Mike Williams could see the backstop at the high school baseball field through the double-glass doors of his boyhood home on Clinton Street in Athens, Ohio. At the first sight of action on the magnetic diamond, young Mike grabbed a glove and hurried over to imitate his heroes of the 1970s, players on Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” or the nearly equidistant Pittsburgh Pirates.
“There weren’t any more cowboys and Indians played,” he said. “No more Tonka toys.”
As a prideful 6-year-old, Williams began taking care of the ballfield. Some weed-pulling. Tender loving dirt care.
Almost a half-century later, the best and busiest groundskeeper in minor league baseball just wants a smile.
“A lot of people think groundskeeping is just mowing the grass and dragging the field. Well, it’s not,” said Williams a former Major League Baseball groundskeeper who is in his 11th year managing the field at Riley Park, home of the Charleston RiverDogs and Citadel Bulldogs. “It’s soil biology. It’s chemistry. It’s knowing all the things that go into providing a beautiful playing surface not only for the players, but as soon as the fans walk through the breezeway. It’s the ‘Wow’ factor.”
Wow. Williams not only wins lots of groundskeeping awards for the eye-popping digs, his soil toil degree of difficulty tops the industry. Among approximately 200 minor league teams, the RiverDogs are one of fewer than 15 that share a field with a college team.
That means Williams must work 150 baseball days — dates with games or practices — between February and October. Never mind that the field at The Joe, built over a landfill, gradually sinks a bit every year.
Still, it is postcard perfect.
“There’s a lot of foot traffic on the field and the weather extremes here are unlike anywhere I’ve ever been,” Williams said, “especially the wind. It provides a challenge. The field can dry out pretty quickly.”
That keeps Williams and his rotating crew of 12 employees paid by the RiverDogs working long hours on game days. The hours are longer when the RiverDogs and Bulldogs are out of town. April means a transition battle between a perennial rye grass planted in November and Bermuda grass that will take over in June.
Sports turf management got a big-screen spoof with Bill Murray’s classic “Caddyshack” character. Goofball assistant greenskeeper Carl Spackler’s goal: Head greenskeeper.
“Hopefully within six years,” Spackler said. “That’s my schedule. I’m studying this stuff, so I know it. You know, like, chinch bugs. You know, manganese. A lot of people don’t even know what that is. … Nitrogen.”
Williams, 50, began studying long before he got to know Murray, a Lowcountry resident and the RiverDogs’ “Director of Fun.” The former head groundskeeper for both the Tampa Bay Rays (1998-2000) and New York Mets (2001-2003), Williams has a Masters degree from Ohio University in Athletic Administration and took Turf Management courses at Cornell.
The Debacle of 2005 brought Williams to the Riley Park rescue. Field conditions were so bad at the Southern Conference Tournament — much burned-out grass covered with sand and spray paint — league officials threatened to move the event if things weren’t fixed. The College of Charleston, led by current New York Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner, used Riley Park in their NCAA Tournament host site application.
“But there was a factor with the field conditions there, and we felt like for those reasons, we needed to look elsewhere, somewhere where there was a better situation,” NCAA Tournament Selection Committee Chairman Charlie Carr said.
The Cougars went to Clemson as a No. 2 seed.
“I’ve been chasing him for two years to come work for the RiverDogs, so that should tell you I what I think of Mike Williams,” RiverDogs co-owner Mike Veeck said the day Williams was hired.
It didn’t take long for awards to start piling up aside RiverDogs and Citadel ballcaps in the Riley Park office Williams keeps under the grandstand. He has been named South Atlantic League “Groundskeeper of the Year” and honored for “Best Playing Field” four times apiece.
The RiverDogs said thanks in 2010 by holding Mike Williams Chia Head Night. Yes, fans received a likeness complete with a tiny plot of fertile soil atop his head. It’s probably not exactly what Williams imagined when he stunned his father by building a mini-baseball field in the backyard or when he began picking the brain of legendary Kansas City groundskeeper George Toma.
But Williams takes to the field each day with the competitive attitude of a catcher, his position at Ohio U. He also plays rugby and cricket when he’s not spending time with daughter Lindsay and son Tim.
“I believe you’re only as good as you were yesterday,” Williams said. “In my industry, you have to perform or you won’t survive.”
Yesterday, the field looked good again. The “Wow” factor remains alive for the Riley Park MVP.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff