December 2017

SportsTurf provides current, practical and technical content on issues relevant to sports turf managers, including facilities managers. Most readers are athletic field managers from the professional level through parks and recreation, universities.

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Page 24 of 51

www.spor 25 December 2017 // a "rugged individualist," never staying with one team for too long, always storming off or patching up a feud. Despite their caustic personalities—and the occasional incident involving physical violence, such as when Tom allegedly assaulted longtime baseball man Connie Mack's brother with a bat, nearly killing the guy—the brothers' superior skills kept them in high demand. Working for the Orioles in the 1890s, Tom Murphy tailored the fi eld to his team's strengths, tilting the baselines inward so bunts wouldn't roll foul, and hardening the dirt around home plate so batters could slap the ball straight down for a sky-high bounce and then leg out a hit. (This became known as a "Baltimore chop.") Around the mound, Tom would scatter soap fl akes to mess up the opposing pitcher's grip when he reached down to rub dirt on the ball. Meanwhile, in right fi eld, the creative keeper designed a purposefully ragged and sloped patch of grass that featured a maze of "runways" that only the Baltimore defenders knew how to navigate. His contributions weren't limited to the fi eld, either. Once an opposing player made an errant throw that rolled into the Orioles clubhouse through an open door, which Tom quickly shut and locked until the Orioles scored. It was a swashbuckling period, when anything not specifi cally against the rules was considered fair game. It gave rise to a storied baseball tradition of stacking the deck in the home team's favor. Bent Oak Farms These days, big-league stadiums don't even grow their own grass. The Atlanta Braves, for example, get their turf from an outfi t known as Bent Oak Farms in Foley, Alabama, not far from the Redneck Riviera along the Gulf of Mexico or my all-time favorite restaurant, Lambert's Cafe, "home of throwed rolls." Founded in 2007, Bent Oak burst onto the sporting scene and quickly became the go-to grower for major- league teams like the Braves, Marlins, and Astros, NFL teams like the Jaguars and Dolphins, and a host of big-time college football programs like the University of Georgia, the University of Alabama, and Auburn University. While you'll easily fi nd Bent Oak in any discussion of top sports turf providers, you can't fi nd it on a map. "There's a reason for that. I ain't looking to be found," says Bent Oak owner Mark Paluch, who instructs me to meet him at a nearby Pick-n-Pay gas station, surrounded by nothing but flat grass pastures and a blinking red light. There I ditch my car and join Paluch in his pickup truck. "We're only about a mile from the Gulf of Mexico," he continues, pointing out the other sod farms (mostly landscape grass) and the soybean-, peanut-, corn-, and wheat-growing operations we pass on the way to his place. "This is the last piece of dirt between here and Mexico, and that body of water doesn't allow the air here to drop below freezing. I didn't pick this place by accident." Paluch actually has two farms here, one growing Bermuda grass and the other growing paspalum. While both are warm-weather varietals, they would cross- contaminate and create an undesired hybrid if they grew too close together. Paluch takes me to the Bermuda farm, where a crew of workers is rolling up thick strips of sod, which are forty-two inches wide and between forty-fi ve and fi fty-fi ve feet long, each one weighing around two thousand pounds. The sod is being shipped to the University of Georgia, in preparation for football season. "They all come down to get grass from Hillbilly Willy," cackles Paluch, who at fi fty- fi ve has wind-mussed gray hair and a wisp of a mustache. He is alternately braggadocio and weirdly secretive as we drive around his property. One guy we come across, he tells that I'm a representative from MetLife Stadium — for what reason, I'm unclear. He also tells me not to take photos of certain machinery, which they have customized to their needs. One machine, in particular, I'm told not even to describe. "You don't need to write about that," he says. On second thought: "You can call it a gadget." We drive past a shed that is fi lled with various other sod machines and draped with Super Bowl banners. (Unsurprisingly, Ed Mangan [of the Braves] relies on Paluch as a regular supplier for the big game. For the 2015 Super Bowl in Arizona, for instance, which is signifi cantly farther away than any of Bent Oak's regular clients, Paluch shipped sod to Glendale in refrigerated trucks.) "I sleep out here,"

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