Wind Surge's Head Groundskeeper Turns Riverfront Stadium Into His Own Field Of Dreams
Ben Hartman said he remembers the time in high school when he took one of those aptitude tests that’s supposed to help you figure out a potential career path.
“All my friends are getting engineers, doctors, teachers … lawyers,” Hartman recalled. “I got a bus driver.”
What he really wanted to be was a groundskeeper.
“So I kind of took … matters into my own hand and started doing research and figured out, ‘OK, so you can make a living taking care of a baseball field or a golf course.’”
Hartman is the head groundskeeper for the Wind Surge, and the first groundskeeper in Riverfront Stadium history.
He supervises a crew of 10 that is responsible for keeping the two acres of grass inside the stadium perfectly manicured. (The variety, by the way, is Bermuda Latitude 36.)
The lush, green diamond is part of an impeccably groomed playing field that greets fans when they enter the ballpark. Everything about it looks flawless.
Except to Hartman.
“People come out here and they see the field and, ‘The field looks amazing.’ And that's great. I appreciate those compliments every single day,” he said.
“But that's not what I'm looking at. What I'm looking for is how is the ball rolling? How's the cleat marks? … How's my moisture in the dirt? How's my mound? How's my plate holding up?”
Hartman, 24, is a native Smithville, Missouri. A former junior college catcher, he fell in love with the exacting details of groundskeeping while working on a golf course as a teenager.
He joined the Wind Surge in March after working the last two years for a minor league team near Austin, Texas.
Hartman works 90 hours a week when the Wind Surge is at home, and nearly as many when the team is on the road.
And his job doesn’t stop when play starts: During games, Hartman jots down notes on potential problems he sees, like a ball taking a bad hop or a patch of grass that needs work.
“I think every groundskeeper’s a perfectionist,” he said. “I'm working on the job and always scanning everything and looking for everything.
“And if there's something just out of order or out of line, it's gotta be fixed.”
The consequences of having a well-groomed field go beyond aesthetics. A substandard playing surface can cause the ball to bounce erratically. That can lead to errors, which can tarnish a minor league player’s resume as he tries to impress a major league team.
Andrew Bechtold plays first and third base for the Wind Surge. He said players sometimes don’t realize how good the field is at Riverfront Stadium until they play somewhere else.
“I mean, we play on some surfaces where the first inning and the third inning, it's completely different texture and it's completely different level of firmness as far as … the ball bouncing and stuff like that,” Bechtold said.
“But … here in Wichita, they do a pretty good job of keeping it consistent. And that helps us a lot while we're playing.”
Hartman’s day starts between 7:30 and 8 in the morning. He works on the field until 3 p.m., when the teams take batting practice.
At 6, his crew prepares the field for the 7:05 game. Postgame work on the field usually lasts until 11 or 11:30 at night.
Hartman says a lot of people think all a groundskeeper does is cut the grass. But that’s only about 10% of the job.
Keeping the grass and infield dirt in prime condition takes a heavy dose of math and science, which he learned while getting a turfgrass management degree at Iowa Central.
“So, for example, I spray two ounces per thousand square feet. How many ounces am I spraying for two acres, right?” Hartman said, before figuring out the problem in his head.
“Let's see, that would be two, one or three, two or three … It'd be like two and a half gallons that I'm spraying.”
Hartman interned on the Houston Astros grounds crew in 2017, when the team won the World Series. He’s even got a World Series ring to prove it.
Is a job in the major leagues part of his future?
“It's been my goal since I was 15 to be a head groundskeeper,” Hartman said. “And I did not think I'd be a head groundskeeper at 24 years old. So now it's, ‘OK, what do we do now?’
“I really am impressed by Wichita … and I've had a really neat opportunity to be the first full-time head groundskeeper here. I could see this being a career place,15, 20 years.
“But you never know what comes down the road and what comes calling.”