We recently caught up with our newest DuraEdge employee, Paul Zwaska, to get some more insight into some of his interesting background and experience working in groundskeeping and the sports turf industry.
Q: What drew you into the soil science/sports turf field?
Growing up in Wisconsin back in the 1970s, like a lot of kids, I would go around the neighborhood and mow people’s yards for extra money. That was something I really enjoyed. I originally went to school for Meteorology, but for me, Calculus was like hitting a brick wall. I tried three separate semesters to pass it before ultimately deciding to take some time off. During school, I also did some groundskeeping at a local apartment complex. It was kind of my escape. I would look forward to it at the end of every school day. At that time my mom and dad were worried I wouldn’t go back to school.
Now in the early 80s, my mom suggested I go to the Agricultural school and see if they had anything for groundskeeping. I told her, “I don’t think they have a class on mowing grass.” She must’ve known something I didn’t. At the time, she was working from home typing dissertations for Meat Science students from the Ag school at the University of Wisconsin. So, I went and met with Dr. Love (a great name for a James Bond villain) who started the program back in the early 60s, and went from there.
My biggest struggle in school was entomology. Two times I was failing and in order to drop a class I had to get permission from my advisor, Dr. Love. When I went to him to do that, he told me, “absolutely not!” “Flunk it if you have to and you’ll be that much smarter. All you need is a D.” He told me, “when you go to get a job, they aren’t going to look to see that you had one D in entomology.” “The fact that you have a degree and some experience is the most important thing.” I owe a lot to him, especially after he had me stay in and tough it out in entomology.
So, I graduated with a turf degree with a speciality in soil science. Then I thought, what the heck am I going to do with this? I worked as a groundskeeper in college for a short time before making the jump to the MLB with the Baltimore Orioles. I quickly learned your reputation in that world was based on how you take care of the infield dirt, not the grass. It was a learning curve and I think the best way I learned was from the school of hard knocks. I also really thank the Ripkens and paid close attention to what the players really looked for on an infield. I’ll call it Applied Soil Science. Then in the early 90s, I really pushed for the industry to look into the types of soils we were using. I traveled and did seminars, talking about the benefits of testing your soil and actually knowing what was in it, in order to be able to fix it properly.
Q: How did you get connected with DuraEdge?
At the time I met Grant, around 2005, he was developing a portable mound that you could pack dirt into. He was just starting his company and finding himself at a crossroad. He called me while I was working at Beacon and tried to get me to try his mound for our catalog. Our conversation lasted three hours. It began with talking about the portable mound, then became about the soil or mound clay that was going into it. I told him, “you can’t bs me, I have a soil science degree.” He went into the qualities of this new material and shortly afterwards, a bromance began. Grant made the decision to fly out with the mound and boxes of dirt to continue our conversation. Benji, at the time, did all of our soil testing in house. I did the analysis and would provide recommendations to customers.
When we got our hands on DuraEdge, that was it. It was like the holy grail for infield mix. I was blown away. Grant explained how it was done on the production end, where it was a truly consistent blend. From there, I spent considerable time working with him and helped with the educational piece for DuraEdge. I would spend a good deal of time on these projects but, the former Beacon owner’s wouldn’t stop me either.
Q: Since working with the Orioles, how have you seen the turf industry, specifically infield soils, change in that time period?
Jealous, I think, would be the best word. It’s only been twenty some years, but the infield soil, equipment, chemicals and grass have all made big moves. I envision what it would be like, having all of those tools. I wish I could have. If you look at infield soils, they really didn’t change over the course of one hundred and fifty years in baseball. You basically found something you could work with and make it work the best you could. It’s not the greatest, but hey. Baseball sat on that for that length of time. It’s pretty mind blowing.
Then, in ten to fifteen years, everything totally changes. I was somewhat on the outside, but it really was exciting to feel a part of that revolution, at least a spark. I remember Mike with the Phillies picking it up when Grant helped them fix their field with DuraEdge. That was an important time for the MLB as it didn’t seem like too long afterwards most fields had it. It’s truly amazing to see what it’s done for the sport. Truly fun to watch and feel like a part of it.
