There was a time, before his kids were grown, when Matt Balough would have made sure to have a seat at Petco Park for Saturday’s high-flying Supercross. These days, the Padres’ 56-year-old head groundskeeper is simply biding his time until a parade of trucks begins carting out more than 22 million pounds of dirt dumped on top of his precious Bermuda grass field.
That’s when his job begins anew.
“It’s a long, tedious process,” said Balough, who is entering his sixth season as the Padres’ director of field operations. “Once the dirt comes up, we’ll work for two straight months without a day off, roughly 10 to 12 hours a day, to get the field ready for opening day.”
The “we” is Balough and a staff of five full-time groundskeepers. The process is preparing some 100,000 square feet of grass — replaced at a cost of $160,000, which is included in the revenue stream provided by the Feld Entertainment-run Monster Jam and Supercross events — for the 2019 season.
Understanding the work involved requires a dissection of what went into transforming Petco Park’s diamond into an off-road wonderland for three weekends of playing in the dirt.
Not long after Padres FanFest wrapped up on Jan. 12, some 350 truckloads of material were spread across Petco Park’s playing surfaces.
First, a quarter-inch plastic product was placed over the infield dirt and warning track. More plastic sheeting was spread over the grass that will be replaced after Supercross.
Then, six to eight inches of gravel road base was spread over the entire playing surface to help protect the root zone, followed by 5,000 yards of clay for the track’s layout.
In addition to bringing in an extra 30 truckloads of dirt this week for the Supercross course, Feld’s 20-person construction crew has been racing against the clock to build dozens of jumps and erect the starting gate, finish line, podium and the team manager, scoring and observation towers before the worst of the inclement weather arrives for Saturday’s rain-or-shine event.
“Mother nature,” Feld track construction manager Pete Henderson said, “is your worst enemy when you’re playing outdoors.”
Balough’s concern, of course is the root zone below the top soil that Feld will pay to replace.
He’s directed the breakdown of the course after Saturday’s event to start from the first base line and move toward right field, allowing his staff to work behind the Feld crew to begin preparing the ground for new top soil before the last truckloads of Supercross dirt is hauled away, likely Tuesday or Wednesday.
The hope is that Balough and his staff are laying the new sod by Feb. 15. Opening day is March 28.
“The sooner you get it in,” Balough said, “the faster it starts to root.”
Balough would know.
This is the fifth transition he’s overseen since Petco Park began hosting motorsports events. Before landing with the Padres, he’d worked 13 years for the city at Qualcomm, which had long been a host of the monster truck and dirt bike races that Balough took his kids to all those years ago.
Yes, the idea of ripping his grass out each winter is a bit unnerving.
Starting anew each spring — as opposed to every three to four years, as was the case before bringing motorsports to Petco Park — is also refreshing.
“In a perfect world, we’d like to keep the grass all year without having to rebuild,” Balough said. “But it is nice having a new playing surface every year.”