State College Spikes

State College Spikes: Neri’s leadership key in grounds crew excellence

The State College Spikes grounds crew puts the tarp back on the infield prior to a game that was delayed by rain. The grounds crew usually puts in 15-hour days when the Spikes have a game.
The State College Spikes grounds crew puts the tarp back on the infield prior to a game that was delayed by rain. The grounds crew usually puts in 15-hour days when the Spikes have a game. File photo for the CDT

By the time the gates at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park open for fans on State College Spikes game days, the grounds crew has already been there for about nine hours.

By the time the last fan has ambled out of the ballpark after three hours of hot dogs dripping with chili-cheese, peanuts and beer (mile-high sticky sno-cones, for the underage patrons), the grounds crew members know they have a few more hours in their work days before they too can leave the field. All told, the days are about 15 hours long.

They jokingly call days the team is on the road “off days,” but they still put in eight-hour shifts clipping the edges of the grass, mowing and replanting in spots so it won’t look ragged (or even used at all) when the players and fans return for more baseball.

It’s the price this particular crew pays for having what is regarded as one of the best minor league baseball fields in the nation. It’s manicured to an even bounce and glows a rich green. The infield dirt’s deep red contrasts sharply against the turf, curving around the grass and sloping up onto the pitcher’s mound. Mount Nittany sits solidly and lushly beyond centerfield, a picturesque emerald backdrop to one of the prettier portraits in the minors.

In central Pennsylvania, weather is about as unpredictable as it can be. The sky can shift from spotlessly blue to drizzly gray in an instant, with hardly a warning grumble of thunder. That kind of inconsistency wreaks havoc on the landscaping.

Enter Matt Neri, the constant of Medlar Field.

Neri joined the Spikes prior to their inaugural season in 2006, and is the only Sports Turf Manager they’ve ever had. As Head Groundskeeper, he also oversees the sports turf operations for Penn State baseball and is a three-time winner of the New York-Penn League’s Groundskeeper of the Year Award.

He’s usually recognizable by a baseball cap covering his sandy short hair and a trademark pair of khaki cargo shorts — or, for those fans unaccustomed to fashion terminology, Neri is the guy often seen slightly hunched over the wheel of a massive, bright red rotary mower.

When the weather shifts — and it usually does at least once through the course of a series — it’s Neri’s job to keep the field playable.

After all, in the minors, nobody makes money if the game isn’t played.

But, also in the minors, there isn’t much extra money laying around in the first place. That’s why Neri is so valuable.

“It’s not like there are a ton of resources being used over there at the Spikes fields,” said Dr. Andrew McNitt, Ph.D., who is the Program Coordinator of Penn State’s Turfgrass Science Major and a Professor of Soil Science as well as the director of the Center for Sports Surface Research at Penn State. “To tell you the truth, sometimes I go over there and think maybe there should be even more. But somehow, as a team, (the grounds crew) is making it work, and they’re making it work well.”

McNitt is quick to praise Neri’s work, and also his utilization of plentiful resources outside the gates of the ballpark. Most of his interns — who are given almost as much responsibility in maintaining the field as Neri himself — are products of Penn State’s Turf Management program, either as undergrads or graduate students. That’s crucial help for Neri when the seasons are in full swing and the 15-hour days need to be split among multiple people.

That’s not the only benefit of having the nation’s most respected and tenured turf management program located just over a mile down the street.

“Any time he has a problem,” McNitt said, “he’s got a cadre of world-renowned turfgrass professors here that can get in the car and jump over there and have a look for him. Not everybody else has that.”

And, as an added bonus — the professors and scientists like helping out. McNitt himself is good friends with Neri.

As for the students in the program, they go to class for what they can learn in books. Outside of that, though, experience in the field (sometimes quite literally) is crucial. McNitt said Neri is one of the best resources for the students who go to work for him, and there is so much the groundskeeper knows from his extensive experience that can’t be taught in a classroom.

Neri knows his field well — again, quite literally. He has a decade of familiarity with every blade of grass and crumble of dirt, and beyond that, even.

“We’ll start from the bottom,” he said, gesturing toward the field. “If we dug out about a foot of this, there’s actually a gravel blanket that’s about 10 inches deep. Within that gravel, there are drainpipes. They run across the field. There’s a perimeter drain that goes all the way around the field. (Water) drains into there, and then it goes down off the field, near by that hill.

“Then, above that, there’s soil. And in that soil they cut trenches that are filled with sand every 10 inches. So obviously that helps the water drain … it goes in through that sand, into the gravel and goes into the pipe, and then it’s out. Then you have a bunch of sod on the top.”

It’s a little more in-depth than a stadium constructed around a nice patch of already-growing Kentucky Bluegrass — something that fans sometimes think is actually the case, surprisingly enough.

Neri laughs about that, and also chuckles when he and his staff of three get calls asking whether a game will still be played after earlier showers.

The Spikes average only about two rainouts a year, which is incredible considering the fact that central Pennsylvania usually gets anywhere from 38 to 46 inches of rain per year, most of which comes in the warm season, and averages a high concentration of its 30 to 35 thunderstorms per year in the summer.

“We have a good drainage system, we have a’s not just your local high school field where a few drops come down and that’s it for the night,” he said. “If it’s not raining during the game itself long enough to cause a major delay, the game will be played.”

That can be havoc on the well-used turf, however, as can the heavy snowfall central Pennsylvania gets in the winter. A wet field can lead to a loose, easily torn-up field, and that in turn can lead to seedlings that can’t put down roots — something nobody who uses the field can afford.

“(Neri) has a tough job over there,” said McNitt. “He really has two teams playing in that stadium … that field is used extensively. When you compare it to other Single-A short season affiliates, they don’t have a college team coming in and wanting to get on the field in February, and in March.”

The long days, the unpredictable conditions, the fighting against nature itself and the stretching of limited resources might make a guy with Neri’s experience bolt for, ah, greener pastures.

Not quite.

Neri said he and his wife, Christy, decided a long time ago that he’s happy right where he is — in a small town, out of the major leagues and out of the spotlight. He has freedom here, he said. No major league pressure, and he gets to be hands-on in everything he does. He’s on his home turf, as the saying goes.

Neri does get a small perk of having one of the best seats in the house during baseball games — on a bench just inside the bullpen fence.

From there, he can see the Spikes or Nittany Lions play and survey his domain.

And it might just be from that side of the fence, the grass looks pretty green.