The stuff we had at the old Orioles stadium was high silt soil. Pat was the head groundskeeper that hired me and I worked under for a bit before taking over the head job. I remember then, we would take the field way drier into a game then we would now. If any rain was coming, we wouldn’t put any water into it. If it did end up raining and we had to pull a tarp over that infield, we would get these balls of silt the size of deer scat everywhere afterwards. We’d be out there hand raking all those nasty balls of silt to get the field back to being playable. We’ve come a long way.
Q: You’ve been integral in creating GroundskeeperU with Beacon Athletics, a tremendous resource for groundskeepers to understand and better maintain their fields. What was your inspiration for this?
I started Groundskeeper U back in 2009. At that point, I had been traveling and doing a lot of seminars, but the costs to run the marketing program kept getting higher. It was something we really just wanted to come out even on, as it was a great opportunity to educate people and the sales would generally come a year or two down the line. In the early part of the 2000s it was great.
But once 2008 hit and the economy tanked, we had to figure out how to adjust. It was difficult to predict as it was very much the luck of the draw around the country. We could only hit certain parts of the country before, but there were plenty of people out there that still wanted the info. At this point the internet was coming along and we decided to put together an online training program. I spent a year writing Groundskeeper U, producing it and filming it all myself. I put together a 100 level of information, focusing on game day prep. We wanted to cater this to the Little League volunteers all the way up to the Professionals. The hardest part was that aspect; creating something for people of a wide range of experiences to keep people of different levels interested.
Luke and Grant laughed at me about undertaking that initially. We had every intention to do a 200 and 300 level much sooner. Hopefully, now with DuraEdge and Beacon teaming up on this, we can put a heck of a program together with those higher level modules. Groundskeeper U was really the impetus for Dirt U. This past year has gone far above and beyond what Groundskeeper U has. It has become a storage file for fields/companies, featuring information like field surveys, etc. It’s basically become a mobile file cabinet.
Q: What is the funniest thing you’ve experienced in your work as a groundskeeper or working in the industry in general?
The first to come to mind was a practical joke I played on a guy that was on my Orioles crew. That day I was coming in late after dropping my wifes car off at the shop so she dropped me off at the stadium. As I arrived, I noticed our Toro Workman sitting up by the front office. Rodney from my crew brought it up to get the mail for the clubhouse. I decided to play a joke on our resident practical joker himself. I took the wagon around the stadium and had the crew go hide it behind the batting cages. He then comes down later asking me if I’d taken it from the front of the building. I played dumb, saying I had just gotten there as my wife just brought me to the stadium later then normal. He said he had taken the Toro up to get the mail and didn’t know where it was. I then turned it up saying you better find out where you lost it, otherwise, Joe (Foss), our CEO, would be taking it out of your paycheck. He started looking around our area, but did not check the batting cage area. Then the rest of the crew got more and more involved, leading him around saying, let’s look over there. We decided to take him out of the area so we could move it and park somewhere else.
At the time, the Ravens stadium was being built and we cooked up that maybe a construction guy from there took it over to their place. So, they took him there. After coming back, I could tell he was starting to actually get a little nervous. I asked him if they found it. Then said, come on, let’s go down to security and we filed a fake report. I then called Joe Foss and even got him in on it. I told him we’d be calling him eventually.
Now, at this point, we knew Rodney was leaving early that day and it had already been four and a half hours of this. So, then I told him we had to call Joe Foss and that really got him scared. Joe told Rodney, if he didn’t find it, it’d be coming out of his paycheck. At this point the crew was working on cooking up a scheme to finish this thing too. The plan was to pay someone from the cleaning crew ten dollars to go hide the car up on Utah Street. Then, Pee Wee (another guy on the crew) would be in the back laying down with a camera to jump up to get his reaction. I was going to be up above also getting pictures of him chasing the truck. But, we had to figure out how to get him to go up there.
His friend George volunteered and used some story about asking him to help with some girl up there. We all had radios, except for those two, and gave the go ahead to bring the truck just a bit faster than someone could run. At this point, Rodney spots it and yells, “hey, that’s our truck!” And began to chase it. Now, Rodney had a bad back and was chasing after it and running funny. We gave the signal to stop and then Pee Wee popped up and snapped the picture. He was a good sport, saying, I can’t believe you guys got me! That’s one, I’ll never forget. I tell it at my seminars around the country.