Each morning, Kyle Calhoon walks from his downtown apartment to work on his own Rembrandt, his Sistine Chapel.
His original canvas was a 100,000-square-foot pile of rocks and rubble, his oils are grass and dirt, his brushes are rakes and hoses and blades. Nearly two years in the making, Calhoon's work of art is at last ready for its unveiling Thursday night.
"This is the first time building a field from scratch," said Calhoon, who was hired in August 2015 to be the Yard Goats' turf manager and fashion the playing surface at Dunkin' Donuts Park. "This is the first time I've been able to set up the program my way, so I've been able to pick and choose things that I liked and didn't like and finally get to implement them here on my field."
Once the Yard Goats finally open the $71 million ballpark, Calhoon hopes to hear … nothing. "If the players don't say anything," he said, "that's the greatest compliment."
There will be runs and hits and errors but, if Calhoon has it just right, no bad hops. Calhoon, 30 and single, lives life on the edges. That is to say, he spends much of his time touching up the lines where the 3/4-inch Kentucky bluegrass meets the "engineered soil," 60 percent sand, 20 percent clay, 20 percent silt, the formula used at Yankee Stadium.
"The granular you see on top is fired clay, which is more aesthetically visually appealing," Calhoon said. "We just like the look of a red infield. When you water it, it almost turns into like a salmon color."
The turf was selected from Tuckahoe Turf Farms in New Jersey. "It's an 18-month grow," Calhoon said. "We harvested it in April of last year. It came in 4-by-60-foot rolls, and it basically knits together over the course of the summer. It's a specific sports turf blend, tolerable to the climate. It likes the warm weather. It takes time to green up to where we want it aesthetically. It's going to fill in and get much thicker."
You've probably guessed by now, this man knows his turf, real or artificial.
Calhoon attended career day at his hometown high school in Mentor, Ohio, when Greg Elliott, groundskeeper for the Class A Lake County Captains, came to speak. "He gave me the opportunity to work on his game staff, and as a seasonal assistant," Calhoon said, "and propelled my career from there. At that point, I was hooked."
Calhoon earned a degree in business from Walsh University, then took an online course for a certificate in turf and turfgrass management from Penn State. He has worked for the Browns and Indians, was head groundskeeper at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands, was on the Yankees' crew from 2012 to 2014 where, yes, he did the Y-M-C-A dance in the sixth inning, and then worked for the 49ers as Levi's Stadium opened. He incorporated ideas from all those places, and a few of his own, when he moved to Hartford.
"We found out he wanted to move to the East Coast," said Yard Goats GM Tim Restall. "And when we did his reference checks, they were surprised he was applying for a minor league job. They thought he should be running sports turf management for a major league facility."
When Calhoon joined the franchise for its last days in New Britain, firetrucks had come on to the field anticipating fireworks and damaged the grass before a game with a sellout crowd. Though not technically on the job yet, Calhoon helped the city's ground crew use sand and clay to repair the field to the satisfaction of all sides.
"The game was delayed an hour," he said. "It took about 30 minutes to fix it and 30 minutes to convince the umpires and the managers it was OK."
Calhoon and his full-time assistant, Matt Picard, who worked previously for the New York-Penn League's Vermont Lake Monsters, worked to have the field in Hartford ready last season. As the many delays and snarls forced the Yard Goats to play the entire season elsewhere, Calhoon was nevertheless at the site every day, maintaining the field.
This week, with spring weather, the field is gleaming with dew as Calhoon arrives as early as 7 a.m. to begin aerating the infield dirt with a rake so that it absorbs moisture. He then gives the grass a pass with the fairway mowers and the fertilizer spreaders. Using the blades to create angles and shadows, he has fashioned stripes to resemble the rays of spotlights in the outfield, highlighting two D's.
UHart and Quinnipiac played on the field Tuesday night, after which Calhoon, Picard and their seasonal crew worked to prepare the field for a possible thunderstorm on Wednesday. Calhoon plans to have a seasonal staff of five for each game, though he is training about a dozen. During games, he'll have an eye on the local radar, so that not a minute is lost getting them in position to cover the field if time is called.
"I've never seen anyone with the attention to detail and professionalism that he has," Restall said. "And as you can see today, that field is phenomenal. I can't believe it's in downtown Hartford. How it looks, how it's maintained. It'll be great to see how it handles baseball being played on it."
During his time with the Yankees, working for Dan Cunningham, Calhoon learned players can be particular about how they like the field — dry, moist, the grass at different lengths.
"We like to keep it 3/4 inches," he said. "But when players see a higher cut, 11/4 inches, they feel like the field plays slower. The difference is really miniscule, but it's a psychological thing."
And, from his days with the Yankees, Calhoon hinted he may incorporate a little fun and entertainment into the grounds crew routine before the summer is out, but he is keeping that a secret.
Historians have long theorized that baseball's 19th-century emergence was a response to the Industrial Revolution, when new city dwellers longed for the green pastoral settings of earlier times. Calhoon has carved this oasis in Downtown North.
"I've been very lucky to work some big events throughout my career," said Calhoon, who has worked at Super Bowls, MLB playoff games, Mariano Rivera's last game in New York. "To think five years ago that a Double A opening at a new ballpark would be the biggest one, I would have said, 'You're crazy.' But to get where we are, after almost two years now, to see somebody out here playing on the field with fans in the seats, it's going to be surreal. We're anxious. It feels like we're building up to one game — but after that, we have 70 more."