It is 8:45 a.m. and Mike Williams arrives at Riley Park. He knows it’s going to be a hard day’s night as he prepares mentally and physically for a 16-hour workday.
The baseball players, coaches and managers won’t arrive until 2 p.m., but all they have to do is play a game.
Williams, the facility’s head groundskeeper, is a multitasking master. He has to consult with the RiverDogs’ front office about his budget and labor costs, order supplies and equipment, keep umpires up to date on the weather and make sure his staff works in harmony. All this while wondering if he will have to battle Mother Nature.
And then there are the weeds, insects and fungi — a troika that could make trouble for well-manicured grass at the The Joe which takes 2½ hours a day to cut.
Williams is in charge of all aspects of keeping the field in shape. His duties include repair and upkeep of clay surfaces including mound, plate and infield skin; mowing, edging, fertilizer application; installation and removal of the field tarp; irrigation monitoring and repair; batting practice setup and breakdown; pre- and post-game field maintenance; equipment repair and upkeep.
The grass is always greener at The Joe even though the playing field takes a beating during with more than 150 baseball games and other events throughout the year. The baseball diamond is emerald and immaculate thanks to Williams, who is in his seventh year in the underappreciated role. He always seems to have a rake in one hand and an eye on the ominous clouds.
Williams, who has major league experience with the New York Mets and Tampa Bay Rays, arrived in Charleston in 2006, a year after the subpar field conditions at Riley Park during the Southern Conference tournament impacted the College of Charleston’s chance of hosting an NCAA regional. One of his first chores was to transition the field from rye to Bermuda grass. He has won numerous awards for his expertise for his upkeep of the field.
“In the 20 years I’ve been in baseball, he’s the most experienced groundskeeper I’ve worked with or encountered,” said RiverDogs general manager Dave Echols. “He’s the best I’ve seen. The Joe has had its ups and downs before his arrival. But now, the field always looks great.”
The 46-year-old native of Athens, Ohio, fell in love with baseball when he was 6. He grew up two blocks from a field and became a park rat. Today, he’s part magician as he manicures the field at The Joe.
Williams and a staff of 13 part-time workers spend long hours getting the field ready for a game that usually lasts 21/2 hours. When the RiverDogs are at home, Williams arrives at the ballpark around 8:45 a.m. and usually calls it a day around midnight if there are no rain delays or extra innings.
When the team is on the road, Williams’ work day is only 10 hours.
“I never worked an eight-hour day,” he said. “I never worked a 40-hour week. That’s Greek to me. When the team is home, I work 15 or 16 hours a day. It’s not normal. It’s baseball — if that makes any sense.”
Williams begins his field duties by watering the infield and turf. Once that project is completed and the grass is dry, he’ll start his John Deere 2653 riding mower and cut the turf to 5/8 of an inch. He’s constantly working on the clay in the field to prevent bad bounces.
The players arrive on the field at 2 p.m. and Williams and his staff work around them. At 6 p.m., the final preparations begin as he and his workers drag and water the infield, paint home plate and line the field with chalk. Williams is old-school. He doesn’t use paint to mark the baselines or the batters boxes.
“I like to stay out of the spotlight and in the background,” Williams said. “It’s a lot of work, but I look at working in professional baseball as a privilege, something to be earned. I am expected to be perfect. I have to show up every day because there’s no such thing as a sick day. It provides a big challenge but a lot of satisfaction when that first pitch is thrown at 7:05.”
Follow Philip M. Bowman on Twitter: @pandcphil