SYRACUSE — When John Stewart’s office phone rang on an August night in 2014, he was expecting to learn that he was needed on the field at (then) Alliance Bank Stadium. He was not prepared for the news that it was to help capture a mouse that had just bitten the Scranton second baseman when he tried to pick it up barehanded.
Stewart grabbed a bucket, made his way to the field, and met two Scranton infielders with the mouse trapped in their gloves.
“We put the mouse in the bucket, and I took it to the woods behind the stadium and let him go,” Stewart recalled.
For Stewart, the need to capture that mouse, plus human cannonballs, flame-jumping cyclists, dog-riding monkeys, embers showering from fireworks, a diamond ring dig in the infield, on-field weddings, and a host of other on-field events, are all part of his job as head groundskeeper for AAA Baseball’s Syracuse Mets.
“Those things are part of the fun of minor league baseball, and we always have plans as to how we are going to solve any problems they might create,” he said.
Those plans have worked so well, that in 2015 the Sports Turf Manager’s Association named him the AAA Baseball “Sports Turf Manager of the Year,” the MVP of groundskeeping for him and his crew.
Growing up in Syracuse, he learned his appreciation for working with grass from his grandfather at the Tecumseh Club golf course, and as a teenager, laid out his first field, a Wiffle Ball stadium, in his neighbors’ backyard.
In 2008, the 22-year-old Stewart started as part of the Syracuse Chiefs’ grounds crew, and became head groundskeeper — officially, Director of Turf Management — in 2010.
The athletic, baseball-loving Stewart lives with his wife Katie, the Syracuse Mets’ assistant general manager for business development, and their dog, Molly Berger-Stewart, an eager participant in the Mets’ “bring your dog to work” policy.
With the team on the road and no game to prepare for, he can spend some time at his desk, rearranging baseballs, tools and hats to make room for his lunch, and reflect on his job.
“It’s easy for someone to look at the field and say that we just have to make the thing pretty — that’s the aesthetics part. The real work comes in making the field play well. I watch hundreds of ground balls in batting practice because I want to know how the thing’s playing. I get input from the players about things they notice. I spend a lot of time walking on the field. I can’t have a runner stepping in a hole or the shortstop taking a ball in the face because of a bad hop,” Stewart said.
When the 2020 minor league baseball season was canceled because of the pandemic, it gave Stewart and his crew of 10 groundskeepers some time away from their typical duties maintaining the field.
“I certainly missed a lot of things about being at the stadium. It was nice to get a break and to have some time off though. I played a lot of golf. My scores were dropping every week. I spent time at home, remodeled our bathroom. I loved it, but I would never ask for that break again,” he said. “Opening week, getting back into the flow of the season, having a homestand, putting the tarp on the field, playing in rain, seeing the players and all the fans reminded me why I really love my job.”
Whether he’s aiming the nozzle as his grounds crew waters the field or wielding a broom as they smooth the basepaths, Stewart is a hands-on leader who loves being on the field with his crew.
“We have a great group of guys. We enjoy taking care of the field and take a lot of pride in it,” he said. “I have teachers and athletes and one of my guys just got his master’s degree. It’s a great mix. We have a lot of fun working together so I’m happy to be back with them.”
Enjoying the work helps a lot to balance the days that start in the morning and end only after the crew has cleaned up the field after that night’s game, many hours later.
“We have a game day routine — come in, get dressed, mow, rake, water and line the field, tend it during the game, then work on it after the game, come back the next day and do it again,” Stewart said.
Tending the field includes raking the infield after the third and sixth innings, applying drying agents as needed on rainy nights, covering the infield when the umpires call for a rain delay and other incidentals that might arise.
Stewart reflected on the many changes he has seen since his tenure at the stadium began — management, affiliates, field surfaces and more.
“I can tell you how lucky I am to have gone through all of them to get where we are right now, with this beautiful new stadium (and its $25 million upgrade) that I never thought was a possibility, especially after a global pandemic. We can’t wait to get it to its full potential,” he said.
Then, wearing his usual khaki work pants and a Syracuse Mets hat and pullover, he grabs his gloves, picks up a well-used rake and heads for the field to continue working toward that potential.
Photojournalist Herm Card is a longtime contributor to Eagle Newspapers. He is also an educational consultant and adjunct professor in the S.I. Newhouse Sports Media Center at Syracuse University.