american lawn

words: ian frisch

photography: justin fantl

Fenway Park, early morning, August 2015. The sun rises over right field and a thin dew from the previous night still hangs in the air. The must of fresh-cut grass flows from beneath a mower humming in center field. It runs a straight line from the outfield wall to the cusp of the infield, spins around and heads back out again.

The crew clutches rakes, shovels, brooms, rollers, and bags of dirt. They are led by Dave Mellor, director of grounds for the Boston Red Sox, and the leading figure of field artistry and horticulture in Major League Baseball. He wears wire-rim glasses, a navy Sox cap perched on his head. He hoses the ground near the pitcher’s mound, flattening streaks of grass, painting the Red Sox logo into the turf for the night’s game against the New York Yankees.

Mellor became the director of grounds for the Boston Red Sox in 2001; in 2004 he oversaw a complete renovation of Fenway Park’s field. He designed and implemented a new irrigation and drainage system, and sourced a specific type of sand from New Jersey that is layered underneath the grass for supreme ventilation and growth patterns, and to prevent rain pooling. Before Mellor’s renovation, it could rain less than an inch and the field would be wet the next day. Today the grass is always healthy and green, the clay rich and uniform.

Mellor has written two books on lawn care and horticultural artistry, has carved patterns into the White House lawn, and was even asked to mow a Playboy bunny into the backyard of the Playboy Mansion. He was commissioned to create an abstract design for The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life, an art exhibit held at the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal in 1998. “They didn’t want one with straight lines,” Mellor says, adding that he had his then-seven-year-old daughter, Cacky, draw the pattern—all wavy lines running vertically. Mellor credited and named the pattern after her, which has been used for the Indy 500 and displayed in the American Folk Art Museum. “My favorite designs are the ones where she is involved,” he says.

Back on the field at Fenway, Mellor drops the hose and heads toward the outfield, stopping to kneel down and check the moisture of the clay. His service dog, Drago, a two-year-old German Shepherd, hangs by his side. Mellor walks with an oblong gait, favoring his right knee, the inside of which is carved with a 12-inch scar, a reminder of what he has endured.

Dave Mellor grew up in Piqua, Ohio, a small blue-collar town west of Columbus. When Mellor was three, his father died of a heart attack, and his mother was left to raise their three sons alone. Mellor was the youngest, and his brothers Terry and Chip filled the void left by their father’s death. They taught Mellor the importance of hard work, responsibility, and family values. They also embedded in him the love of baseball and loyalty to their favorite team: the Boston Red Sox.

Every spring, with the help of his older brother Terry, Mellor would transform their backyard into a miniature Fenway Park for Wiffle ball games, erecting a fence to mimic the Green Monster, mowing designs into the outfield.

He became a prominent pitcher for his high school team. He threw a no-hitter during his senior year, and was even invited to a workout session with the Cincinnati Reds. He was accepted to the University of Toledo on scholarship and slated to play ball for them. His dream persisted: to stand on the mound in Fenway Park, ball in glove, reading signals from the catcher, immersed in the buzz of the stadium.

The summer after he graduated, Mellor played in an American Legion regional summer league. Ten days before the state tournament, on July 11, 1981, he went with a friend to McDonald’s. As he walked across the parking lot, a car pulled in from off the street. The driver slowed and motioned for Mellor to cross. But instead of pushing the brake, she hit the gas, plowing into him. He flew through the air and crashed against the brick wall of the restaurant. The car pinned him against the wall, obliterating the MCL and ACL in his right knee.

Mellor’s nightmares and flashbacks began when he was released from the hospital. If he smelled McDonald’s fries or heard an engine revving he would break out in a cold sweat. In his dreams, he would reach for his knee and it would be entirely gone.

After a few months on crutches, Mellor enrolled at Toledo. But in a playful scuffle with his roommate, his knee buckled, shredding his ligaments. The injury forced him to drop out of school and return home. He began physical therapy to build up strength, but during a session that December, his leg gave out again, re-tearing all the ligaments and tendons in his knee. He had surgery the following month. When he woke up, he had just one question for his doctor: “How soon can I play baseball again?” The doctor had bad news. He’d be lucky to walk normally, let alone play baseball.

