There are plenty of people out there who get to work in the wee hours of the morning. Not many of them stay until the wee hours of the night, though. Such is the life of Tom Nielsen, head groundskeeper for the Louisville Bats. During the season, Nielsen regularly gets to Louisville Slugger Field at 7 a.m. and, during homestands, doesn’t make it home until midnight or later.
Nielsen wouldn’t have it any other way.
“(Grounds keeping) is something I’ve always wanted to do,” Nielsen says. “I was a big baseball fan and really got into horticulture early.”
Nielsen, who admittedly talks the heads off anybody willing to listen to him, says his career started with an elementary field trip to a Milwaukee Brewers game.
“I talked to some of the groundskeepers in Milwaukee,” Nielsen said of his trip. “I found out you really can make a living doing this.”
Nielsen then began his grounds keeping career at his father’s home, mowing and striping a baseball field into their three-acre lot. Nielsen even went as far to put up a home run fence complete with foul poles—a true field of dreams.
From there, it was a done deal that Nielsen would work in horticulture. Little did he know, he’d become one of the most well-known names in the business. Nielsen is now an award-winning groundskeeper and one of the most respected people in his trade. His many accolades include Louisville Slugger Field being named the Sports Turf Managers Association’s (STMA) Field of the Year twice (2002 and 2004). But for Nielsen, it’s not all about him.
Most recently, Nielsen won the George Toma Award, recognizing him for his mentorship and strong commitment to the industry. The Toma Award is given each year by the STMA. Numerous interns and former understudies of Nielsen’s have moved on to become head groundskeepers themselves. Two of them, Chad Laurie and Jake Tyler, are groundskeepers in the International League, where the Bats play; Laurie for the Buffalo Bisons and Tyler for the Toledo Mud Hens.
“Tom is very sincere about everything he does,” says Tyler, who was Nielsen’s assistant during Slugger Field’s construction and from 2000-01. “Seeing his dedication toward that field, it comes as no surprise that he’s won all those awards.”
Nielsen considers his groundskeeping staff part of his family and treats them as such—giving them advice, letting them learn from their own mistakes, and ultimately sending them off to bigger and better things.
“Tom respects us, lets us do what we want, then talks to us about whether it’s a good idea or not,” states Jason Boston, Nielsen’s current assistant. “This job is fun because you’re around baseball every day. Tom just makes it so much better.”
Nielsen and his crew work hard to keep Slugger Field’s field looking immaculate. It all starts early in the morning; usually around 8 a.m. After cutting the outfield grass (which astoundingly is done every day), cleaning the warning track and dugouts, watering the infield clay, and evening out any divots, the crew heads to their makeshift locker room to cool off. After a lunch break that usually consists of working out, going for a run, and/or going for a bike ride, they return to the baking hot sun for more.
After dragging the field once more, it is watered again. Then the game prep really begins. Some guys will rake the bullpen mounds while others even out the warning track. There is someone who paints the baselines and batter’s box and someone who meticulously evens out the pitcher’s mound.
“Everybody can pretty much do everything,” Nielsen said. “We always rotate. Somebody that drags the infield one day may paint the lines the next day.”
After completing all the prep work, the infield is watered yet again to prevent the clay from drying out.
“During the day (the infield) never dries out,” Nielsen says. “Some days if it’s hot, we’ll water it ten times. Some days if it’s cloudy, it’ll be three times.”
Nielsen and his crew haven’t had many cloudy days this season. They’ve endured scorching heat and a drought that’s been felt around the area combined with a pair of rainouts and multiple rain delays.
“It’s been the combination of the heat and rain this year that hurts us,” Nielsen said. “The heat can dry out everything. But when it rains, if the tarp is on and then sun comes out, you have to get (the tarp) off or the grass will die.”
When rain is imminent during a game, Nielsen and his crew are prepared at a moment’s notice. After covering the bullpen mounds in preparation, the crew sits and waits next to the tarp while Nielsen communicates with the home plate umpire as to what’s coming.
