If baseball is a national religion, then its stadiums are cathedrals, and Greg Burgess worships at the cross of Markley and Field Streets. “This is my yard,” the self-described grass man says with pride. “I’ve been here since ’08. I’ve bought into it. I’ve bought into the Greenville Drive. We want to be the upper echelon in Minor League Baseball.” The master mower holds the hardware to prove the claim. While all-stars like Rizzo, Bogaerts, Buchholz have moved on to The Show, Burgess has seized his own victories in the turf wars of professional baseball. Twice he’s been tagged the Single-A Turf Manager of the Year, while pushing the Drive to multiple Field of the Year wins within the South Atlantic League, and nationally. Yet unlike most on tonight’s roster, this behind-the-scenes MVP never once fostered Major League dreams.
“Oh no, no, I don’t play,” the former wrestler admits with a chuckle. “I never was any good at baseball.” That’s not to say the Upstate native avoided the diamond. His father, and both grandfathers, hauled him along to ballfields and golf courses, where they sold sod and tractors. The teen was heading to Clemson University to study construction science, when a summer job with the Triple-A Charlotte Knights prompted him to switch to turf-grass management. “I was low man on the totem pole, cleaning up gum and sunflower seeds in the dugout,” he recalls. “But I liked being on the ball field. I liked the crew dynamic; we worked until we were done and took pride in what we did.” The somewhat average student excelled once he sunk his hands into the science of seed, sun, and dirt. “My claim to fame during my senior year was that I was the guy who mowed Death Valley. It was cool to be trusted with that.”
The student’s studies included an internship with the Drive during the team’s inaugural season. Two years and one diploma later, Burgess rejoined the Drive to lead its groundskeepers. “If I could go back and do it differently, I probably would,” the tan boss shares, squinting with a smile into the sun. “I wasn’t too keen on being lenient. I wanted things done the right way, my way, nice and crisp.” That was the first time visiting managers, coaches, and umpires named his outdoor office Field of the Year. Immediate success didn’t slow the perfectionist, who’s kept mowing for the fences.
Ballpark Figure // As the Greenville Drive’s vice president of operations and grounds, Greg Burgess grooms the field into a pristine place for athletes to play. Burgess has twice been awarded the Single-A Turf Manager of the Year Award and earned the team multiple Field of the Year wins both regionally and nationally.
Ricardo Cubillan grabs a grounder to wrap the inning. All eyes are on the ball, except Burgess’s, which are laser-focused on the shortstop’s feet. “Cleats chunk up the clay. If it’s not the right mix, it can make the ball ricochet. You don’t want any of that, the ball can hit him in the face and you could lose a player.” Burgess prefers a very specific mix of sand, clay, and silt for a predictable bounce. Athletes monitor stats and fans the score, but Burgess collects a different set of data. “We average 100 games a year with 150 special events. We water the infield five times a day. We mow six days a week. I like to aerate every two weeks, but we need six to seven days to recover. Our usual break between games is five to six.”
While cross-referencing game days with the weather forecast and field maintenance, a confession slips out—the crew doesn’t always root for the home team. “We root for outs,” the chief reveals. “We want 54 outs a game. That means it’s moving at a good pace, and less time and people out there usually means less damage.” It also means the dedicated family man, who works 14–15 hours a game day, can return home a bit earlier to his pregnant wife and young sons.
During the 2016 off-season, Burgess became a utility player when he was promoted to vice president of operations and grounds. He now supervises one crew attending the field and another the rest of the stadium. His award-winning goal in serving players is now used to provide the best experience possible for spectators. “Whether it’s home plate, the mound, bull pens or bathrooms, we want conditions to be as consistent as possible, day in and day out. Visiting coaches always come in and say, ‘Holy cow, this is big league.’ Well, we are big league. We maintain this just like the Majors.” An undeniable homerun.