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Hopper’s Head Groundskeeper keeps the diamond clean and green at First Horizon

by Ogi Overman

Jake Holloway needs a title. He’s not politicking for one – it’s probably never even entered his mind – but he deserves one nonetheless. His predecessor, Mel Lanford, the man who taught him the tricks of the trade, had one. Mel, as many patrons of War Memorial Stadium will remember fondly, was the “Doctor of Dirt,” so it’s only fitting that Jake have one too.

But Jake already has a title, you say? True. If you want to get technical he has two: assistant general manager of stadium operations and head groundskeeper. Important jobs, no doubt, but too cumbersome. He needs something that can roll off the tongue of PA announcer Jim Scott and radio men Andy Durham and Jim Modlin, something catchy, memorable and succinct.

After 10 years of dedicated service, he has earned the cachet that comes with seniority. There is no area of First Horizon Park that has not been touched, influenced, improved or shaped in some way, either literally or metaphorically, by his hands. He has left, and continues to leave, his mark of distinction on virtually every square inch of grass and dirt and brick and mortar in this still-young ball-yard. And, by God and Alexander Joy Cartwright, he deserves a title.

In terms of longevity, Jake, at 32, is the senior member of the Grasshoppers staff. He came to Greensboro in 1997 after dropping out of the University of South Florida in his native Tampa and took a job as an intern under Lanford. The following year he became the assistant groundskeeper, and when Mel left in ’99 he became the head guy. During the final months of the Bats’ tenure at the old ballpark in ’04, he added the assistant GM label to his résumé, becoming the third-highest name on the company masthead, under Donald Moore, who was promoted from GM to president, and Tom Howe, who took over as GM.

During the 18-month construction phase of First Horizon it was Jake who served as the liaison between the club and the various construction crews, architects, engineers and landscapers. As such, he was in the unique position of not just watching the stadium rise from the ground but of being an integral, hands-on part of the process.

“The whole process of moving was unbelievable,” he recalled. “When you think of all the time and effort that went into this thing, and then realizing that we pulled it off just like it was supposed to be, from the ground up, it’s very humbling. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience but I’m not sure if I would do it again. The beauty of it was that I wasn’t working with them so much as learning from them. It was just a very beneficial learning experience.”

Those who followed the stadium taking shape, from the demolition of the two existing buildings on the property to the first night fans were allowed inside for a UNCG rendition of “Casey at the Bat,” may recall that the actual groundbreaking ceremony was for the groundskeeper’s building, not the stadium itself. That may be fitting testimony to the integral role Jake has played throughout the process, although he would likely dismiss that as merely the contractor’s decision. His modus operandi is that of team player, a behind-the-scenes guy who would rather his works speak for themselves.

“My philosophy is if no one sees me working I’m doing my job properly,” he explained. “I know that sounds like an odd thing to say, in that I’m in the customer relations business, but my aspect of the operation is in the field. I’m better out here than I could be inside. I am comfortable wearing two hats, inside and outside, but I think I can affect people better out here. A wise man once said ‘do what you’re good at’ and this is what I’m good at.”

Good might be an understatement. When the subject turns toward turf management, drainage, granular consistency, grass varieties, diseases, moisture requirements and all the other variables that go into keeping a diamond looking like a Monet garden, Jake can get downright professorial.

“What’s happening is that a lot of turf management students at NC State and other colleges are migrating toward baseball because the golf-course industry has gotten so saturated,” he disclosed. “They are well versed in pH levels and perk rates and properties of different grass varieties, but it takes them two or three years to figure out that it’s not about the grass. I may be telling on myself here, but grass is elementary science as opposed to dirt. Grass is the easy part; dirt is where you make your money as a groundskeeper. It’s all about keeping the granular consistency where you want it, regardless of weather. No one’s going to remember if you’ve got a barren spot out in right field, but if an infielder gets hit in the mouth because of a bad hop, people will remember that. Grass is for the fans, dirt is for the players. That’s something Mel always impressed upon me.”

Indeed, Mel wasn’t known as the Doctor of Dirt for no reason. Which brings us back to the need for a title for Jake. Let’s see… the Baron of Bellemeade? Nah, that one fits Donald more than Jake. The Duke of Downtown? Nope, that one belongs to Jim Melvin. The Guru of Grass? Unh-unh, it’s more about the dirt, remember?

Wait, the grass plus the dirt equals the diamond itself. Now, what regal title goes with that? The King of Diamonds? Sorry, Bruce Hayes has that one locked up, but we’re getting somewhere. Hmm, Queen’s obviously out, how about Jack? Jack, Jake. Jake, Jack….

That’s it! The Jake of Diamonds. Perfect.

Now that that’s out of he way, let’s play ball. On Jake’s diamond.

To comment on this story, e-mail Ogi Overman at ogiman100@yahoo.com

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