They are groundskeepers for the Washington Nationals, and each day brings the same operandi of thankless chores. They perform a task. They watch as someone destroys their handiwork. They repeat the task, and the cycle continues - over and over.
Their skin has darkened to a light bronze. Their shoes, once white, represent various hues of the earth’s upper crust. Theirs is a profession of Sisyphean challenges, a three-ring circus of men moving in circles, perpetually redoing the undone.
DiVito, the Nationals’ head groundskeeper, is busy firming up the infield “skin” - “dirt” is not the preferred nomenclature - following the Nationals’ 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies the night before, the team’s first home contest after a nine-game road trip.
“The first game is always a little messy,” DiVito says. “Got to get back in the routine.”
Royse, DiVito’s younger assistant, carefully removes the circular tarp covering the area around home plate. He first folds it in half, then divides the half to a quarter before carefully rolling it to the side, revealing a pock-marked patch of red clay, white chalk and loose soil. His navy blue Under Armour shirt is already soaked when Chris Webb and the three other summer interns amble in at 10 a.m. Webb, a turf management major from Virginia Tech, mutters something about the stifling humidity but is drowned out by the dull drone emanating from the Toro Reelmaster lawn mower assistant groundskeeper Chris Hathaway is riding through the outfield.
Royse grabs a push mower and heads for center field to etch the curly “W” into the turf. William “Wild Bill” Pipp, a straight-talking, tobacco-chewing intern from the University of Missouri, pushes a wheelbarrow toward the bullpen. DiVito stands alone in the infield.
DiVito has been at this a long time. A promising high school pitcher, DiVito threw his arm out in college and bounced from one California school to another before earning a degree in sociology and urban studies from San Francisco State. He moved to Rhode Island on a whim in the mid-1990s, and he learned groundskeeping on the fly after landing a job with the Class AAA Pawtucket Red Sox. He returned to the West Coast for a four-year stint as grounds crew supervisor at Dodger Stadium before crossing the country again to join the Nationals in 2006. In the four months between the end of his duties with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the start of his job in Washington, DiVito went to Princeton University and worked the fields for the beginning of the college season.
“I didn’t miss any baseball seasons,” DiVito says.
He kneels on the pitcher’s mound, rubbing clay into trenches left from Collin Balester and Brett Myers’ duel the night before. His dark red Nationals cap long ago faded to a light pink, and the interlocking D.C. logo has blurred together, fused by quarts of sweat. So dedicated is DiVito that on most mornings he can tell who pitched the night before just by looking at the tracks left on the mound, and he knows how to reconstruct the hill so as to prepare for specifications of the coming night’s starter.
“You have to learn to micromanage their spots,” DiVito says. “The goal is uniformity, but you have to know how their foot lands.”
After spending an hour on the mound, DiVito moves back to the basepaths. Like a monk in a Japanese rock garden, he methodically grooms the soil with an assortment of rakes and tools. The sun rises higher, and the others on the crew finish their tasks and retire to “Larry’s Lounge” - the groundskeepers’ break room - for lunch. DiVito continues to rake.
“Nope,” Webb says when asked whether his boss ever takes a break. “He might eat lunch at 2 when [the Phillies] start BP. Other than that …”
The afternoon hours are dominated by endless speculation about the storm clouds forming overhead. Hardly a moment passes without Royse checking the doppler radar on his iPhone. The crew watches Chase Utley hack his way through batting practice, his spikes ripping divots through their morning work. The clouds part, and another few hours of humidity ooze past. The groundskeepers groom the infield for the third time, putting the finishing touches in place before the 7:10 first pitch.
No one knows Nationals Park like the groundskeeping crew. After three months of exploring the nooks and crannies of baseball’s newest cathedral, they know the elevator rarely makes it to the sixth floor dining area - where they trek each evening after a long day to gorge on pasta and cheesesteaks and soft serve - without five unwanted stops along the way. They know how much George, Tom, Abe and Teddy sweat under their Racing Presidents costumes and that Sugar Free Dubble Bubble is the longest-lasting chew offered in the Nationals’ dugout.
But they haven’t sworn their allegiance. They aren’t dismayed when Tim Redding surrenders four hits in the first inning and the Nationals fall behind 2-0. They do not cheer when Willie Harris homers to lead off the bottom of the inning or when Jesus Flores and Austin Kearns score to allow Washington to stake an early 3-2 lead.
“I just hope there aren’t a lot of homers,” says John Waxweather, an intern from Purdue University and an ardent Chicago Cubs fan. “Homers mean a lot of fireworks, and we have to clean them off the field.”
By the time the Phillies rally in the late innings, the groundskeepers have scattered. After dragging the bases between the sixth and seventh, Waxweather, Royse and Hathaway retire to the lounge, where the rest of their co-workers are relaxing in air-conditioned bliss. The lights are off, the game is on and everyone’s feet are up. RFK groundskeeper Jeff Hunter - who comes to the park each night to help out - sleeps soundly on the leather couch, and Pipp and Pendergast stretch out on the red carpet, watching in a daze as Philadelphia’s Jayson Werth tumbles on the warning track trying to field a fly ball.
“Bill!” Hathaway screams. “That’s your track, man! Someone fell there last night, too!”
In so many words, Pipp ensures everyone that Werth’s spill had more to do with the Philadelphia fielder’s clunky cleats than Pipp’s rake job. He then lets forth a loud groan; he has just received word that there is a 30 percent chance of rain overnight, meaning the tarp will have to be rolled out after the game. They will return at 8:30 a.m. to roll it back before the morning sun surmounts the stadium walls.
The game ends one minute before 10 p.m., and the second the last out is recorded, Pipp swings the green outfield gate open - where he has been lying in wait for 20 minutes - and charges out with his wheelbarrow. The rest of the gang descend on the diamond as the victorious Phillies linger under the lights. Pipp takes the mound, which has returned to the worn-away nub DiVito first uncovered some 13 hours before.
As the artificial lights switch off, Royse stares down though the darkness at the same scarred batter’s box he mended in the morning sunshine. He rakes and repairs, then brings out the blue tarp again. He folds it over - a quarter, half, three-fourths, done - for the last time that night. He runs over to join the others as they roll the rain tarp over and stake it to the infield. Waxweather, Hunter and Hathaway head back for their lockers in the shop, but DiVito lingers.
“I could get some more watering in, but a lot of these guys have to catch the Metro home,” he says, eyes checking the white tarp for the slightest inconsistency.
DiVito says he plans on being a head groundskeeper for the foreseeable future, but it’s worth wondering how much longer he can put in 81 15-hour days in the withering summer sun. Tonight he will make the eight-minute drive back to his house in Arlington. But soon he will be back, here amongst the soil and the skin and the grass, at home. DiVito has no wife, no children.
“This is it,” Royse says, gesturing around the stadium. “This is his baby.”