Sports / April 20, 2011

Outstanding in his field

It’s 7 p.m. on Tuesday, the night before the Knox College baseball team is set to host Robert Morris University in an afternoon doubleheader. Senior Zach Ricketts, a relief pitcher and outfielder for the Prairie Fire, is nervous.

But not for the reasons you might expect. Nervousness is a rather common emotion for an athlete prior to a competition.

Ricketts is nervous because it has been raining all day. It is still raining, and there is more in the forecast. And in addition to his responsibilities on the field, his other main responsibility is the field. Ricketts, an environmental studies major and a team co-captain, is the main groundskeeper for Blodgett Field, which houses the Prairie Fire’s “boys of spring.”

Strong “roots”

He says his career goal, and arguably his calling, stems back to his younger days, growing up right here in Galesburg, Ill.

“I always loved mowing when I was at home when I was young,” Ricketts said. “And I also love baseball. So I put two and two together, and I made a baseball field in my backyard.”

The field was complete with a real pitcher’s mound and three in-ground bases, and Ricketts mowed the grass in a way that reflected where the infield dirt might actually be. He even painted the foul lines once a week or so. And because all the neighborhood children would come over and play on the field, dead grass allowed the typical dirt circle around home plate to become visible.

As a standout athlete at Galesburg High School, Ricketts took on the job of taking care of the Silver Streaks’ Field after his coaches heard about his backyard field. In 2007, he began working for a friend of a relative in a local landscaping business. Then, upon making the commitment to continue his education and career at Knox, head baseball coach Jami Isaacson offered Ricketts the job of taking care of Blodgett Field.

“Coach ‘I’ kind of started talking to me about it the summer before I got here,” Ricketts said. “He’d seen me work on the high school field, and he asked if I wanted to do it here. And I jumped at the opportunity.”

There was no precedent. No one at Knox, to Ricketts’ knowledge, had done anything similar to this before. And now, at Isaacson’s request and with the backing of Knox’s Director of Grounds, John Steller, taking care of a baseball field was going to be Ricketts’ campus job.

A typical day

For most students, the daily grind of a full load of classes can take its toll. Add in athletics—Ricketts plays both football and baseball at Knox—and several hours per day on the field, and Ricketts says you have quite the challenge.

“It can be tough,” Ricketts said. “I’ve done my best to get lighter [course] schedules during the season, and I try to do my homework at night after the sun goes down. You have to be super organized, and I still don’t have a lot of spare time, unless it’s at night when all the homework is done.”

Ricketts, who says he tries to get classes in the morning so that he can use the more valuable, and sometimes critical, afternoon hours solely for field work, starts his day on the field by mowing, usually three or four times a week. Each week, he works a design in the grass; designs that were originally something basic, like dark stripes next to light stripes in the outfield, have turned into more intricate, like the Prairie Fire logo behind home plate.

One of his favorite aspects of the field work is making intricate designs in the grass. Ricketts, who has also taken courses like Soil Science and Weather and Atmosphere to help prepare himself, now participates in an art credit independent study, where each week he creates a new grass design in a different part of campus.

After mowing, he prepares the dirt around the infield by watering or raking it before practice. The infield grass is edged to make it a perfectly straight line. And finally, he levels the batter’s boxes by adding clay, and the pitcher’s mound is manicured to a perfect slope.

And on days like Tuesday, where the rain puts the status of games in jeopardy, Ricketts admits he’s at the mercy of the weather without a full-infield tarp to cover Blodgett.

“I rolled the dirt to prepare it for rain so any water would sit on top of the dirt rather than sinking in,” Ricketts said, even though Blodgett can hold much more water now than it could before he took over. “There’s a lot of [weather] radar watching, but really, I can’t do much with days like today.”

Finally, after three-plus years on the job, Ricketts now has an “intern.“ Freshman Paul Mills, a pitcher from Moline, Ill., is the new heir-apparent and has been learning many of Ricketts’ day-to-day tasks to carry on the legacy after Ricketts graduates in June.

