There is no baseball in Fort Wayne this week. Today was supposed to have been the TinCaps' home opener at Parkview Field, the start of the team's 12th season in its luxurious downtown stadium. COVID-19 has forced the postponement of the season indefinitely, and it is unclear when pro baseball will return to the Summit City.
Whenever the TinCaps do open their season, though, they will likely find a diamond at Parkview Field that is in pristine condition. For that, they will have head groundskeeper Keith Winter and his staff to thank.
Winter is already recognized as one of the best in the groundskeeping business. He was named the Sports Turf Class A Manager of the Year three consecutive years from 2013 to 2015, and in 2017 the Sports Turf Managers Association named Parkview Field the Field of the Year in pro baseball, topping all 30 Major League stadiums.
Now, Winter must deal with a new challenge: He has no idea when baseball will next be played at Parkview Field.
“As the heads groundskeeper, that's my responsibility,” Winter said. “Whether there's games or not, I have absolutely no control over the pandemic and everything else that's going on. My job is to keep that field ready to play baseball whenever that may be.”
So far, Winter has excelled at that job, as those familiar with his work at Parkview Field might have expected. Early in April, TinCaps president Mike Nutter remarked to Winter that the diamond had “never looked better” at this time than it does this year. Nutter isn't surprised by Winter's work. He raves about the groundskeeper's passion, his discipline and his staff's hard work and attention to detail.
“(Winter and his staff) did all this work, not knowing we wouldn't be playing (today), not knowing the team wasn't gonna fly in last Sunday,” Nutter said. “But with those guys, as cliché at is, they would have done all that same work even if they thought (the early-season cancellations would) happen. Their sense of pride is pretty remarkable.”
The seeds of the field's current pristine condition were planted at the end of the 2019 season. Around Labor Day, Winter put his plan for the 2020 season in place. He overseeded the field with a new grass seed he was using for the first time and that set the field up well for what turned out to be a mild winter.
Those factors helped put the field significantly ahead of where it has been in recent years in terms of its growth. In other words, the diamond is in midseason form.
“It's like raising a child,” Winter said. “When the child gets to a certain age or stage, you can't say 'Oh, you go do it on your own now.' Well, that field is like raising a child, you have to keep feeding it, making sure it gets its rest, literally and figuratively, and hoping the weather cooperates. ... It's tough to not be playing, but I'm going to keep doing what I need to do over there to have it ready.”
Winter lives just two blocks from the ballpark and has been to the field on a regular basis, though he is careful to follow social distancing rules. Last week, when the weather turned warm, he mowed the field three times.
Though there is still plenty of monitoring and maintaining to do, one small silver lining in the postponement of the start of the season is that the 100% bluegrass field won't have to deal with wear and tear from players using it while it's growing during the spring.
Winter estimated that during a normal season, it takes the field until June or July to recover from the damage from early-season games in less-than-ideal conditions. Winter compared the field recovering from the winter to having a scab. If you keep picking at it – in this case, playing games on the field – it will take longer to heal.
“For the first time in that field's history and in my history of being a professional baseball groundskeeper, we're not dealing with that wear and tear,” said Winter, who has been with the TinCaps since 2010. “So if and when we play baseball this year, that field is going to be in incredible condition.”
Winter plans to have that be the case, even if games were to start with little warning.
“I want Game 1 and Game 70 of a regular season to look the same,” Winter said. “That's why we've been successful. ... We try to put a consistent product out there from the first game to the last game. Right now, we're not able to do that, so day-in and day-out I'm doing what needs to be done to keep the field ready for play.
“To me, (games) could be tomorrow. Realistically, no, but that's my mindset.”