Working from groundskeeper up

The Baltimore Sun

WALDORF -- Now that the World Series is over, most baseball fans will resign themselves to other pursuits until spring training.

But not Murray Cook of Ellicott City. For him, there's always another baseball diamond to contemplate. And right now, that field is in China. Cook, a consultant to Major League Baseball, is helping with the construction of the Wukesong Olympic Baseball Fields in Beijing.

"The groundskeeper is the 10th man on a team," says Cook, who routinely travels to such distant sites as China, Japan, Taiwan, Spain, Nicaragua and Colombia to construct and design fields.

While in China, Cook met up this week with Orioles Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., who is there as a State Department special envoy. "It really is a small world, and seeing Cal on the opposite side of the globe today was pretty cool ... even though he was in a suit!" Cook said in the blog he writes for Major League Baseball.

President of Columbia-based Brickman SportsTurf, Cook and his staff helped design fields for Ripken Baseball in Aberdeen and the 4,500-seat stadium being constructed here in Charles County for the minor league Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, scheduled to begin play in 2008.

Think you know baseball? You probably don't know the game quite like Cook, 47, who estimates he logs 400,000 miles a year flying to stadiums.

Since starting his career as a teenage groundskeeper in 1974, Cook has learned the intricacies of how fields can figure into baseball strategy.

"You can do things to a field to give a team home-field advantage," Cook says. "Teams consider grass heights all the time as a tool to slow down or speed up infield balls. I've had requests to slow it down when a certain team comes into professional baseball stadiums. You can wet down infield clay in an effort to slow runners."

In Cincinnati in the late 1990s, Cook says, visiting teams complained the mound was too low. "In fact, it was how the infield was sloped. The infield had a crown which was designed with a slope towards the baselines. It was an illusion of the mound being low because of the slope when actually the mound met all the rules," he says.

In his travels, Cook acts as a baseball ambassador, helping grow the game in places not as familiar with it as the United States.

"It's not just the technical know-how. The greatest asset Murray possesses is his personality," says Lou Melendez, Major League Baseball's vice president for international operations. "He worked in Sydney, he worked in Athens, he's been all over the world. He's able to transcend cultural differences, and as a result, fields look beautiful and stadiums look great."

Paul Seiler, executive director of USA Baseball, says, "Murray Cook is widely recognized as one of the world's leading experts on turf management, as evidenced by his international resume." It is a resume, Seiler notes, that includes working with the Cuban Baseball Federation and MLB to ensure quality fields in Havana when the Orioles played an exhibition there in 1999.

Cook is involved with the Washington Nationals' field that is to debut inside a 41,000-seat stadium in April. "The entire field actually sits on a big, thick piece of plastic to make sure the field doesn't get contaminated by groundwater since it's on the banks of the Anacostia River," Cook says. "It's like a big bathtub."

Married with three children, Cook grew up near Virginia's Salem Municipal Stadium. He got hooked on the game watching the Salem Pirates Single-A club. A number of the players went on to the Pittsburgh Pirates team that beat the Orioles in the 1979 World Series.

Cook says he "has a soft spot for the traditional" stadiums, such as Boston's Fenway Park. He also likes Camden Yards.

"It's a field built on sand, and under that are tubes with pinholes. The system drains extremely well and also assists the field to breathe by pumping air under the soil," Cook says.

Cook says the Orioles' and Nationals' parks share a design trait. "In every ballpark north of North Carolina, you should be able to stand at home plate and the third base foul line should be due north. It's about the orientation of the sun."

Sometimes, Cook does more than manage fields. In Beijing, he tried to teach field crew volunteers this summer about stadium etiquette. "There wasn't much of a response to the 'Charge!' song, and they threw foul balls back on the field. You're talking about a group of people who had never been on a baseball field before," he says.

Cook even tried to teach the workers how to spell out the letters to "YMCA" the way American fans do when the old Village People song is played between innings.

Melendez says: "Murray is really a unique guy. He's the best."

Groundskeeper's choice

The Sun asked Murray Cook to describe memorable stadiums he has encountered:

Most unusual

"The Sapporo Dome in Japan. It's absolutely the largest indoor stadium I have ever seen. The Tokyo dome would fit inside it."

Best hitters' park

"I would have to say Hiram Bithorn Stadium [in San Juan, Puerto Rico] would rank up there pretty high as far as a hitters' park." The Expos played there part-time during their final seasons in Montreal before the fences were moved back. Cook says: "Expos pitchers were allowed to pinch hit. Everything hit in the air was almost an automatic home run."

Favorite park

"I would have to say my favorite would be where I started working in this profession, Salem [Va.] Municipal Stadium."


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