“Coach ‘I’ called me and told me, ‘You’re gonna be the new Ricketts,’” Mills said, laughing. “And I said okay. I had taken care of the mound at Moline [High School], and I think Coach ‘I’ saw that, but I had no real experience beyond that.”

On the field, Mills has learned dirt care, edging techniques, and some basic stripe designs. But he has learned other things from Ricketts, as well.

“It’s a lot of work and very time consuming,” Mills said. “You have to like it to be able to do it. ‘Z’ has great leadership skills, and he schedules his time very well and plans everything day by day. He gets everything done that he needs to. He’s not lazy. And these are all things I’m learning, as well.

“[Zach] is very calm; he doesn’t worry too much about anything. I think that goes to show just how much he enjoys it. He’s really in his element out there.”

Ricketts is grateful to have someone to share the load.

“It’s been a huge help [having Mills],” Ricketts said. “I’ve taught him a bunch of the basic stuff that has to be done that normal colleges do, and that allows me to go do more intricate things to make the field look even better. And when I have scheduling conflicts, it allows me to be able to go fulfill other priorities worry-free.”

Headed to the show

Beginning early in his Knox career, Ricketts looked at turning this passion into a full-time career.

“By my sophomore year of college,” Ricketts said, “I started looking at jobs toward the baseball field. I knew I wanted to do something with landscaping, fields, or some type of outdoor work like that, and it just grew into baseball.”

A member of the Sports Turf Management Association, he attended the regional conference in Ames, Iowa, where he met Larry DiVito, a keynote speaker and the new head groundskeeper at Target Field, the new home of the Minnesota Twins.

“I was really interested in what Larry had to say,” Ricketts said, “so I went up and introduced myself to him. I found that he had a similar background as a baseball player who knew he wouldn’t make it professionally after college ball, so he started working on his college field.”

After working for the city of Galesburg maintaining city-owned baseball fields, the private landscaping firm, and the Galesburg High School and Knox duties, Ricketts wanted one more resume booster.

So he spent all of last summer as a groundskeeping intern for the Burlington Bees, a class-A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics (though they were a Kansas City Royals’ affiliate while Ricketts worked there). His infield designs were often self-created, and he was involved in all field preparations on game day.

After his summer experience in Burlington, he enlisted the help of Terrie Saline in the Career Center to perfect his resume. He sent the resume to the groundskeeping departments of each Major League Baseball team, hoping to pull another summer internship.

The Boston Red Sox were waiting with open arms with an offer for a paid internship from June through November, working on the field at legendary Fenway Park. It’s a position that could likely lead to full-time employment in 2012. Ricketts also received offers from the Brewers, White Sox, Twins, Padres, Astros and Orioles, but could not pass on the Red Sox offer.

“I think I’ll love every minute of it,” he said. “The crew out there is one of, if not the best in the world at what they do. I’ll learn some really cool stuff. I’d like to think that it’d lead to a full-time job next year doing the same kind of thing.”

And now, though he has loved every minute of his Knox career, he couldn’t be more excited to get on with life.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Ricketts said. “Pretty much every day since then, the feeling gets more intense, and I get more anxious. I can’t really describe it. It’ll be a relief to get school done with and get out there; it seems like it never will come.”

Ricketts, a lifelong Cubs’ fan, now wears Red Sox gear whenever he can, and says though he will always continue rooting for the Cubs, he is certainly a Red Sox fan now, too.

“I guess I’d just say I’m a huge baseball fan, and I always will be,” he said. “I’ll probably root for the Cubs and whatever team I’m working for.”

For the record, Ricketts does not care which team that is, though he admits that working for Colorado, St. Louis, either Chicago team, or Milwaukee would be a dream. And he thanks Steller, in particular, for the opportunity to follow his dream.

“John Steller has been a great boss to work for. He’s let me kind of experiment and learn things on my own. He’s been a great help to me.”

Unfortunately, despite Ricketts’ best efforts, Wednesday’s games against Robert Morris University were canceled due to rain. But that will not stop Ricketts from being out on Blodgett Field for hour upon hour over the next few days. The next home game is in just four days.

Besides, even the best in his field can’t control the weather.

Colin Davis

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