- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 5, 2015

Exactly one month before the Washington Nationals will take the field for an exhibition game against the New York Yankees, Nationals Park is an expanse of mud and sand. The grass has been ripped up and churned into a pile of dirt, which now stands 10 feet high in center field. A large machine picks at the ground, ripping up chunks of frozen sod.

“The snow [Thursday] is not doing us any favors,” director of field operations and head groundskeeper John Turnour said. “At all.”

Every year, Turnour and his staff fight the weather and the calendar to prepare the field for Opening Day. The infield, pitching mound, home plate area and bullpen mounds are maintained. The grass is aerated, fertilized and mowed. The process begins at the conclusion of the season, pauses for the heaviest winter months, and picks back up when the weather improves.

This year is different. In the aftermath of the NHL’s Winter Classic, Turnour and his staff were tasked with re-grassing the entire field, something they had not done at Nationals Park since 2011. The operation, which is traditionally completed in the fall, was scheduled to begin Feb. 9. Mother Nature laughed at that schedule.

“Here we are, in the first week of March, probably still another good seven to 10 days away from seeing grass,” Turnour said Wednesday. “We’re just kind of cramming right now to get things ready.”

When Turnour heard that Nationals Park would be hosting the Winter Classic, his initial reaction was excitement. His next reaction was concern. The 35-year-old didn’t know how a temporary ice rink would affect the field, and he knew the grass would have to be replaced afterwards, in the middle of winter.
In previous years, including 2011, the field has been re-grassed in the fall, when the weather is more predictable.

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“I knew the aftermath was not going to be a fun process,” said Turnour, who joined the Nationals in 2010. “I was hoping for a nice mild February. Instead, we got the exact opposite: the coldest one on record since 1934, I think. So it’s not really going the way I chalked it up to be.”

Turnour knows the delay has been out of his control. For a major-league grounds crew, weather dictates everything, and it plays an especially important role when trying to replace a field.

The process, as Turnour explains it, is relatively straightforward. The first step involves ripping up two and a half inches of grass and sod, essentially stripping the field to its base layer of sand. The sand is graded with a laser, leaving it as smooth and level as a wooden table. Then sod is brought in from New Jersey and the grass is prepared for play.

With favorable weather, Turnour said the entire project can be completed in about two weeks. But when snow is falling or the temperatures are below freezing, that first step — ripping up the old grass — becomes a fool’s errand, delaying the entire operation.

Turnour, his staff and the contractors hired to install the new field have mostly been limited to afternoon work. They weren’t able to put in a full day’s work until Wednesday.

“Really, we haven’t had any temperatures to go out there and work, even on days when there’s no snow out there, or on days when the sun is shining,” Turnour said. “The fact that the ground is frozen is what’s preventing us from doing work.”

Despite the tough circumstances, Turnour is anything but pessimistic. As he stood in right-center field Wednesday, his boots caked with mud, he said he and his staff — two assistant groundskeepers and six interns — have done everything they can to this point. The field will be ready by April 4. There’s no other choice.

For now, Turnour can only wait and hope for warmer weather. A tarp was laid down over the field Wednesday night to make Friday’s shoveling a little bit easier. The forecast predicts a warming trend this weekend, and sunny, 60-degree days by the middle of next week. Lots of long days, and nights, for Turnour and his staff will follow.

“This is just a very abnormal year for us, to be in this situation,” Turnour said. “We were obviously hoping for a better February to be able to do this project. That didn’t help. So we are playing with the cards that were dealt to us, and we’ll make it work one way or the other.”

• Tom Schad can be reached at tschad@washingtontimes.com.

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