Living the Dream

What’s it like to work on the Detroit Tigers grounds crew? (And how do you land the job?)

This spring, I was invited to be an honorary grounds crew member for a day at Comerica Park. Carhartt — the Dearborn-based workwear company that serves as outfitter for the Tigers grounds crew — had invited a few members of the media to take part in a new product demo.

We giddy journalists were put to work hosing down the field, grooming the bullpens, and clearing the warning track of peanut shells, sunflower seeds, and candy wrappers. We shoveled, we raked, we timidly “helped” chalk the foul lines, but mostly we gawked, marveling at the park’s pre-game quiet.

In reality, our “day” lasted all of an hour, which was a good thing since a handful of journalists taking selfies at home plate doesn’t provide much help for the actual crew. Regardless, an hour was enough time to get my hard-hitting questions answered: How do you get to be on the grounds crew anyway? Who gets this dream job? Why isn’t this my job?

My stint had me shadowing Craig Kreutzberg, a 58-year-old retiree who’d originally applied for a job in the Tigers marketing department. He’d read the job description, and thought it might be fun.

“I thought, ‘Ah, there’s no way, I’m sure they have a thousand applicants. Who wants some old guy?’ ” Kreutzberg says. But he had the right credentials, and not just for marketing. During his interview, a hiring team member noticed he’d once been a golf course greenskeeper — a summer job he’d held in college.

“She said ‘OK, here’s the deal. The [marketing] job is yours if you want it, but we have some openings on the grounds crew. We can’t post these jobs because we have thousands of applicants and it becomes overwhelming.’ I said, ‘Grounds crew? Like, on the field? With the players and stuff? OK!’ ”

Former grounds crew member Michael Happy had a similar experience when applying for the job in 2006. He was 65 years old, retired from a career in the printing business, and “just wanted something to do.” He saw Comerica Park was hiring, applied online, and “by chance” his application fell on the right person’s desk.

“It surprised me more than anybody else,” Happy says, and although he wound up taking the job, he wasn’t initially sure he was right for it.

“I told them how old I was and I said, ‘I don’t know whether I can do the work or not,’ and they said, ‘Well, why don’t you try?’ ”

Try he did, and it proved to be enjoyable, as you might expect when setting up batting practice, stripping the field, and cleaning dugouts. Needless to say, it wasn’t hard to get to work on time.

“I used to go in early every day and just walk around the ballpark and smell the fresh cut grass,” Happy says. “I got to see Al Kaline sitting out there and reflecting. I remember [Justin] Verlander when he first started. It was a great job. It’s a dream job.”

Of course, you don’t have to be retired to land a spot on the grounds crew.

“I’ve got young kids who are working for me that are just getting into college, guys who are retired, and everywhere in between,” says head groundskeeper Heather Nabozny. “A lot of teachers as well because it works out well with their schedules.”

Jacob Zupancic is a recent high school graduate whose first day as a part-time grounds crew member came this spring — the day after Opening Day. An avid baseball fan, a former player, and manager of his high school baseball team, Zupancic says he had the right résumé to land the gig. He also happens to be Michael Happy’s grandson.

“He’s like in heaven there,” Happy says. “It tickles me. He loves baseball.”

For Zupancic, there’s plenty to love about the job, from the infield drags between innings to the less glamorous work like tarp care, post-fireworks cleanup, and janitorial duties.

“For me personally, I get to do the home bathrooms,” Zupancic says. “That’s kind of been my job this year. I personally love it. I don’t know why.”

And although there may be more lucrative gigs available for college-bound students or retirees, Zupancic and his grandfather agree that a part-time job with the grounds crew isn’t about pay.

“A lot of guys that work that job that would do it for nothing,” Happy says. “You don’t do it for the money; you do it for the love of the game.”