The August sun bakes the back of Derek Gauger’s neck and calves, deepening the bronze landscaper’s tan he has burnished since spring. Bending at the waist, he fusses with the reddish dirt at his feet.
The work is tedious and repetitive with a monotony unique to summer. Gauger cuts the same grass, edges the same lines, fusses with the same reddish dirt.
The 24-year-old has come a long way from cutting patterns while mowing neighbors’ yards as a high school student in South Paris, Maine. This summer, he is tending the most famous lawn in New England: Fenway Park.
“This is as good as it gets,” Gauger says, still fussing with the dirt around home plate seven hours before the first pitch, “to be standing on the field at Fenway and be able to go up and touch the Green Monster.”
Envy the job? First, think about sifting through dirt to remove sunflower seed shells, chewed gum, and plugs of tobacco spit from players and fans. Think about memorizing how to walk on the field so footprints don’t show up on television. Think about spending hours patching and painting the clay batter’s box so it is postcard perfect, only to have the first slugger trash your work with his cleats.
But, mostly, think about the tarp. Think about a frigid rain squall in April. Nearly 38,000 people watch as you wrestle with a 175-foot square of thick vinyl to cover the infield. Imagine unfurling that beast in a driving rain, running across slick grass, praying you don’t slip and get swallowed by the billowing tarp and end up a blooper highlight on SportsCenter.
“The first time you’re on tarp,” Gauger says, “it’s hard to tell if you’re nervous or if it’s just adrenaline, but it’s a big rush. It happens so fast.”
There are plenty of good days, like the recent stretch of blissful sunshine. But even under a cloudless sky, there is more to the job than sitting on a riding mower and making sure the field’s Kentucky bluegrass is 1⅛ to 1¼ inches high.
Getting a ground crew job often starts with agronomy, the study of soil science and grass management. David Mellor, the director of grounds at Fenway, earned a degree in horticulture from Ohio State University and is listed among the school’s notable Buckeyes. [The principal owner of the Red Sox is John W. Henry, who is also owner of the Globe.]
Many interns on the ground crew come from the 100 turf schools across the country, said Mellor. He is one of three full-time groundskeepers and oversees a seasonal crew of up to 40. The work starts as early as February and runs to Thanksgiving. A day can start at 5:15 a.m. if it rains overnight. Quitting time is not until an hour after the last pitch, which can be well past midnight.
“We stress attention to detail,” Mellor says, especially on the infield dirt, known in baseball as the skin. “It’s manicuring it. Smoothing it. Dragging it. Watering it.”
Baseball rules require infield grooming every five innings. At Fenway, the grounds crew does it even more, after the third, fifth, and seventh innings, fixing imperfections with brooms, scrapers, and rubber mats dragged across the dirt.
For Gauger, the path to the ground crew started in early high school, when he began cutting grass for an elderly neighbor. Business grew to 14 lawns, and he experimented with stripes and other patterns he noticed watching Sox games on television.
“When I was a kid, I never thought there were people who did this full time,” Gauger says.
His mother suggested lawn care as a career path. Gauger earned a degree in turf grass management from Michigan State University in 2012. He landed an internship at Fenway his senior year and has become a member of the seasonal crew. He mows, waters, and meticulously paints baselines, wetting the dirt with water to help the paint stick before adding a fresh blast of white.
Gauger saves his best artistry for a few minutes before the first pitch, when Fenway is filling with fans, and vendors hawk popcorn and beer. The ground crew attacks the infield with brooms, rakes, and shovels, manicuring the dirt until it is so smooth it looks like untouched sand left by a retreating tide.
Gauger tiptoes to home plate with a 5-gallon bucket. He has concocted his own mixture of paint, water, and chalk, stirring it with an old bat. He dips a finger to test the consistency — runny, but with enough pigment to make it brilliant white.
Using a wide bristled scrub brush, Gauger paints rectangles around home plate, bright white that stands out against the red dirt. He uses his shoe to erase mistakes, rubbing the extra paint into the dirt. He steps back with sweat beading on his forehead and glances approvingly at his work.
Moments later, Gauger is in the crew’s locker room beneath the stands. He makes a point of watching the first pitch on television.“That’s when the field looks its best,” Gauger says. “Everything is perfect.”