By Natalie Bland
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
A 2019 pennant now flies above the scoreboard with three others from long passed post-seasons: 1924, 1925 and 1933. Red, white and blue bunting lines the rows of seats. Far below, staff is decorating the stadium for the last few times fans will hear two signature words this season: Play Ball.
“When we hear those two words is when I have a sigh of relief,” Director of Facilities at Nationals Park Vassie Hollamon said. “That means we delivered.”
Much of the grounds crew is usually already enjoying the off season. For the first time in the club’s recent history, baseball isn’t over yet in Washington, D.C., the official home to this year’s World Series contenders.
Meticulously cut and conditioned grass–120,000 square feet of it–and steam rolled sand stretches out beneath the 45,000 stadium seats. Grounds crew are busy watering, cutting and working the field multiple times every day.
“You have to teach the grass,” Director of Field Operations John Turnour said.
Grounds crew use lasers to measure the field to make sure it is even and as flat as possible. The goal is to have a neutral field that will not positively or negatively affect the players.
“It’s all about playability and player safety,” Hollamon said. “All that’s left on the field is the player skill and ability.”
As grounds crew prepares the stage, crows caw loudly above their heads. This is music to Turnour’s ears–as opposed to the squawking of the pigeons, which are much messier for the cleaning crew.
Aside from the birds, safety is a major concern. Security personnel takes extra precautions because of the stadium’s unique location, including six K9 units and a counter sniper team at every game in addition to the 100 security cameras throughout the ballpark.
Staff also coordinates four ambulances and seven medic teams. On game days, there are between 1,500 and 2,000 employees in the stadium with contract services. Hollamon manages 20 facilities crews of about 500 people year-round.
When Hollamon isn’t directing, he’s handing out baseballs. He remembers giving a baseball to a child in the 300 section who was leaving the game with a heavy head and an empty baseball glove.
“We get to make people happy,” Hollamon said. “I always have baseballs in my golf cart so I can hand them out to kids while I’m going around the stadium.”
This week there will be one major difference: the baseballs will say 2019 World Series.
Even in the broadcast booth, there was a hustle and an air of excitement due to the National’s first postseason series win.
The booth on the fifth floor has the bird’s eye view of the stadium. Audio mixers, technical switchers and computer screens line the room.
Director of Video and Broadcast Engineering Ben Smith’s desk sits right next to the bright red organ emblazoned with the Nationals logo. While Smith is busy getting ready to broadcast the World Series, cleaning his desk isn’t on the to-do list as bobbleheads stand amid the many papers.
“I like to keep the fun ones and keep it interesting,” Smith said referring to the Star Wars, Game of Thrones and National’s figures littering his workspace. “I also have the messiest desk in the stadium.”
“I always say that means I’m working,” Hollamon said with a chuckle.
After the 80 days of regular season games, there are 280 days a year where baseball stadiums are looking for ways to use the ballpark. A monthly Pups in the Park event welcomes over 1,5000 dogs to the stadium. There are also festivals and concerts throughout the season.
“Baseball is what we do, it’s not all that we’re about,” Hollamon said.
This winter there will be a holiday event that will open the gates up to 10,000 people. Visitors will ice skate on the field and enjoy a winter wonderland light maze with a 110-foot tall lit Christmas tree.
For now, Nationals Park is still enjoying a postseason baseball buzz of festivities as the World Series begins.
Underneath the stadium, Hollamon inspects rolls of plastic and absorbent carpeting may soon cover the floor of the home clubhouse to soak up—fingers crossed—the champagne after the Nats win.
“Are you preparing for a party or something?” Hollamon said to a coworker with a smile.