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Ground Control : Veteran Big A Groomsman Among the Best in His Field


ANAHEIM — If the baseball players as much time practicing on the field as groundskeeper Ray Reyes does it, maybe the California Angels wouldn't be struggling this year.

Reyes spends at least eight hours a day at Anaheim Stadium, spreading dirt, raking the ground, trimming the grass, filling in divots and removing discarded sunflower seeds and tobacco wads just so the field is in top shape for the next game.

"It's a job," Reyes shrugged Wednesday as he scanned the outfield for chewed-up turf. "You do the best you can do."

In the world of baseball, groundskeepers are much more than glamorized gardeners. They are the caretakers of an American institution, responsible for everything from the well-manicured grass and white chalk base lines to the smooth dirt infields and the rust-colored clay in the batter's box.

Each bad hop of the ball is a personal affront to Reyes.

"Luckily, there aren't too many of those," he said.

Like players, groundskeepers talk about their careers in terms of seasons. Reyes' first season was the same year the Angels moved to Anaheim in 1966.

"Things haven't changed all that much," he said. "The field is still the same, but the equipment is better. We can do more in less time."

Speed is a necessity in his line of work, especially at the beginning of the football season when the Los Angeles Rams might play on Sunday and the Angels could take the field the following night.

"We have to work through the night when that happens," Reyes said, noting that last weekend was especially difficult because of the Rams-Raiders game on Saturday and the collegiate Pigskin Classic on Sunday. "The football games really tear up the grass."

Although repairing the 106,000 square feet of Santa Ana Bermuda sod is work, Reyes said, it's better than dealing with the alternative: artificial turf.

"I don't like that stuff," he said with disgust. "It's not real."

Reyes is one of four full-time groundskeepers who maintain the field at the Big A. There are two others who work part time and rake the infield during the seventh-inning stretch during baseball games. Their main goal is to make the field safe for the athletes to play on.

Kevin Uhlich, vice president of operations for the Angels, said the "groundskeepers play a very important role, especially here where there is natural turf and it's a multiuse stadium."

In addition to baseball and football, the groundskeepers have to repair the field after concerts and other events, like motocross sports. Each year, the sod in the park is torn out and replanted.

Uhlich said the team relies on the groundskeeping crew to protect its "high-priced" athletes from injuring themselves from divots in the grass or bad bounces in the field.

He said that Reyes does "an exceptional job" and is known throughout the Angel ballclub for his skills in preparing the batter's box around home plate.

"He's got it down to a real art; he has a talent," Uhlich said. "He knows how hard the clay and dirt should be and when to water it or let it dry so it's not too muddy.

"He has been here a lot of time and has seen a lot of people in the organization, and (has seen) players come and go," Uhlich added.

In his younger days, Reyes worked 10- or 12-hour days and stuck around to watch the games. Over the past several years, however, he has gone home to be with his family in Corona and watch the game on television.

Although still a baseball fan, Reyes said the game, with its more businesslike, high-priced players, has lost some of its charm.

"I think the old-time players were the best ones," he said as he shoveled dirt into his Cushman cart. "They were more friendly. We were more closer together in the old days, saying, 'Hello. How ya' doing,' that type of thing. Nowadays, they come and they go."

Lead groundskeeper Brian Nofziger agreed.

"It's a different game now," said Nofziger, 47, of Huntington Beach, who is in his 19th season at the ballpark.

Reyes and Nofziger said there is more to maintaining the field than raking the dirt and mowing the grass to precisely 5/8ths of an inch before each game. There is a certain amount of science to it.

That science is sometimes applied to make the field "slower" or "faster." A harder field tends to make grounders and ball players move quicker; a softer field tends to slow things down.

Nofziger said he remembers when former Angel manager Dick Williams asked that the groundskeepers slope the base line so balls wouldn't go foul as much when the team's speedy runners tried to bunt to get on base.

"It was like a velodrome," Nofziger recalled with a chuckle. "Nothing went foul."

Because of their jobs, men like Nofziger and Reyes watch baseball from a different vantage point than the average fan. Instead of great plays, they often admire great ball fields.

Reyes said it pained him to watch the Little League World Series last weekend between Long Beach and Panama and see the baseball's erratic hops in the infield.

"I know it was Little League, but still . . . " he said, his voice trailing off and his head shaking.

A minute later, Reyes was talking about a game in Oakland he saw on television. "Did you see it?" he asked. "That field looked good. You should have seen it. I was amazed."

But no matter how immaculate the field is, Reyes knows there is only so much a groundskeeper can do to help a ballclub.

When asked why the fifth-place Angels are having a lackluster year, Reyes simply pointed to the glass windows of the administration offices at the stadium. The answer, he said, was "up there. Not down here."

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