Field guide

Chris Fahrner

Photo By Larry Dalton

You probably never considered “professional groundskeeper” as a potential vocation back when you were mowing your front yard. This was a sensible career move: Chris Fahrner, manager of grounds for the Sacramento River Cats, works a 15-hour game day, which is by no means a walk in the park. He oversees every inch of Raley Field, from each leaf of grass to the “lips” (the point where green meets dirt) and the countless sunflower seeds. It’s a responsibility that perhaps only Walt Whitman might envy. But, then again, he does get to mow cool patterns into the outfield (his favorite design is a bull’s-eye).

So, how did you get hooked up with this gig?

I actually have a degree from Michigan State University in turf-grass management. It’s a big ag school. I was going to do golf courses, and I got a job on a minor-league field, a local field there, and I’ve done athletic fields ever since.

When did you make your way to the left coast?

I got my first head-groundskeeping job, and that was in Salem-Keizer, Ore., for the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. And they’re a short-season single-A for the Giants. … The next year, I got a job for the single-A affiliate for the Orioles, which is called the Delmarva Shorebirds. I worked there a year, and then I went to Albuquerque and worked for the University of New Mexico. Then I kind of wanted to get back into baseball, so then I lucked out and got the job here. This is my second season here.

Who is in your crew?

I have one full-time assistant—his name is Justin Clarke—and I have another full-time guy. … We have a part-time crew of between 15 and 16 guys.

What is a pitcher’s mound composed of?

When we built it, it was 50-percent clay, 50-percent sand. And then they mixed it for us. … It was a clay that they were mining up in Ione, and we mixed it with a special kind of sand. That’s what we used, but now I can’t get that clay anymore, so I’ve gone to using a mass-produced clay. … The contents of that, I’m pretty sure, is straight Mississippi-mud clay.

Let’s talk about the grass.

Our field is Bermuda, Tif-Sport Bermuda. We over-seed it every year with 100-percent perennial rye; it’s a sod-quality seed, so we get it from the sod companies. We don’t transition it, which means we don’t get rid of the rye. The Bermuda will naturally out-compete the rye as the summer goes on because the rye doesn’t handle the summer stresses as well. … The Bermuda is the grass that we want in there. That’s the grass that handles all the wear and tear the best.

There are varietals for different regions?

California is kind of a weird state for grass because there’s different areas in the state where you’re going to grow different kinds of grasses. Where I’m from is the Midwest, and what we use there is Kentucky bluegrass. … Now, you get south of Tennessee, in those areas on that side of the country, and you’re going to have Bermuda and all the warm-season grasses.

How often do you cut it?

We mow every day.

Is there a certain philosophy behind the designs people mow?

For the most part, they let me mow whatever I want here. I like to get creative, try to see if I can do some neat-looking pattern. A lot of it, too, is time: You can do the craziest pattern, but if it takes you four hours to mow it, you don’t have a lot of choice.

Would you say Raley Field is a hitter’s ballpark?

It’s a very hitter-friendly park. … The power alleys are 380 [feet]; that’s pretty deep. But the wind here is real generous. If it’s a windy day, and those flags are blowing out, you see a lot of balls get hit out of here.

Do players use the field conditions as an excuse?

If they miss a play, 90 percent of the time they’re going to tell you, “Ah, it took a bad hop!” … Stuff happens. You can’t control everything [laughs].

Are you a golfer?

I used to golf a lot. I spend a lot of time looking at the grass. What really gets me is I used to be a real big SportsCenter guy … but I don’t pay attention to what they’re doing; I look at the fields. I spend more time going, “Oh, did you see the mowing pattern Pittsburgh had?”

What else keeps you busy?

We’re starting to get out of the groundskeeping and out into the community and working a lot with the Little Leagues and helping them with field renovations. … To me, you know, it doesn’t make sense, because you have these kids playing on these fields that are just awful. And you’ve got these grown men out here playing on these multimillion-dollar fields. The kids should be playing on better fields; they deserve it. So, we’re doing a lot of that.