Turf major cultivates Giant memories

By Taylor Sigman

Andrew Wilhelm, a senior turf science major from Plainville, Ind., assesses the quality of turf plots in a greenhouse.

Photo by Taylor Sigman

Andrew Wilhelm, a senior turf science major from Plainville, Ind., assesses the quality of turf plots in a greenhouse. Wilhem was an intern for the San Francisco Giants, an experience that reinforced his excitement about turf. ​Full-size image (123 KB)

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​As Andrew Wilhelm, a self-proclaimed "turf nerd," approached San Francisco Bay each morning last summer, he had a hard time comprehending how he could work at the massive brick stadium before him. AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, loomed in the distance from half a mile away, and when he neared it he was awestruck.

​"I rode the train or my bicycle to work," said Wilhelm, a senior turf science major from Plainfield, Ind. "I would get up to the stadium, and every single day for three months I was blown away that I worked at the Giants' stadium. The facility was just so huge and so beautiful. I was lucky to work there."

​This was not Wilhelm's first experience working on athletic turf. The previous summer he worked for a Major League Soccer field in Salt Lake City. His internship experiences have been a great complement to his studies at Purdue.

​"Everything you learn in a textbook is so utopian," he said. "The conditions are always perfect. That's not real life."

​In San Francisco, Wilhelm had to overcome several challenges.

​"One of the biggest challenges we had was when there was a weeklong break in the baseball schedule," Wilhelm explained. "The stadium was hosting an international soccer game. We had to rip out the baseball field, put in a soccer field, rip out the soccer field, and then put back the baseball field all in just one week."

​The internship was fast-paced throughout the summer. Wilhelm explained that during his 90 days in San Francisco, there were 43 home baseball games.

​"As soon as I got there — on my very first day — there was a baseball game," Wilhelm said. "Someone asked me if I'd been to a major league game. I told him: 'Funny thing is, this is the first Major League Baseball field I've ever been to — first game ever — and I'm watching from the dugout.'"

​As thrilling as it was to be so close to the action, Wilhelm didn't let the spectacle get in the way of his job.

​"You're not the athlete, you're the groundskeeper," he said. "Your job is to take care of the turf. The goal is to be able to recover the turf like no one ever even touched it."

​Wilhelm was the Giants' only intern last summer. He said the one-on-one experience with the head groundskeeper, Greg Elliot, was irreplaceable.

​"I've got a lot of respect for Elliot," Wilhelm said. "The field constantly gets torn up, and you've got to know the correct way to repair it. He took me under his wing and taught me so much."

​Wilhelm said he admires Elliot for his ability to remain calm in tough situations. When a staff member chalked the batter's box incorrectly for a game, the publicity was extremely critical. Elliot didn't let it get to him and encouraged the staff to think of it as a learning experience. Wilhelm appreciated that Elliot acknowledged people will make mistakes, but if you learn from them, you won't make the same mistake again.

​"Elliot told me to go after my dreams," Wilhelm said. "He encouraged me to think outside the box and be creative and innovative. Just because another groundskeeper does something a certain way, that does not mean that's the way I should do it."

​The skills and techniques Wilhelm learned in San Francisco about soil fertility, agronomic and turf management, and event management were unique, Wilhelm said.

​About halfway through his internship, Wilhelm was given a leadership and responsibility role. After a game, Wilhelm led a group of volunteers to repair and manage the bullpens.

​"The leadership role taught me about the importance of communication with people and management," he said. "I was able to teach about 25 volunteers the techniques of repairing the skin after a game."

​The skin is the part of a baseball diamond where soil is exposed.

​"I helped them with their raking techniques, and they encouraged me to lead them," Wilhelm said. "The volunteers were police officers, firefighters and teachers who wanted to be involved with the stadium. They didn't know exactly what they were doing. At times I would feel bad for criticizing their techniques, but they encouraged me to do so. They let me know that I was helping, and that encouraged me to step it up."

​Those leadership skills will serve Wilhelm in his career. Unlike many college students, Wilhelm has known what his career path would be since the seventh grade.

​"I was the kid in the neighborhood who had a little lawn business," he said. "Little did I know back then that there's a lot more to it than mowing and watering grass."

​Even though there's a lot more to it, Wilhelm still waters and mows turf. He has a lot of experience with the basics.

​Back on campus, Wilhelm works with Purdue Athletics to maintain Purdue's sports fields. This keeps him thinking about turf management year-round.

​"I am so thankful for everyone who has helped me get to where I am today," Wilhelm said. "I look forward to the future and am excited to find out what it holds."

​Although Wilhelm is unsure where he'll end up after graduation, he knows his turf science degree will give him plenty of options.

​"I am always encouraging students to pursue a degree in turf science," Wilhelm said. "You don't have to be a turf nerd, you just have to love what you're doing and that will get you far."

A groundskeeper's work can be a real drag

By Taylor Sigman

​During every home baseball game, Andrew Wilhelm and a small crew of the AT&T Park staff would do an infield drag.

​The senior turf science major from Plainfield, Ind., and his crew ran around the bases with a wire mat that leveled the high spots and broke up big chunks of clay. Other crew members raked around first and third bases. When there was a special event, such as a proposal or anniversary announcement, a crew member brought a fan out to second base for special effect.

​The crew finished the drag by replacing the dirty bases with new, clean ones. They went in after both the third and sixth innings of the game and only had about a minute to get the job done.

​"We needed to smooth out the surface and make sure any ball wouldn't get bad hops," Wilhelm explained. "We had to work quickly and efficiently."