Treat your grass like your kids, says Royals' chief groundskeeper
As the days lengthen, the flowers bloom and the air warms in Kansas City, many local homeowners start thinking about the yardwork at their house.
Trevor Vance? Not so much.
The Royals’ senior director of groundskeeping and landscaping says his home’s lawn isn’t going to win any awards.
He and his wife own two bulldogs and a poodle that like to run the fence perimeter, so the backyard is pretty rough. And he calls his front yard a 35-mile-an-hour lawn, which means it looks pretty good if you’re driving by at 35 miles an hour.
“The last thing I want to do when I get home is take care of my yard,” he said. “When the team goes out of town, I don’t want to deal with it. So I don’t. I don’t want to say it’s bad. I just don’t want to spend a lot of time on it.”
But let’s be honest: Vance is in charge of a major-league baseball field — one of the best-looking (if not the best-looking) fields in sports. He buys fertilizer in pallets and dirt by the tractor-trailer load. The guy’s “bad” probably shames whatever you’d call “good.”
Vance has been the head groundskeeper for the Royals since 1994, taking over for his mentor and groundskeeping legend George Toma. The same George Toma who has overseen the field at every Super Bowl, two Olympics and one World Cup. A man who famously won a bet by growing grass in his pocket.
So it means something when Toma said from Florida this week, “Trevor is the best groundskeeper in baseball today. I am so proud of him.”
That praise was hard earned.
Toma hired Vance on the tarp crew when he was a senior at Raytown High School. As a kid, Vance loved sports, especially wrestling. But in college at the University of Central Missouri, he struggled to find a major. Vance’s mom worked in a bank, and his dad worked night shifts and day shifts at General Motors, so Vance knew what he didn’t want out of a career.
“I don’t think my dad enjoyed his job,” Vance said. “It kind of drove me to make sure I was going to be happy in whatever I was doing.”
After a couple of years at college, Vance figured it out: He loved his summer job with Toma and the Royals, so he’d pursue a career in groundskeeping.
“When I told George this is what I wanted to do, he rode me like a horse,” Vance said. “I have the utmost respect for him — there’d be no Trevor without George — but George is probably one of the hardest men you’ll ever work for, because he is a perfectionist. You better come with your A-game every day or he was going to let you know it.”
A reminder of this hangs in the groundskeeping shop behind the right field bullpen: On the wall near the entrance to the field is a larger-than-life portrait of Toma with the words “And then some.”
“That’s what he always says, ‘You do the job and then some,’ ” Vance said. “It’s what separates the good from the great.”
Vance’s season begins whenever Mother Nature allows. His crew got a bit of a head start this year because February was unseasonably mild.
But once the Royals return to Kauffman Stadium for their home opener Monday, he can average 16-hour days at the ballpark. He and his two assistants will start work at 8 in the morning with the day crew and stay with the night crew until an hour and a half after the game ends.
“We’ll turn 100 hours in a seven-game homestand,” he said. “If the weather’s good, we might come in at 9, just to get a little sleep. You lose your effectiveness when you’re worn out. But also, I want my guys to spend time with their families. This is a grind, so I’ll tell them, ‘You know what? Get up, have breakfast with your kids and come in a little later.’ ”
His own kids — one in high school still, two in college and one a college graduate — all worked at the stadium at some point. In season, that was the best place to see their daddy.
“My daughter learned to ride her tricycle on this infield track,” he said. “We cut a rake down to fit my son and he’d be out there, 5 years old, rakin’ around, helping us out.”
Sitting in the Royals dugout the other day, Vance started to brag on his workers but interrupted himself to holler at the guy picking pieces of dirt out of the infield grass by hand in a light morning drizzle.
Vance said, “Did you get that … that …” but before he could finish the question, the worker said, “Yes.” It’s a perfect example of his crew’s dedication and attention to detail. Vance wants his crew ready to follow his direction whether it’s in the middle of the shift or the middle of the night. Approaching storms sometimes mean a crew has to come in after hours to cover the field.
“When I call you at 3 o’clock in the morning and say, ‘I need you at the stadium in 15 minutes, it’s gonna rain’ — number one, you answer your phone,” Vance said. “How easy is it to say, ‘I didn’t hear my phone ring’? They take pride in it. They know this is a piece of them.”
It’s a big piece of Vance, too. He jokes that the rise of high definition televisions has killed the groundskeeper because they pick up every bare spot and high-traffic area. He wishes the Royals would change the color of the outfield walls from dark green to royal blue because the pads make the field look yellow by comparison.
And don’t get him started on TV announcers who blame the field for a missed play.
“No knock on Ryan Lefebvre or Rex Hudler,” he said. “But when they say, ‘Well, that ball took a funny hop …’ Well, wait a minute. Now you’re insulting me. Did that take a big hop? No, it didn’t! There’ve been so many times I’ve wanted to call up to the booth and say, ‘What are you talking about? You’re making me look bad.’ ”
Vance hears this because he watches all the home games from his office in the groundskeeper shop.
“I want to see the replay; I want to see how the field’s playing,” he said. “Then another reason I watch it from my office is so many times there’s a threat of weather.”
That’s kind of a running joke: If you watch enough Royals broadcasts, you know when you see Vance on the field, you’re about to hear the six saddest words in baseball: The tarp is on the field.
“When I come out, you might as well take cover, because it’s fixing to rain,” he said.
He doesn’t claim to be any kind of meteorology expert. Like anyone, he has apps on his phone, and the Royals have a weather service. But after 33 years in the stadium, he knows when it’s time to move.