Plagued by nightmares and the frustration of almost daily physical therapy appointments, Mellor sunk into anger and withdrew from family and friends. ”I thought it was a sign of weakness to ask for help,” Mellor says, “so I kept it all buried inside me.”

In the fall, his eldest brother Chip landed a job at a cattle ranch in Crested Butte, Colorado, and his family thought some fresh air and hard work might make him feel normal again. On his tenth day on the farm, Mellor was trying to wrangle a bull when his knee went out once more, resurfacing the same injuries. He went back to Ohio for another series of surgeries.

Mellor knew that he had no future as a baseball player, but he needed to find a way to work in the sport that he loved. He remembered the backyard ball games, mowing his own personal Fenway Park with his brother Terry. “You only have one opportunity to make a good first impression,” Mellor says, recalling what Terry taught him. Field horticulture was his ticket to remain involved in baseball.

Mellor enrolled in Ohio State University, and was the first person to go through the agronomy and landscape horticulture program with a specific interest in sports turf. In 1985, he landed an internship with the Milwaukee Brewers, as well as subsequent internships in California for the Angels and Giants during the 1987 season. In 1988, Mellor was offered a full-time job with the Brewers. It wasn’t a pro baseball career, but it got him on the field.

It was June 1993, mid-season, and the grass at the Milwaukee Brewers’ County Stadium was a mess. A week of heavy rain and a Paul McCartney concert had destroyed the outfield, and with the team coming back for a stretch of home games, the grounds crew was short on time. The workers did the best they could to hide the damage, but it was still noticeable, with large swaths of grass trampled, discolored, and dead. Surveying the scene, Mellor made a major breakthrough: “Despite the outfield looking like crap,” he says, “I had this ah-ha moment. We could use patterns—they could be a tool to draw attention away from other areas of the field.”

Mellor set to work before the game, sketching his ideas on paper. He needed to create a pattern on the infield that would distract the audience—something dashing, like plaid, he thought—and weave a pattern on the outfield that would create an illusion to obscure the damage. He took the scaled-down drawing and, using tape measures and string, transferred the design into the grass with hoses, mowers, brooms, rollers, and his feet to push down the grass. If the grass is mowed and flattened toward the viewer, it looks dark; if it’s pushed the opposite way, it appears lighter. He checked his work from the upper deck behind home plate to make sure it was perfect. At the game, everyone talked about Mellor’s design on the infield rather than the mess in the outfield.

Up until then, teams used field patterns to create brand consistency for their ballpark, focusing mainly on the outfield. “Some ballparks have a signature pattern,” Mellor says. “The [Colorado] Rockies have one that follows both baselines like a hybridized checker pattern. Cleveland has straightaway pattern.” But Mellor was the first to implement a more artistic vision of groundskeeping. He used squiggly lines, wove complex plaids into the outfield, and carved logos into the infield—the catalyst of which came that night at Brewers stadium. As he continued to experiment with the process, the precision, intricacy, and uniqueness of his designs shone through. As Eric Hansen, the Dodgers’ groundskeeper, told The New York Times in 2008, “Dave deserves all the credit for setting this trend and really introducing these new wrinkles into the aesthetics.” Still, Mellor’s overall goal is balancing this vision with keeping the field playable and safe. “When a worm-burner is tearing through the grass, it can’t snake left and right too much or the outfielder can miss an important play,” Mellor says. “‘Bermuda Grass,’ it’s called, can send a rolling baseball three to six feet to the left or right depending on the patterns of the grass.”

On October 25, 1995, Mellor sodded the field in Milwaukee. The maintenance entrance at the left field wall was open for the grounds crew to come in and out, with a direct opening to the street. Mellor was tending to the outfield when he heard the revving of an engine. He looked up and saw a woman turn into the entrance and speed toward him. He raised his hands, braced for impact, and took the nose of her car in the side of his knee. He flew into the air and landed in a crumpled pile along the foul line. She spun the car around and sped toward him again. Mellor laid on the ground thinking that this was how he was going to die. The woman slammed the brakes, slid the car sideways, and stopped within a couple feet of his body. She kicked the car back into gear, and sped out of the ballpark. She was eventually arrested. It turned out that the woman was mentally ill, and thought she was at the field as a stunt driver for a movie.

