BY CAROLYN LaWELL
FORT WAYNE, Indiana | Keith Winter walks toward the dugout, then turns around to admire his work — the level grass, the straight chalk base lines, the smooth pitchers mound.
This only lasts maybe a few seconds. Winter has been working since dawn. Soon the players will take the field for nine innings. Then Winter will turn to science and work another dozen hours to transform the field back to this perfectly manicured surface.
“You get the field just where you want it, and then you have about 30 seconds before the first pitch to take a look back and go, ‘That looks good tonight,’” says Winter, the Fort Wayne TinCaps head groundskeeper. “As soon as they announce the lineups and the teams come out with their cleats and their bats and their balls, we’re damage control guys. They tear it up and we fix it, every day.”
He takes one last look. He takes a deep breath. The exhale is about one-third physical exertion, one-third exhaustion, one-third pride and all deserved.
“There is something about this sport that once it gets into your bloodstream, it pulses.” — Fort Wayne TinCaps head groundskeeper Keith Winter
Winter is 54, and he has lost 20 pounds in just a little more than a half-season working this “young man’s profession,” he says. It happens every season, and it’s one of the surprises he found when he switched six years ago from a career in television to this career as a groundskeeper.
“Working 25 years in television, I liked it and it was fun, but I can’t say I was passionate about my job,” he says. “I was trying to raise my family and I was trying to get out of there so I could coach my kids and take care of their field.”
Winter has always messed around outside, always loved sports, especially baseball, and for years took care of his sons’ fields. With all three boys — Kyle, Kory and Kelly — out of the house, he decided to channel his energy toward something he had grown to love — taming turf. He applied for jobs with minor league teams and the Great Lakes Loons brought him on for three seasons before he moved south to Fort Wayne to run the grounds crew. His talent and hard work was recognized when he was named the 2011 Sports Turf Manager of the Year in the Midwest League.
Halfway through a six-game home stand, Winter is tan and fit. Long days make his eyes appear a little bit sunk into his head. These home stands take a physical toll and an emotional and spiritual strain. It’s something Winter may struggle with more than others because he can never do anything halfway – whether mowing the field or living a devout Christian life or rooting for his Detroit Tigers. In minutes, he can go from stern to light-hearted to tears, all based on his passion for the people and the work and hobbies in which he surrounds himself.
Today, though tired, Winter is smiling and laughing and grateful that he found a second career in an industry that keeps him active and young and connected to the outdoors and sports.
“If I’m going to spend this much time doing something, I might as well do something that I truly love and something that I’ve had a life-long love affair with, and that’s been baseball,” he says. “It’s a father-son thing. Baseball was passed down to me from my dad, and I passed it down to my sons. It is something that never leaves you.
“There is something about this sport that once it gets into your bloodstream, it pulses.”
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Time for minor league trivia. The TinCaps are named in honor of Johnny Appleseed, the American pioneer who helped spread the seeds of apple trees across Midwestern and Eastern states like Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and, of course, Indiana. Upon his death, he was buried in Fort Wayne. What was the birth name of the journeyman planter? (Keep reading for the answer.)
Trailing ever since the first inning, the TinCaps mustered a rally in the bottom of the ninth to score two runs and grab the 4-3 win over the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. The TinCaps strung together a double, two singles, a sacrifice bunt followed and a walk to tie the game and load the bases. Then center fielder Travis Jankowski, who hit a sacrifice fly in the fifth to push the TinCaps within a run of the Timber Rattlers, slammed a grounder to right to drive home the winning run. TinCaps starter Matthew Wisler gave up all three Timber Rattlers runs before being pulled in the fifth.
The Russian Bar Trio was one of dozens of acts that toured minor league stadiums this season. We saw the Canadian circus act made famous by America’s Got Talent at Parkview Field. Set up along the third-base line after the game, the two men held the bar while the woman balanced on top, then catapulted her body in the air, flipped several times and landed smoothly on the thin, flexible bar over and over. To be honest, the show was even more jaw-dropping than the TinCaps come-from-behind win.
Want the answer? Johnny Appleseed’s real name was Jonathan Chapman. Fort Wayne celebrates Johnny Appleseed Festival every September in Johnny Appleseed Park. The baseball team changed its name from the Wizards to the TinCaps for the 2009 season as a reference to the pot he wore as a hat. The team carries the theme throughout Parkview Field, including in the team store, where the smell of apples is no accident.
And in random statistical news, a local man sang the national anthem in a crisp 1 minute, 20 seconds, the first pitch was a strike (for the 17th straight game) and the first batter grounded out to the pitcher (the 11th straight game the leadoff batter failed to reach safely). Before the game, we ate lunch with our friends Karl and Dan at Championship Sports Bar near the stadium. Sometime after we finished our sliders and salads, the ever-curious and ebullient Karl started to talk with the man in the TinCaps cap and polo shirt at the table next to us. That man turned out to Jason Freier, the CEO of Hardball Capital and one of the owners of the team. He was scheduled to fly back to Atlanta that afternoon, but his flight was delayed hours, so he walked and talked with us for the 90 minutes — down the sidewalks of Fort Wayne, through Parkview Field, right into his office. A great owner with a great story. One of our better lunches of the season.
Want to read stories about the other teams on our schedule? Click here and scroll to the calendar.