Whether the umps agree is another story. Some of them understand that two extra minutes getting the tarp down can save an hour of field prep after a rain. But there are a few who think it’s their show.
“There are some veteran umpires who are like, by God, they’re here, we’re playing,” he said. “And some will say, ‘Trevor, I’m going to look at you and whenever you’re ready, you point at me, it’s your call, go.’ You gain their respect by saying it’s going to rain at 9:02 and it rains at 9:02.”
Kauffman Stadium has its own microclimate. A wind that blows your cap off in center field can be nonexistent in the same moment at home plate. The field can be 15 to 20 degrees hotter than outside the stadium — a Sunday afternoon game in August can hit 125 degrees, easily (when the Royals played on Astroturf, it could feel upwards of 150 degrees).
But it’s not the daytime heat that affects the grass in the midseason, it’s the nighttime lows. Hot nights last summer put a beating on the grass at the K.
“It needs that nighttime to recover,” he said. “I can’t cool a plant down. You can’t water at nighttime because you’re setting yourself up for disease and all that fungus and everything. Those are the nightmares, but that’s what keeps the job challenging. If it was easy, anybody could do it.”
He also has to deal with the human element. Before each at-bat, left fielder Alex Gordon warms up in the grass instead of the on-deck circle, which wears out that part of the field.
“I build a big hole,” Gordon said. “I don’t know, I just like the soft feel. It’s just comfortable for me. I don’t like doing it on the little circle, because I always get stuck with my cleats. On the dirt, it’s just kind of hard. So I take it easy on my feet and swing in the grass.”
“They hate me for it, but I guess that’s why they’re here,” he joked. “I make them work.”
Vance said he gets it.
“Gordon apologizes, and he feels bad about it, but it’s where he feels comfortable,” he said. “And I’m like, ‘Alex, our job is to fix what you screw up. If you never screwed anything up, you wouldn’t need us.’ ”
Vance said past coaches have asked previous crews to help them out — slow the ball down for the outfielders by cutting the grass a little higher, for example.
There was a time when coaches insisted that the grounds crew make a taller mound to give Royals pitchers an advantage, and Vance had to remind them the advantage went both ways.
“We said, ‘You’re making it taller for the other team, and we can’t seem to beat ’em now,’ ” he said, laughing. “They never come to a firm decision because the pitching coach wants something that the hitting coach doesn’t want, and the hitting coach wants what the pitching coach doesn’t want. All (general manager) Dayton (Moore) has ever told me and directed me to do is, ‘I want a fair field. We don’t need to cheat. You do your job, and we’ll leave it up to the players to make the plays.’ ”
Manager Ned Yost couldn’t be more pleased with the job Vance does.
“Not only does the field always look spectacular, they work real hard with us to make sure that we’re happy every single day,” he said. “And it’s nice to have that relationship with the grounds crew people. … Trevor is really, really good at what he does.”
Just don’t ask Vance to mow those fancy designs in the outfield. He doesn’t mind them; he’s just not great at it himself.
“We’ve got a guy out there who can mow straight lines in his sleep,” he said. “That is an art. I can’t do it. When I’m mowing, I can’t stay focused, because I’m thinking, ‘OK, when I get done mowing, we’ve gotta get a crew over there, we’ve gotta get those on-deck circles on the track, we’ve got batting practice at 2 o’clock’ and the next thing you know I’ve just laid a banana out there. I can walk-mow the infield, that’s a piece of cake. But the big stripes I’m no good at.”
In the little spare time he has, Vance helps with youth sports. He recently volunteered at a wrestling tournament — “I love wrestling. It’s my passion. I wish I could talk every kid into wrestling.”
And even though his kids are grown, he helps a friend coach a U9 baseball team. The kids might not know what a groundskeeper does, but Vance said they think it’s cool that he works for the Royals.
“They’d think it was cooler if it was Mike Moustakas coaching,” he said. “It’s kind of like being a groundskeeper. At the end of the day, you see the improvement. Same with a kid, you see the improvement, you see, ‘Hey, I’m doing something right.’ We could go to the boats, I guess, or sit around and drink beer all day, but we just like giving back. What’s better than baseball?”
Vance said he’s hoping he has 15 more years in the game. He has had some back surgeries, and his knees recently have begun flaring up.
“I’ll make it,” he said. “Just getting old. I just turned 50. 50 hit me like a ton of bricks.”
Sitting in his office he points to the pictures of family on the walls, but it’s interesting that a guy who has spent three decades in baseball doesn’t have shelves filled with memorabilia.
“I used to collect and collect and collect,” he said. “It’s kind of funny. When I started, I was 18 years old and all the players were older than me. Then we were about the same age, so we had respect for each other. And now, I’m old enough to be their daddy. I’ve gone from looking up to them to, ‘I’ve been here 33 years, dude.’ ”
He loves the job. Sure, he has seen some bad baseball — some really bad baseball. And, like the players and managers say, it’s a grind, especially working outside in the summer.
“I mean, we’re the armpit of America when it comes to heat and the humidity in the summertime,” he said. “And there’s days when you feel sorry for yourself, like, ‘God, why am I doing this?’ But then comes first pitch, you know exactly why you’re doing it.”
While his mentor Toma is remembered for “and then some,” Vance said he hopes when his time with the Royals is over people remember him by realizing that they never had to worry about the field.
“We want a family to walk into the stadium and we want the wife to elbow the husband and say, ‘Why doesn’t our yard look like that?’ ” he said. “And then we want the field to be forgotten.”