Luke Yoder ’94, director of field operations for the San Diego Padres, is a behind-the-scenes star.
On a hot July day in 2011, Luke Yoder was watering the infield dirt to keep the dust down — as he does before every home game — when a grounds crew member caught his eye. The man was gesturing frantically, pointing at a mound of turf that was rising, alien-like, near the left field line. Yoder dropped his hose and ran over to it. It was 3:15 p.m. The game was due to start at 3:35.
On reaching the spot, he saw that the bubble, now two-feet high, was surrounded by an 8-by-4-foot square of wet turf, and when he bent down and touched the area, it rippled like a water bed. It was now 3:20 p.m. The stands were filled with spectators and the team was warming up.
Yoder ran and shut off the water main to stop the pressure from building. “Then I switched into surgical mode, snatched a knife and made a four-inch cut in the bubble. Water immediately gushed out,” Yoder recalls. It was 3:25. As the groundskeeper reached into the hole to determine its depth, his arm sunk up to his shoulder. “I grabbed four bags of Diamond Dry, a drying agent that’s like kitty litter, and filled the hole with it,” he says.
Yoder prepared to tell the umpires to delay the game. If that happened, it would make the news on ESPN, and even though the problem with the turf wasn’t his fault, Yoder’s bosses would not be happy. Even more important, the area could be a safety hazard. A player stepping into a 3-foot hole could be badly injured.
With six minutes until game time, Yoder stood for the national anthem. Then he tamped down the Diamond Dry, checked that it was packed solid, and breathed a sigh of relief as he hurried off the field. This was definitely not a typical day at work.
The Genesis of a Career
As a kid, Yoder never thought he’d end up working for a ballpark. The summer of his junior year in high school, on a family visit to his grandfather’s farm in Ohio, an uncle took him to the elite country club where he worked as golf course superintendent. “I was amazed at how meticulously the fairways were maintained. They looked like carpets,” Yoder says. He had a lawn cutting business at the time, and his uncle was the one who suggested that the teen study horticulture because he knew his nephew liked being outside. Yoder decided to study horticultural turfgrass management at Clemson.
Because he wasn’t sure he’d get in, he and his parents were thrilled when he got accepted. Between the biochemistry and physiology, the coursework didn’t come easy, he admits. But with discipline, his GPA rose every semester.
Yoder worked for a golf course his first three summers during college, and during the year he worked at the turfgrass research plots on campus, which gave him a chance to apply what he learned in class. “I assumed I’d work on golf courses, like most students in my major at the time, but my adviser suggested I try sports turf, or athletic turf management, to make sure I wouldn’t be missing anything,” he says. As it turned out, the summer before he graduated in December 1994, he worked for the Greenville Braves and fell in love with ballparks.
His first job was as head groundskeeper with the Sioux City Explorers in Iowa. Then he moved to the Iowa Cubs, followed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, which proved to him that sports turf could be a viable career. He’s been with the Padres for almost 12 years.
A Perfect Match
Turfgrass management requires knowledge of both art and science; the former, for the design and aesthetics of both the grassy areas and the dirt, or skinned areas, and the latter, because of diseases and insects that can affect the grass and plants. The Clemson alumnus gained his artistic skills on the job and his scientific knowledge from his college classes like plant pathology and ornamental plant diseases.
Ask him his favorite part of the job, and he rattles off a litany of favorite tasks instead. Being outside every day. The smell of fresh-cut grass. Getting his hands dirty. Traveling to the Padres’ minor league fields, which takes him to places such as El Paso, Texas, and the Dominican Republic. “Just showing up to the ballpark every day is something a million people would love to do, and it never gets old. I get to work on, be in charge of and mold the biggest parcel of natural grass in downtown San Diego. It’s like a canvas for our artwork,” he explains.
The Home-Field Advantage
Baseball has more of a home-field advantage than other sports, Yoder maintains, because aspects of the field can be manipulated to give a team a leg up. “Take the grass,” he says. A football or soccer field is all grass; it doesn’t make much difference how high you cut it. But if you cut a baseball field one quarter of an inch higher or lower, it affects how far the ball will roll into the infield and favors different pitchers or hitters.
Then there are the skinned areas, Yoder continues. In baseball, 70 percent of the field is played on these areas, so you might make the area in front of home plate extremely soft if you have a sinker-ball pitcher on your team. Since batters will be more likely to hit ground balls, that can help with getting an easy out. Or, if you have a batter up against a sinker-ball pitcher on the other team, you could make the area hard so your team has the advantage.
Yoder may not wear a Padres uniform, but he says that “to be able to work with the players and give them an edge” makes him feel part of the team. And the team, in turn, would likely describe him as a most valuable player.
Yoder, whose family is from Greenville, may live on the opposite side of the country now, but he tries to get home for at least one Clemson football game a year. If there’s one thing he has taken with him, it’s his Clemson pride. His sister and two brothers also attended Clemson, and if his math is correct, he calculates that for 16 years straight there was a Yoder attending the University.
Pat Olsen is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. Photos by San Diego Padres