There are 57 keys dangling from Don Ferguson’s hand and he knows what each of them unlocks. These are for storage. Those ones are for lockboxes. This set? They’re for the elevators. This one’s for the electrical panels, this one is for security. These are for the offices, those for the freezers and this one gets you into the box suites. This one is for the ballpark gates. This one right here is the master key. In his pocket, opportunity jangles.
Each morning, he arrives at Shaw Park, the home of the Winnipeg Goldeyes baseball club, no later than 9:30 a.m. On a game day, a 15-hour shift is routine. He can’t really leave while the game is still going. What would happen if something were to go wrong?
Ferguson, 70, is the groundskeeper — the only person to hold that title at the park since it opened in 1999. “I would not trust our field to anyone else,” says Goldeyes general manager Andrew Collier a few days before the 2022 regular season began.
Groundskeeper is a job with a boundless definition, with an influence on the outcome of a ballgame akin to a strong easterly wind or a carefully plotted lineup card filled with strategically placed lefties.
Ferguson and his crew are responsible for the grass and the dirt. He is called if a seat in the stands is busted, or if a fridge in the concession area is on the fritz. When the blue dwarf grass in the outfield gets too long, it’s his job to give it a trim. When the infield dirt is covered in puddles, Fergie joins forces with the sun to dry up all of the rain. He is paid to identify problems and to quietly make them go away.
If Don Ferguson doesn’t do his job, you’ll notice. If he does, you won’t, but perhaps you should.
Attention at a sports game is usually, rightfully, fixed on the action — the ball twirling in the air, the big catch, the even bigger drop, what is and what could be.
But a gorgeously kept field enhances every element of the competition occurring atop it. When a lifelong baseball fan describes what they love about a game that the uninitiated find boring or too quiet, their answer sometimes circles back to the diamond itself. They love the smell of grass cut into intricate patterns. They love the outfield lights. They love the dirt, for goodness sake. They love the things that Ferguson obsesses over. If he watches baseball on television, he’s looking at the grass first.
At the ballpark, the weather always plays a role. For a groundskeeper, it can either be a loving companion or the world’s harshest mistress. In the month leading up to the 2022 season, the weather seemed determined to ruin Ferguson’s day and to threaten his pride: an immaculately kept baseball diamond.
“It was the worst I’ve ever had here,” he said of the previous hell-month, a smile creeping out from beneath his moustache. “In all 23 years.”
First, there was the blizzard. In mid-April, after a brief tease of spring, nearly 20 centimetres of heavy snow landed at Shaw Park. In the fall, Fergie marks the outfield drains with three-foot stakes; they were barely peeking out beyond the white. A few more snowfalls followed. Then rain. Then sun. Then more rain.
In the first week of May, with spring training set to begin May 5, Ferguson was still using his snowblower. There was still three feet of snow left in the dugout, so he hosed it down to melt it away. “Last week, I thought starting the exhibition games would be impossible,” he said. “I was ready to cancel the games we just played.” The grounds are not so simple to keep.
On the eve of an exhibition series against the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks in the second week of May, it rained all day and night in Winnipeg. To make matters worse, Ferguson noticed a pipe along the first base line had sprung a leak, water burbling up, causing the dirt in the visitors’ bullpen to collapse into an unfortunately placed sinkhole.
The next day, Ferguson’s crew was out with nine big Rubbermaid containers full of clay dirt, dumping and spreading the terra cotta-coloured powder atop the impromptu divot, with mere hours to spare until the opening pitch.
“That’s all we can do, boys,” said Ferguson, keeping watch through his tinted lenses. “Just let it absorb.”
‘I don’t know anybody by the name of Don,” Goldeyes manager Rick Forney says when he picks up his office phone. “You must be speaking of Fergie.”
Forney can’t stop raining compliments on the groundskeeper: hard worker, great listener, witty storyteller, funny man, good at giving advice when asked for it.
They talk all the time, but never about the game. “We never talk about baseball,” he says. “Fergie’s not a baseball guy. We solve all the world’s problems from the couch.
“He cares about grass,” Forney continues. “He’s a grass grower. He likes mowing his lawn. That’s his wheelhouse. That’s his joy.” He adds, “There’s no doubt to the importance of Fergie’s role here. His job is to make baseball games happen, and he’s as good as anybody out there at that.”
If old Yankee Stadium was the house that Babe Ruth built, Shaw Park is the diamond that Fergie forged.
