Watch Angel Stadium go through annual transformation from brown to green
A month ago, monster trucks were kicking up dust and mud at Angel Stadium; by Sunday, March 24, the field will be a lush, meticulously manicured backdrop for baseball – ready for two pre-season matchups with the Dodgers and then the Angels’ 81 regular-season games.
Getting the ballfield ready for opening day is a process that takes several weeks, a surprising number of unique steps, and science.
Out with the old
In late February, a team of workers led by head groundskeeper Barney Lopas scrapes away the painted dirt mounds that created the monster truck course, revealing wooden covers protecting the baseball field’s irrigation lines.
Last year’s grass – yep, it was still under there – gets removed, releasing an earthy, manure smell that fills the stands. Lopas brings in an asphalt grinder to loosen up any especially hard-packed soil.
More than 200 tons of sand is trucked in, along with fresh soil and a fertilizer mix.
It takes coordinated teamwork. While a small tractor in the outfield pulls a box blade taking orders from a laser-guided level, Lopas spreads sand on the infield with a wide rake.
Workers find the 70 spots where they connect sprinkler heads to the irrigation pipes, then more fresh soil and sand are brought in and the field is laser-leveled again to ensure an even surface and proper drainage. Sulfur, lime and phosphorous are added to the soil to encourage the sod to root down.
For an infield dirt surface that’s firm but not too hard – he likens it to the feel of a gym floor – Lopas puts down a mixture of 25 percent clay, 15 percent silt and 60 percent fine-particle sand.
A few days after the prep work is done, it’s time for sod – about 400 rolls that are 42 inches wide, 60 feet long and 3/4 inch thick. Lopas uses bandera bermuda grass over-seeded with rye, a hybrid mixture with an aggressive quality that can stand up to heavy use and changing temperatures.
A small sort of forklift unfurls the sod a roll at a time, with about a half-dozen workers following behind to line up the edges of the strips and trim off any overlap with small sickles.
They fit the strips together like enormous puzzle pieces covering the infield. Meanwhile, a tractor is driving in increasingly large figure eights, tilling the outfield dirt to prepare it for the same process.
Lopas puts a top dressing of sand on the fresh-laid sod to help hide the seams, and soon he begins watering it with a garden hose as activity continues around him.
After a few days, he’ll start mowing the grass every day or two, and he’ll “verticut” it – sort of like a hair stylist putting in layers – so it doesn’t get too puffy, because the outfielders don’t like that.
The pattern of mowing is important. The stripes go toward the outfield position players, which Lopas said can keep balls from “snaking,” or zig-zagging, instead of moving in a straight line.
A happy ballclub
Lopas uses more fertilizer, a liquid iron supplement and plenty of watering to make sure the grass is a vibrant green before the TV cameras switch on and the stands fill with fans. But even then, his work isn’t done.
At home games, he watches the first three innings from the batting cage below the dugout steps in case he’s needed. When an aggressive play leaves a divot in the field, he’s got a small sod farm behind the outfield wall for patches.
He’s always tweaking his procedures to cater to the team’s manager, nine coaches and 25 players, and to better withstand the repeated tread of cleats, whether plastic, rubber or metal.
Asked if he gets compliments on his work, Lopas modestly declines to discuss it. He goes through the process every year – seeing his handiwork treated roughly, then covered up completely for an off-season of events, but he never tires of the annual spring renewal.
“It’s what I do. It’s what makes my heart beat,” Lopas says.
“Taking this thing from nothing to the best baseball field we can make – that doesn’t get old.”
The man who makes the ballfield
As Angel Stadium’s head groundskeeper, Barney Lopas gets the ballfield ready each spring and ensures it’s both playable and photogenic for more than 80 games a year.
Long tenure: Lopas, 51, has made Angel Stadium his second home for 22 years.
Formative years: He learned from his brother, who was also a major league groundskeeper, and he got his start in Wisconsin with the single-A Appleton Foxes.
Big break: While managing the spring training complex for the then-new Florida Marlins, Lopas heard about the Anaheim job from pitching coach Marcel Lachemann, who recommended him.
Off the field: At home, Lopas tends to a yard full of palm trees and tropical plants – but his front lawn and backyard putting green are synthetic grass.
But can he play?: A high school and weekend baseball player in his youth, Lopas sees his job as “kind of my way to stay in the game, because I love the game.”
Barney Lopas’s game day checklist
Before the Angels come out of the dugout for their Sunday match with the Dodgers, Head Groundskeeper Barney Lopas and his staff of two full-time and 12 part-time workers make sure the ballfield is ready.
For starters: Lopas’s assistant nail drags the infield “skin” – the dirt parts such as the base paths and pitcher’s mound – to loosen the top layer and smooth it out. The edges are done by hand with a rake, and a few blasts from a leaf blower take care of any clay mixture that has strayed onto the turf.
The skin: The infield dirt, including the pitcher’s mound, gets watered several times and a tarp is spread over the mound (after it’s been checked to ensure it’s regulation height and slope).
The turf: Lopas mows the grass for that freshly groomed look, then an assistant paints the lines that form the diamond.
Final steps: The infield gets a final spray of water, the chalk lines are drawn, and the field is ready for the first pitch.