Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Gwinnett Braves Sports Turf Manager, Chris Ball paints the first base line at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville prior to a Gwinnett Braves game earlier this season. Ball is in his first year with the Gwinnett Braves and is responsible for maintaining the playing surface of Coolray Field.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- A nickname like Butter isn't easily lost, or forgotten.
Chris Ball wasn't yet 6 years old when a friend, with a much more forgettable name, dubbed him Butter during a backyard game of football. Or was it kickball? Even Ball doesn't remember. But he remembers the name.
"It wasn't because I dropped a pass or the game-winning catch. It just happened," Ball said. "Now it's on my business card."
Butter followed Ball from that early age through high school to college and into his career as a groundskeeper.
So now with Ball come three things: Hogan, his dog, Butter, his name and green grass, his profession.
This is his first year caring for the grounds at Coolray Field and as the heat of July turned to this cooler August and the field once again suffered the beating of a midsummer concert, the grass, in both fair and foul territory, sparkles green. The consistency of the turf, its green color is a first for the ballpark at this time of year. Previous seasons have seen chunks of dead turf, squares of sod, a worn path from the mound to the plate as if pitchers were bowling rather than throwing. Even the patches blend well.
It's still a work in progress. The aesthetic improvements come first, but they mask an outfield with plenty of soft patches that make balls in the outfield a challenge to approach and even tracking fly balls is tougher. The infield dirt also draws some player complaints.
But after every game, the crew is back on the field, pounding in the dirt, mowing, watering. From above, the field looks as green as any groundskeeper can hope.
In a career spanning ballparks in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, Ball has built a reputation for fields green and healthy, turning a failed playing career into an award-laden job keeping him around baseball and away from an office.
"Being able to come to the ballpark every day for your job is really a lot of fun," Ball said. "I couldn't spend eight hours a day on the phone or behind a computer screen. To be able to be outside, have great equipment. It's really awesome."
From 2006 to 2010 at Myrtle Beach, Ball earned five consecutive Carolina League field of the year awards and he was twice (2007, 2010) given the national Class A turf manager of the year honor. He worked for Gwinnett Braves General Manager North Johnson while in Myrtle Beach and credits his long-time employer with allowing him success.
"It's the management that allow you to do what you need to do to manipulate the field," Ball said of his accolades. "It's a living, breathing thing and you have to manipulate it to its needs everyday, every week, every month, every season. To be able to do that without just constant scrutiny is great. There are guys with my job that every two minutes people are asking them, 'What are you doing?' That's what's so great about North and the whole ownership group. If we need something to make it a great product then we have the ability to do that."
Johnson hired Ball as an intern in Kinston, N.C., in the mid-1990s. He was a ballplayer turned student assistant at UNC Greensboro and started working in the dirt preparing the field for practice. He kept working in the dirt, eventually getting a job with the minor league team in Harrisburg, Pa. Ball worked there for two seasons, but the pull of the South drew him to take a job selling chemical and lawn fertilizer in Greensboro and from there he ended up at Myrtle Beach as the groundskeeper. Nine years later, he, and Hogan, moved to Gwinnett.
"It's a step up. It was time to move personally and professionally," Ball said. "That place holds a special place in my heart and it still does.
"But to be able to come to this area, still being in the South in the Bermuda grass area, it was a perfect fit."
Ball spent this season learning the different challenges of the grounds at Coolray. The dirt is different, the sun is blocked from much of the field early in the day, the stadium uses reclaimed water. He changed the dust to brick dust along the track and baselines; they use more walk-behind mowers. Like baseball players, he does the same things every day and makes adjustments constantly. He calls other groundskeepers in baseball and golf for help. He reads. He studies. The redhead keeps cans upon cans of sunscreen handy. He waters the field and tests the soil.
And the next day, he does it again.
"It is a, not that Myrtle Beach wasn't a high-profile stadium. I mean, this is a triple-A park, you've kind of got to be on your game," Ball said. "I still don't know what to expect. What all my issues are going to be. I am still learning every day. You constantly learn every day; seeing how the grass reacts, how the dirt reacts.
"It is Groundhog Day. It's Groundhog Day every day."