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Bringing spring to Fenway Park a big task

David Mellor (right) and his crew always dig deep to keep the Fenway grass pristine. Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

Stan Grossfeld/Globe staff

David Mellor (right) and his crew always dig deep to keep the Fenway grass pristine.

It looks as if it was kissed by an endless stretch of gentle sun, this most famous lawn in New England. But as the players take to the field Friday in the Red Sox home opener, the nearly emerald grass of Fenway Park will hide a sometimes frantic, monthslong effort to defy the cruelest winter and spring in memory.

In fact, the most valuable players this spring never wore mitts and cleats, but heavy gloves and work boots, as part of a gargantuan effort that nobody should try at home. The grounds crew employed massive heaters, spread hundreds of yards of hose, and created an entire elaborate — and warm — ecosystem within the confines of the famous ballpark. On the coldest February nights, Fenway was like a little patch of tropics.

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The crew ultimately dug up the entire field, rolled out new sod, then had to resort to decoy coyotes to ward off prying geese.

“I can’t remember a colder spring, and coming from Milwaukee, that’s something,” says David Mellor, the head groundskeeper of Fenway, now in his 14th year.

Which is why Mellor and his grounds crew have been working overtime to do what Mother Nature failed to deliver for Opening Day.

To prepare the field for this season, the grounds crew had to dig up the sod on which the Sox celebrated a world championship at home for the first time since 1918. The renovation — which was planned, not an annual one — hit a snag: The turf was frozen solid.

So to thaw the ground, on Feb. 24 Mellor’s crew put three ground heaters on the field, more than a mile of hoses that snaked around the frozen tundra and heated it at 140 degrees. The hoses were then covered with insulation blankets.

Three forced-air heaters, like those used on the sidelines of NFL games, were strategically placed. Then the rain tarp was spread out over the entire infield. The tarp rose 35 feet.

“We had a big bubble of hot air blowing underneath the tarp,” Mellor says.

Unlike most other ballparks, Fenway has three distinct microclimates, the coldest being in the shade of the foul territory near the backstop and the warmest in front of the Green Monster.

During the winter, Mellor plowed the snow in front of the center-field wall, a trick learned from his mentor, legendary groundskeeper Joe Mooney, who personally recruited him before retiring in 2000. Mooney taught him that the Green Monster absorbs heat, and on a sunny day, piles of snow would melt even in subfreezing weather.

The strips of sod from the world championship year will not be unceremoniously tossed out; they will be used for compost. Early in March, the ground was tilled, watered by hand, and laser-leveled twice before the sod was laid. On March 12, Mellor’s men started sodding the field with 100 percent Kentucky bluegrass, grown at Tuckahoe Turf Farm in New Jersey and trucked here. It was no small job.

Mellor says every blade of grass is inspected.

“The attention to detail is amazing,” he says. “We had people on their hands and knees looking for any imperfection, whether it was a pebble that fell off the bottom of the sod to individual seams.”

Next come two types of fertilizer specially designed for cool weather, a blend of synthetic and organic, to “green up” the field. Growing begins when the soil temperature reaches 50 degrees, which requires air temperatures in the 60s and 70s. That’s not in the forecast this week.

“We will also put some growth blankets out, but it doesn’t look like Mother Nature is going to help us too much,” he says.

Mellor’s grass-growing philosophy generally trusts in Mother Nature, even when she does not cooperate. He says he has never treated the entire field with herbicide, and do not expect him to start now.

“A healthy field doesn’t allow weeds to encroach,” he says.

And his idea of what a field or lawn should be is not narrowly defined by suburban standards. He is the kind of guy who appreciates a few dandelions, a lesson learned from his children. “When they were little, my daughters taught me how beautiful dandelions are,” he said. “While they have grown up, I still feel that way.”

But you don’t want to cross him, either. Don’t walk on the Fenway grass unless you’re a ballplayer or your name is John Henry, owner of the Red Sox (as well as the Globe).

Things won’t be absolutely perfect this year on the famous playing field — “not as lush, aesthetically, as I’d like,” says Mellor. But, he adds, “safety and playability-wise, it’s fine. It’s in very good shape.’’

Still, last-minute problems can be hard to predict. Last month, a pair of geese invaded Fenway the day after new sod was put down, and proceeded to foul “all over the foul territory grass,” Mellor says.

So Mellor and his crew brought out four plastic coyote decoys with faux fur tails; he credits the Department of Natural Resources for the advice. “It was amazing. The geese haven’t been back since.”

And if they ever return, he has decoy ducks with broken necks to up the ante.

Or he could do what he did in Milwaukee to discourage sea gulls: hire bird dogs to run the field for 90 seconds after every third out.

Mellor is credited with popularizing the use of creative lawn patterns, such as last year’s “Boston Strong” logo, in center field. The discovery stems indirectly from a 1993 Paul McCartney concert in County Stadium in Milwaukee. The outfield grass died from the staging and forklift trucks — “so we spread green sand, green kitty litter, green clippings to try and hide the damage.’’ As added camouflage, Mellor put in a pattern of checkerboards and lines on the infield grass, and the idea caught on. Blades and rollers do the bending effect, says Mellor, an Ohio State graduate with a bachelor of science degree in horticulture.

There are no tricks with the field that are designed to favor the home team. The grass is cut to an inch and a quarter before every game. Nothing, say, to slow down opposing base stealers.

“You hear in the old days of teams watering down first base because Maury Wills was playing,” Mellor says. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”

Mellor is quick to spread credit for groundskeeping success to those around him: the Sox executives who authorized a new field with a state-of-the-art drainage system after the 2004 season, assistant director of grounds Jason Griffeth, manager of grounds Chris Williams, the 25 young grounds crew members, and a host of private contractors.

For the work they do, he feels the lasting love of the Fenway fans. Tours run all day, and out-of-towners light up when they glimpse the field for the first time. “They tell us they’re shocked how green it is already,” he says. “There’s a quiet pride that is very humbling.’’

It’s only fitting that Mellor will soon receive his third championship ring.

He says this is a very likable team. “Those guys are all great, I welcome their input. My job is to provide a safe and playable field so they can let their talents take over.”

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.
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