Michigan State’s groundskeepers crew keeps playing fields looking perfect
Their work is non-stop, especially in the spring, trying to make every soccer, softball, baseball, and other fields playable.
Jared Knoodle works by the “no news is good news” philosophy.
“Usually the groundskeeper is only announced when something goes wrong,” he said, “so I usually just try to stay in the shadows and not be seen or be heard.
Despite his wishes, there’s more than enough headlines around his work to keep him busy.
Knoodle manages the day-to-day operations at Michigan State University’s Old College Field athletic complex, which includes McLane Stadium, Secchia Stadium and the DeMartin Soccer Complex, which houses both the game and practice soccer fields.
With women’s soccer earning the Big Ten championship and baseball on track for its first complete winning season since 2016, more Spartan fans are coming to the stadiums, leaving more for him and the grounds crew to clean up.
“The better the teams do, the bigger the crowds and more people,” Knoodle said. “Not an exponential amount more than we have to clean up, but whenever there’s people there’s going to be trash.”
Knoodle is no stranger to large baseball crowds. After graduating from MSU in 2008, he spent time as an assistant with both the San Francisco Giants and Detroit Tigers before returning to his alma mater in 2012.
However, Michigan State presents its own challenges that weren’t there with the MLB clubs.
First, Knoodle works with a smaller crew – between three and five students depending on the day that help him maintain the fields.
“We try to make everything here just like a major league facility with a quarter the size of the crew,” Knoodle said.
During baseball and softball seasons, the work is rather routine: mow, fertilize, edge the infield, level the dirt, repeat. While there are extra steps, like spraying the Spartan helmet in the outfield, that aren’t everyday tasks, a consistent routine is what makes sure the field is always in good condition.
“We only have 22 or 23 home games a year, but for those 22 days it’s kind of like the movie ‘Groundhog Day.’ You just wake up and do the same stuff every day until it’s back to, like, opening day standards.”
A long season means long hours. The grounds crew starts every day at 7 a.m. to start preparing for games and practices, well before the team takes the field.
“Most people think you know, if you ever go to a baseball game,” Knoodle said, “you see the grounds crew like a half hour before the game like, you know, watering, chalking the field and stuff like that, but they’ve been there, you know, a lot of them seven to eight hours a day getting the field ready.”
However, while it’s true for any job, Knoodle and his crew can’t plan for everything that comes their way. Most times, the fields are at the East Lansing weather’s mercy.
Around mid-to-late October, the weather gets too cold for the grass to grow. The soccer field, by hosting matches later in the year, is prone to not recovering properly between games. By contrast, the baseball and softball fields have their bulk of issues before the season starts.
“Our first home game (is) usually mid-March,” Knoodle said. “...and sometimes there’s still six inches of snow on the ground.”
Both have a heated infield, which Knoodle says allows both to take batting practice and field ground balls as early as January without using the often snow-covered outfield.
Knoodle and company apply fungicides to prevent any snow mold or discoloration in the grass during the winter, so once the weather gets warmer, all teams can hit the ground running.
“As soon as the snow melts, softball’s outside, baseball’s outside and actually soccer, they have spring seasons where they practice pretty much every day of the week as well…there's really no offseason for any team anymore.”
While Knoodle had dealt with cold weather during his time in Detroit, the Old College Field complex adds an extra danger for him to worry about: floods. Located directly on the banks of the Red Cedar River, the fields usually flood at least once every spring, right in the middle of baseball and softball season.
When the river floods onto the MSU campus, it starts at the sharp bend near the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Harrison Road. Depending on its severity, the flood will then move east and onto the neighboring fields.
“That usually will cover practice soccer completely, usually DeMartin, most of the softball outfield…but it usually stays off the infield of baseball,” Knoodle said.
The latest round of floods came Easter weekend, which sent water onto all four fields, causing complications for the teams.
“It flooded a couple of days before Easter,” Knoodle said, “so baseball had to go play at the Lugnuts at Jackson Field. Then softball went over to Davenport for a day, and then we got lucky that the water kind of receded and where there wasn't all that bad of a flood. Softball actually played on Easter Sunday.”
While the recent flooding was bad, it was nowhere near the worst Knoodle had seen. On Feb. 22, 2018, waters had overflowed from the Red Cedar all the way to Spartan Stadium.
“That was the 10-foot flood where that completely washed away the softball warning track and outfield,” he said, “…That was when we completely had to redo DeMartin. We completely redid softball. Baseball kind of got spared, we didn’t really have to do much over there.”
Because of those flood risks, all of the crew’s heavy equipment – including mowers, tractors and industrial-sized leaf blowers – are stored on the concourse of Spartan Stadium. On football game days, everything is moved to a separate area by the staff room and out of public view.
Given the weather’s inconsistency in East Lansing, there’s always something to do for Knoodle and the grounds crew. When Michigan State teams aren’t using the fields, Old College Field also hosts plenty of summer events, including high school state championships and summer camps for baseball, softball and soccer.
However, whether rain or shine, 10 feet of water or six inches of snow,
“Most people think we just mow the grass and do everything like that,” Knoodle said, “but there’s a lot more to it.”