When the Goldeyes joined the Northern League in 1994, replacing the failed Aces of Rochester, Minn., the team first played at the Winnipeg Stadium, on a field built for football.
Four years later, construction began on the downtown ballpark, soon to be known as CanWest Global Park, and owner Sam Katz knew exactly who to enlist for groundskeeping duties.
They knew one another from the Transcona Country Club, where in 1980 Fergie was hired as a part-time ice-maker for the club’s curling rinks. As a teenager, he mowed lawns at the golf course in Shilo, where he developed an intense work ethic and found an outlet for his perfectionism: he later worked for curling clubs, a fire department, the department of national defence and as a home builder — jobs with little room for error.
Within a week at the country club, he was made head ice-maker, and he and Katz soon struck up a friendship and mutual respect.
When the ballpark opened in the spring of 1999, there was great anticipation. The city was promised a gem of a diamond, and with hours to go and pressure mounting, it still looked somewhat like a lump of coal.
“We were laying sod right up until the game started,” Ferguson remembers. “That’s how close we were to not getting done.”
When a field is in heavy use, and when weather is unpredictable, which weather always is, there’s usually some small crisis that needs to be averted each game day: a broken light, a damaged machine, a quickly growing sinkhole in the visitor’s bullpen. But what about when a baseball diamond sits in waiting?
When the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020, the Goldeyes were forced to play their American Association season on the road, using the Newman Outdoor Field in Fargo as the team’s home field. In 2021, the Goldeyes began playing “home” games at a ballpark in Jackson, Tenn.
The extended road trip was not a vacation for Don Ferguson. He still had to mow and maintain, to repair and prepare. A lot of what can go wrong in a full ballpark can go extra wrong in an empty one with nobody watching.
“Fergie had to keep looking after the field in case we got to come home,” Collier said. “The past two years are probably the best the field ever looked.”
Midway through July 2021, the Goldeyes got the green light to play in Winnipeg again. Of course the field was ready.
Ferguson’s moustache is grey, but his feet move fast and they move often. He takes anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 steps a day, according to the pedometer on his phone. With hours to go until the teams take the field, he hardly has a moment to sit down and catch his breath.
From the sinkhole conundrum, which the crew solves by game time, Ferguson goes to the garage in right field, where the equipment is kept and where he stores his fishing boat in the offseason.
On a door inside are posted Fergie’s 10 commandments. Among them: deal with one issue at a time; say “good morning” at the start of the day and “see you tomorrow” at the end; angry facial expressions, yelling, swearing, racist jokes and sexual innuendo are not permitted or acceptable; belittling comments will not be tolerated; always smile.
“We put them up once when there was a problem,” he says. “No problems since.” There’s little doubt Fergie himself follows every rule like it’s federal law.
He thinks sometimes about retiring, but doesn’t want to do it. He’s worked with the team long enough to have worked game days with his wife, his son and each of his grandchildren, including 17-year-old Ethan, who will spend the 2022 season under his grandfather’s watchful eye. Katz has joked that the Ferguson extended family could field a full roster.
Retire? Why would he? “I like what I do,” Fergie said.
Each game day, he mows the grass. It can take as long as four hours. The pattern matters to him: if the team’s on a winning streak, he won’t change a thing. If the Goldeyes are on a skid, he changes it all. “It’s worked before,” he insists. The groundskeeper influences the game: just ask to see his championship rings as evidence.
Ferguson is never really relaxed until about the fifth inning. By then, he sits down on a brown velvet easy chair, which he wheels up toward the field so he can watch the last few innings from the right-field line. He eats his lunch — a sandwich, a cookie, some fruit, a Gatorade — and hopes he can afford to keep sitting for a little while. He’s a man of routine and of stasis. When the complex system of the baseball diamond is rattled, Fergie returns it to equilibrium. “He’s the same man, every day, every year,” Forney says.
When the team is on the road, he goes out to a little hunting cabin outside of town. He looks forward to that.
But when the Goldeyes are in town, Don Ferguson is on call. When the game ends, he gets up and goes back to work, taking note of the crises big and small that arose since he arrived. By 11:30 or midnight, he is usually in his car, on his way home.
The next morning, he returns to fix whatever needs fixing. No matter when the game is scheduled, his approach to his job remains the same as it always has.
“I always do everything like it’s Opening Day,” he said.