass, but the hours of preparation are spent on the details, far more than keeping outfield grass short.
I was at least a little confused when I saw Brandon Hardin, Prather’s right-hand man, methodically driving the mower back and forth, up and down the outfield, without putting the blades down. No grass being cut.
Turns out, he was working on the first thing anyone at the game will notice: the pattern in the grass, alternating dark and light lines of field.
Working on MSU’s various fields for almost nine years now, Hardin has Prather’s trust to, basically, design Dudy Noble Field. No pressure when it’s the biggest weekend MSU has had in years.
“I just let him do what he wants now,” Prather said. “He was on vacation a couple weeks ago and probably started planning this out on the beach.”
Whether out of embarrassment or honesty, Hardin assured me he kept grass out of his mind while he was in the sand.
But the designs are taken seriously. Prather and his crew have books full of outfield and infield designs, and he shared story after story of former students and assistants who had a knack for the unique artistry.
One former student, now working on the field of the Boston Red Sox, was apparently a prodigy in grass design, and it was he who was responsible for once laying out the interlocking ‘M’ and ‘S’ in centerfield.
The trick is precision, keeping the lines equal width, particularly difficult with the curvy design Hardin has selected for this weekend’s Regional.
And no, Prather said, it isn’t done by cutting the grass different lengths.
“People always ask if me that’s how we do it,” he said with a bewildered look on his face. “Of course we don’t make the grass the uneven.”
On the back of the mower are two steel rollers, seemingly innocuous on a machine with massive metal blades protruding from the front end.
Surprisingly enough to me, if not others, the light and dark lines on Dudy Noble Field are simply a trick of the light. Hardin drops the rollers down, pushing the grass down in the direction of the outfield fence as he drives the mower that direction. When he turns to drive down the line next to the one he just made, the rollers push the grass down in the opposite direction, toward home plate.
The grass going away from your eyes reflects the sun back at you, creating the light lines. The grass coming toward the eyes reflects the sun in the opposite direction, creating dark lines. Easy and brilliant at the same time.
In fact, as Prather demonstrated near the third base foul line, if you stand in the middle of a line, it will be dark on your right and light on your left (or vice-versa), another trick of the light.
The design you see from a seat in the press box is a mirror image of the design seen by someone sitting in the lounge at centerfield, the same look, but reversed.
Hardin will re-pave his design twice a day, every day. The infield lines, I found out, are actually done with a walk-behind greens mower, again with blades up and rollers down.
However, while the appearance is the most-noticeable, the state of the field for players is of significantly more importance.
Prather and his crew began working on the field as soon as the final series of the regular season was finished, just in case. They poked a few extra holes in the outfield grass just to make sure it wouldn’t get water-logged in the event of rain, the proverbial thorn in the side of the field staff.
The maintenance of the grass is one of the toughest parts this time of year. The base of both the infield and outfield is Bermuda grass, which is actually a lighter green, while a layer of rye grass lays on top, offering a darker green, giving the field its rich look, with extra help from a solution Prather called “liquid iron” which, after three or four hours of setting, adds a vibrance to the green of the grass.
The rye will be chemically removed at the end of the season and summer camps, while the Bermuda base is tended to carefully.
The field does have its odd places, though, and if you look this weekend, you’ll see Prather’s favorite blemish when MSU’s defense takes the field.
Junior shortstop Adam Frazier plays deep in the infield. So deep, in fact, he used to be in the grass. Used to be, past tense, because he’s actually worn out a square of outfield grass where it meets infield dirt over the last three seasons.
While taking great pride in the appearance and perfection of his fields, Prather does enjoy this particular spot.
“As long as Frazier’s here, we’re gonna leave it,” he said. “He’s just gonna wear it out, anyway.”
The dirt Frazier and the basemen play on is tended to carefully, as well.
Prather is constantly keeping the infield in a perfect balance of firm but not rock hard.
“We want it playable,” he said. “Give it a truer hop.”
The dirt, both on the infield and throughout the warning track, is topped with an absorbent clay creation called Turface, which is actually made in Mississippi. The Turface accomplishes Prather’s goal of a natural, playable field that won’t be rock hard after days of sun or thick and muddy after hours of rain.
Beyond mowing, rolling, raking and laying dirt, the details of preparation and operation include both the lines on the field and the precision-cut lines between grass and dirt. The crew cleans the turf in front of the dugouts, generally covered after games with sunflower seeds from the players, Prather told me with an exasperated smile.
Logos on the field must be stenciled and painted, the dirt on the warning track has to be evened and smoothed, bullpens and dugouts need to be cleaned, the infield requires watering and a day’s worth of details must be attended to.
And it all has to be done again after each of the four teams practice, before and after each game, and don’t get anyone started on what happens if rain comes in.
On gameday, Prather’s crew starts work at 6:30 in the morning and finishes about an hour and a half after the final pitch. From Selection Sunday to the final day of the Regional, Prather estimates every member of will have put in 75-80 hours a piece on Dudy Noble Field.
But it’s all worth it, even if at the end of it all, his masterpiece is taken over by excited fans after a season-continuing victory.
“If they rush the field, that usually means you won and it’s over,” Prather said. “We like that. When we won the Super Regional in 2007 to go to the World Series, we just grabbed the bases and got out of the way.”