“I try to convey to (the umpire) how hard the rain is going to be and how fast it’s going to pass over,” Nielsen said. “Once the rain starts, we’ll discuss if and when we need to pull the tarp. Sometimes, we’ll be prepared to pull the tarp as soon as the rain begins.”
That’s not where the communication aspect of Nielsen’s job ends. Nielsen and his crew must stay in contact with the players and coaches to be sure there are no problems with the field.
“We don’t play on (the field),” Nielsen says. “For the most part, I like to try to make it as consistent as possible. Some players may like the clay wetter or drier and I try to cater to that.”
“With Tom, it’s a pretty open dialogue all the time,” says Bats infielder Chris Valaika. “I couldn’t ask for anything better from him. He’s always taken care of me and helped me with any of my concerns.”
The biggest relationship Nielsen must work to keep on good terms is with the manager of the team. Nielsen says first year Bats manager David Bell is the best he’s gotten to work with in his 21 years in the business.
“(Bell) has a respect and appreciation for what we do,” Nielsen said. “He really lets us do our job and take care of the field.”
“I’ve never been around another groundskeeper that has as much energy as Tom,” Bell said. “There’s a reason he’s enjoyed so much success and it’s the way he treats people. It makes my job a lot easier.”
Even when there’s no rain in the area, the day is far from over for the grounds crew. After game preparation is finished, they head to the press box for dinner. Later on, the crew heads back to the field. After dragging the field with hand rakes in the middle of the game, the crew must repair the field after the game. That means pounding clay back into the pitcher’s mound and batters’ box to even out any divots, dragging the field, watering the field, and raking out any dirt that got into the grass over the course of the game.
After the final touches are made, Nielsen and his crew return to their fort, place each piece of equipment in a specific spot, and relax to complete their 14-hour day. For a typical night game, which starts at 7:05 p.m., Nielsen will head home around midnight only to return a few hours later for his morning run.
But Nielsen never complains and always keeps a level head.
“Tom is just a really good person,” said Laurie, Nielsen’s assistant in 2007. “The biggest thing he taught me was how to treat people well and keep a positive attitude.”
Nielsen’s ability to bring out the best in people shows every time the tarp needs pulled during a game. It is not a rarity, and actually is very common, for front office personnel to come running down to assist the grounds crew in whatever they may need.
Recently, during a rain delay August 5, Assistant GM Greg Galiette was down on the field helping rake in mule mix after the infield was drenched by a downpour. Such is the family-like attitude of the Louisville Bats as an organization and Nielsen loves it.
It can be hard on a father to hardly have time for his family during the summer months. Nielsen’s wife, Anne, is a police officer and has just as odd hours as her husband. But, they stick together and make it work for their daughter Cameron.
In the midst of the season, Cameron, 12, is a familiar face amongst the press box and around Slugger Field. Such was the case when Nielsen’s son Andrew, now 23, was Cameron’s age.
“She’s able to come here and enjoys hanging out with us,” Nielsen tells of his daughter. “This is kind of her playground. She will even help out sometimes.”
Another spoil of the job comes during the offseason. Nielsen is normally able to take Cameron to school before coming to work and pick her up from the bus stop when school lets out.
All in all, Nielsen would not trade his wild, whacky, and, sometimes, outrageous job for anything in the world. Despite the odd hours and the long days, Nielsen is doing exactly what he wanted to when he was young. Nielsen’s exuberance and enthusiasm towards his job rubs off on the men who work under him.
If you come to a Bats game, get there a little early to watch Nielsen’s crew at work. You may notice that, while their job is hard work and very tedious, they appear to be enjoying themselves to the extent they don’t look like they’re working at all. Don’t let that fool you.
“We’re very blessed to have a job that we love and enjoy doing,” Nielsen says. “Not many people in this world can say that.”
Tom Nielsen is like the rest of us who get up in the wee hours of the morning to head to work. However, he’s unlike all of us when he stays until the wee hours of the night. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
** Title Photo Courtesy of landscapemanagement.net**