Mourn the Angels if you must, but baseball remains a cut above


I see a ballfield the way a sailor sees the sea. Beneath the obvious mowing patterns, I can make out the faint paths where the grounds crew cuts it foul pole to foul pole, so as not to emboss the outfield with game-changing ridges.

This secondary mowing pattern is subtle, and you have to hunt for it: a stubble beneath the stubble, a 4 o’clock shadow. That’s baseball for you, all nuance and subtext.

I have given my life to the game. I have played it (poorly), coached it (excessively) and romanticized it (shamelessly). Some day, I hope to get a life. Late summer, and all I’m really craving is a little lake and a large novel.


Yet, here I am, back at an old ballyard, chasing the little things in life: heroes, hot dogs and good grooming (more on that in a moment).

This time of year, all ballfields are a tad shop-worn, as are these Angels. It seems impossible they stayed in the playoff conversation as long as they did. Even in mid-August, the starting pitching seemed to be on the mend, and for a while, the Angels had the jaw lines of leading men again.

As with the mowing patterns in the outfield, you always have to look past the obvious to really understand a baseball season. I focus hard on this ballclub, yet all I see is the ghost of Howie Kendrick and a hint of melancholy over how this season has played out.

Now back to mowers and good grooming: At a recent home stand, the Angels let me work the rakes. I’m sort of a geek for lining a field, based on centuries of managing at the Little League level. There was always something rewarding to watering down the infield.

So, during the series against the Chicago White Sox, I headed down to work the rakes, drag hoses, roll away batting-cage screens. As I crawled down the 57 Freeway at rush hour, the thermometer reaching for 90, I started to have misgivings about this project. As if I’d never dragged fields before, or chalked a line? What was left to prove? Isn’t a field a field?

It went great, though. Head groundskeeper Barney Lopas, who has been tending this big garden since 1996, put me to work right away, and his crew had just the right mix of respect for the task at hand and wry resignation that no one much notices. They were glad that I noticed, though a tad mystified by all the questions.


— No chalk anymore, just paint? (mostly)

— Is this Bermuda grass? (yes, overseeded with rye)

— Don’t all those sunflower husks drive you nuts? (a little)

— Do ballplayers, the most curmudgeonly of athletes, ever complain about the conditions?

Lopas says the Angels are appreciative of everything — but if the batter’s box becomes too soft, or too hard, they will speak up. Most of his 14-hour days go into keeping the dirt damp, but there are a million other details. Consider the wear and tear on the pitching plate, the broken ribbon of grass where the shortstops stand, the way the rye dies, then the Bermuda takes over, then the rye tries to come back.

To tend to all this, Lopas has a crew of five in the morning and six at night, one of the smallest such armies in the league. Still, look at this verdant landscape. Van Gogh did less with more.

And tonight, I’m embedded with Burt, Dutch, Leo and the rest, hauling nets after batting practice, then hanging out in their own man-cave clubhouse beneath the waterfall in centerfield.

Honestly, I didn’t make much of a dent in their workload, though the Angels won, so I must have done something right. Maybe I should be a grounds-crew starter.

Best part: In the fleeting moments between the third and fourth innings, as I help drag the infield, Erick Aybar, Albert Pujols and the others stand around waiting for us to finish, punching their gloves and nodding appreciatively, in a way ballplayers are not prone to do.

It triggered the same emotion I felt when the ancient ballplayers first came out of the corn in “Field of Dreams,” affirming that there’s something mystical about baseball that defies logic. How can it be that a sport built on asterisks, agents and bad food is far more than the sum of its perfectly groomed parts?


Well, it is.

Twitter: @erskinetimes