Mellor went through four surgeries after that incident. The physical pain was unbearable. But he went to work as normal, pretending everything was fine. And then, on a July afternoon in 1998, his phone rang. His brother Terry had died of a heart attack.

Mellor inherited Terry’s car, a deep-blue Caprice Classic with tan leather interior. He drove it to the stadium everyday. He kept the spare change left by Terry in the cup holder. When Mellor was offered the position of director of grounds at the Boston Red Sox, he drove the car from Wisconsin to Boston, his wife in the front seat, their two daughters in the back. His dream had come true, and he wanted a piece of Terry to make the journey with him.

Shortly thereafter, a parking attendant at Fenway accidentally crashed the car, can-opening the passenger side. Mellor told them to clean it out before it was hauled off to the junkyard. The attendants found a pill underneath the driver’s seat. It was nitroglycerin, a common medication for chest pain. Terry never told anyone that he was having trouble with his heart; like his brother, he never revealed his pain and vulnerabilities.

Though Mellor pushed on, throwing himself into his work and pretending everything was fine, he was in agony. He started drinking. After an on-field back injury in 2005, where he compressed a disc in his back, he was forced to sleep in a chair for over a year. Mellor has endured over 40 surgeries and countless nights in hospitals. In August 2006, his wife Denise confronted him—his drinking and self-isolation was tearing the family apart. “It was like a knife to my heart,” Mellor says. “I never thought I was hurting my family.” He stopped drinking that night.

Mellor finally came clean about how much physical pain he was in. He started with regular pain therapy, but without psychological care, his nightmares persisted. Denise noticed that they became increasingly worse as anniversaries of the accidents came around. “He would wake up screaming in the middle of the night,” Denise says.

Mellor’s daughter Cacky, by then a college student, was a psychology major with a focus on trauma. In late 2010, to better understand what his daughter was studying, Mellor read an article in Smithsonian Magazine about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It laid out 12 symptoms—by the end of the article, he was in tears. He had experienced 10 of the 12. “I always thought I was just a messed-up person,” he says. “I had no idea that it was PTSD, that is was something millions of other people also dealt with.”

Mellor immediately sought treatment at Boston General Hospital. And on February 25, 2011, five months after he began counseling, he slept peacefully through the night for the first time in almost 30 years. 

His presence on the field, too, has taken a turn for the better. “The change in Dave has been drastic,” says Jason Griffith, second-in-line on the grounds crew who has worked under Mellor for 15 years. “He’s just happier now—not as stressed. The small things don’t get to him anymore.” Every day, Mellor is thrilled to be working at Fenway: “Mowing is a source of pride,” he says. “I’m allergic to grass, but when I mow and my head blows up like crazy, it’s just a bump in the road to have the opportunity to mow grass on a major league field.”

In 2013, Mellor’s artistry became the centerpiece not only for Fenway Park, but for Boston as a whole. After the bombing at the Boston Marathon, he was asked to carve a commemorative design into center field, a large Red Sox “B” with the word “Strong” underneath, encircled in light grass and highlighted within a simple cross-hatched plaid, the intricacies of which were done by hand with brooms and water hoses. Those in attendance gathered around the piece and bowed their heads in a moment of silence. Subsequent news stories focused simultaneously on the city of Boston enduring the trauma of the attack and on Mellor’s own personal narrative with PTSD. To Red Sox fans, his internal struggles acted as a touch point for the city as a whole. "That event brought the community together—it was spiritual in many ways," Mellor told ESPN. "I was proud to be part of the Red Sox family. I was proud to be part of 'Boston Strong.'"

Fenway Park, August 2015. Mellor now makes it a point to share the power of Fenway Park with fans. He sees a mother and her young son in the stands. He gets their attention and waves them down from their seats, leading them over to stand behind home plate. The mother and her son kneel down. They run their hands through the grass, rubbing the clay between their fingers. The woman looks over to the boy and says, “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” She glances over her shoulder to find the man who brought them onto the field. But Mellor is already past third base, eyes on the grass, checking, before the first pitch, all the details of his hard work.