The intricate art of mowing patterns into a baseball field

By Elizabeth Bloom - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It is a cross between Etch A Sketch and textile design, maybe with a dash of pop art for good measure. In a sense, it’s a landscape painting on an enormous canvas — with one major exception.

“You only have two colors, light green and dark green, to work with,” said Ben Young, the award-winning former groundskeeper for the Altoona (Pa.) Curve.

It is the majestic mowing pattern, the design carved into the turf of baseball fields. While their color palette remains limited, mowing patterns have become increasingly elaborate in recent decades. Thanks to improvements in turf science and mowing technology — along with growing interest among fans, teams and groundskeepers — baseball fields are host to patterns of various stripes, from elegant plaid to wiggly lines, patriotic American flags to intricate renderings of beloved athletes.

Young, who now works for the St. Louis Cardinals’ Class AAA affiliate in Memphis, Tenn., goes especially funky. When he worked for the Curve, the Pirates’ Class AA affiliate, he tattooed an ornate four-pattern design — a quilt of concentric circles, stripes and diamonds — into the grass at Peoples Natural Gas Field. The design earned him the top prize in the 2,600-member Sports Turf Managers Association’s 2014 mowing patterns contest.

The Curve’s parent organization tends to be more traditional. At the Pirates’ home opener against the Atlanta Braves on Friday, PNC Park’sKentucky bluegrass sported a double-checkerboard pattern.

“We kind of want to keep that traditional feel, where it’s still obviously maintaining playability and then giving that visual appeal,” said Matt Brown, the Pirates director of field operations.

To create mowing patterns, groundskeepers deliberately alter the angles of grass blades relative to their light source. Say you’re sitting in the center field bleachers and the sun is behind you. Grass that is mowed toward you casts more shadows and appears dark green, Young said, while grass that is mowed away from you reflects the light, giving off a lighter tone. The colors switch if you move to the opposite side of the ballpark.

“The higher you get, the more you’re going to see that pattern,” said Tim Van Loo, athletic field manager at Iowa State University and president of the Sports Turf Managers Association.

Brown, 29, starts to develop ideas for PNC Park in January, bringing potential patterns to the Pirates’ graphic design department and then presenting them to the front office. The Opening Day pattern was first etched into the PNC Park grass in March, and each pattern remains for about 15 games. Brown, who grew up on a farm in Ohio, said he expects the Pirates’ “P” logo to appear over the summer.

“I always try to put a twist on something, just to kind of make it a little more personal,” he said.

While they have become an integral part of the ballpark experience in recent years, mowing patterns actually go back to the 19th century.

“The first mower, developed in England in the 1830s, made stripes on the grass when it cut,” David R. Mellor, senior director of grounds at Fenway Park in Boston, wrote in his book “Picture Perfect: Mowing Techniques for Lawns, Landscapes, and Sports.”

The mower’s roller would bend the grass blades in opposing directions, leaving stripes on the lawns of estates or castles.

“It was a status symbol,” Mellor said in an interview. “It was called the banded finish.”

Nowadays, grass blades still work the same way, although the tools used to bend them have changed. Last season, the Fenway Park outfield featured a detailed portrait of the retiring Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. The design was produced by New Ground Technology’s TurfPrinter, which uses “directed air and GPS positioning” to change the angles of grass blades relative to light, according to the company’s website.

While mowing the grass in different directions is important for turf health, Brown said the patterns don’t provide much of a home-field advantage for the Pirates — each team is working with the same turf, after all. The primary goals of any groundskeeper, as several noted, is playability and safety.

While mowing patterns are most associated with baseball, they appear on all types of turf, including golf courses, football fields and privates lawns — even on fictional fields in video games and on the Quidditch pitch in “Harry Potter,” Mellor said.

Even outside of Hogwarts, however, there’s a certain magic to mowing patterns.

“Unlike painting, if you make a mistake, it’s almost like Etch A Sketch,” Mellor said. “You can mow the other way and wipe it out.”


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By Elizabeth Bloom

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette