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Chapter Nine: Red And Green
"Everybody thinks because a guy's a bricklayer, [and] you work with your back, you're stupid," Charlie Smith says with a shake of the head one August day, and while it is true that he is broad backed, and possesses a handshake that features bunches of muscle and tendon born of decades of hefting the hardened-clay blocks, Charlie Smith is also not lacking in intelligence. He talks a great deal, of a great many things, most of them made of brick, in the confident tones of a man giving a lecture. Men will do this when they've practiced one craft for thirty years and have had ample time to think about it.
Charlie Smith speaks in logic as unassailable, as carefully assembled, as the wall of perfect red Maryland brick in front of which he is standing.
"When a house bums down, what's standing?" It is a riddle not unlike the Sphinx's. Charlie Smith seems to endow it with a great deal of significance. He has an earnestly ruddy complexion bom of three decades of bricklaying in the sun and wind.
He waits for an answer, can't wait any longer.
"The chimney," he says, with a satisfied nod. And he's right. "See, the beauty of brick is it's there, and it's there for all time. It gives you this individual pride. Instead of boxed walls...When you drive by the site, you say, 'I worked there.' You can't take it away."
Charlie Smith stops.
"Unless you blow it up."
We are strolling the grounds of the park on a warm and windy July afternoon. We are on the Russell Street side, the third-base side, where the wall of brick has been finished. On this day, Smith's crew is working on the wall on the other side, down the right-field side, heading inexorably, a dozen feet a day, toward the warehouse. Charlie is showing me the work they've already done. Charlie's talking brick. It's his favorite subject. He backs up his talk too; in his basement room at home Charlie built a fireplace and put brick on each side of it, up to a height of four feet, and then laid wainscotting above it. The opposing wall is mirrored, so it looks as if it's brick too. Charlie puts his brick where his mouth is.
Charlie Smith is the on-site foreman for Baltimore Masonry. Since 1963 he's been a member of the Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen of Maryland Local One. It's a brick town used to be, anyway. Camden Yards, with all of its bricks being fired right over in Westernport, has brought back a little of the glory.
And there is glory in brick, certainly in Baltimore. If you doubt it, ask Charlie Smith. It doesn't take a fine eye to see that there is glory on this job. When it's finished, Camden Yards will feature 600,000 bricks-most of them ornamental, like a curtain hung flat in front of a wall, but inspiring nonetheless.
The job is full of detail; thirty different kinds of custom brick were fired in local kilns to build this park-two kinds of bullnose (thumbnail and toenail), stacked bond, running bond, circle arches, jack arches. Thirty different bricks. That speaks of plenty of detail. That is a good thing for Smith's crews, for monotony is the mason's enemy. He was pleased to discover, he said, that the Camden Yards job was quite full of variations on the usual theme, which is generally, well, just a wall. That's how bricklayers refer to themselves when they're at work "on the wall."
"I told them, 'Don't be afraid to design curved, serpentine,'" Smith says, of a conversation with the architects. "If you do this day in and day out it gets monotonous. If the bricklayer's got detail work to do, he's happy. Besides. If you do too much of one thing it's no good. It'll look like a fucking dungeon. But what if you come up with wainscotted brick? The distressed panelling? The arches? You break it up.
"This is a Roman arch," he tells me. "The same type of arch at Pompeii."
At our feet is an arched wooden mold. It is inserted into the opening, the bricks are laid above it, and when they harden, the mold is pulled out.
We continue our stroll. Charlie moves swiftly and surely, despite some girth. Everyone on a construction site moves with agility; there's always the chance they'll have to get out of the way of something quickly.
"Look at the houses today," he says. "They don't want to give you brick. A wooden porch, I had to paint it three times. Brick ain't like painting. You don't have to paint every year when you're using brick. Brick looks good with landscaping, too. When you got your green against your brick? When that brick gets washed, and they put in some grass and shrubbery bingo."
I ask Smith about old bricks and new bricks. New bricks, he says, are generally wire cut now a sheet of brick is cut up into its rectangles by a wire grid.
"Years ago," he says, "the bricks were softer. Now they're harder, and if you break them, there's a ragged edge. The new mortars are definitely stronger. You go over to Russia, they have façade nets. The bricks are all dropping off."
Charlie Smith lives for extolling the job, for extolling the union, but mostly extolling the brick. He has earned the privilege. He won a Building Congress Award for craftsmanship a few years back for his brickwork on the Fort Meade School, off state Route 175. The award means everything to him,
"Now they're gonna know my name," he says. And what more does anyone really want? No one knew his grandfather's name. His grandfather was a miner who lost his lungs and his life in the mines of northern England. His father welded warships in this town during the forties, when the docks in Baltimore turned out a ship every month. Charlie Smith has been a mason in Baltimore since 1963, and he believes in his work. He believes in his material. He bemoans the passing of his craft, and of brick itself.
"Everybody thinks a union is bad," he tells me. "In the meantime, we're taking a cut. Union-wise, this country, it doesn't take no genius to see they're knockin' down the unions. But if you want to get something good, you got to pay a few dollars more. The union guy is out here in the elements. Hot sun! He's got to work. People say, 'He doesn't work in cold weather.' It's because the mortar freezes!
"Also, you get your money's worth. [A mason] can't hide how much work he does. You can't scam me. I can walk away and come back and see how much work you did."
Across from the Russell Street side of the site, where the brick skin is finished, stand the brick rowhouses of Ridgely's Delight, and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, with its splendid brickwork, and its stunning stone quoins.
"Flemish Bond," Charlie says. "The bricks in that building. They're Flemish Bond. You see them on churches. Lemme tell you something about these buildings. They'll give you eight inches of brick. Look at those houses over there. It'd be a sin to build this stadium out of anything but brick. Look at that. That's design."
In three months Charlie Smith's crews have finished three quarters of the skin, starting down the third-base side at the eighteen line the eighteenth steel girder away from home plate and working toward home plate, then wrapping around and heading for the warehouse.
The job went to a union crew, Smith insists, because on a job this size, with public funding, under such intense scrutiny, "they're not gonna take no chances."
The brickwork called for skilled work. With 600,000 bricks to be laid, HOK looked into the possibility of precasting the brick into panels: putting the bricks into a plastic liner, cementing it to a precast five-ton concrete panel, removing the plastic after the whole thing dries, and shipping it to the park. But HOK decided they didn't want to risk the sides of bricks chipping off in the process of erecting a precast concrete wall; they opted for the more costly process of stacking the bricks, one by one, against a standing wall.
"They had to go with who they felt was going to give them a good job," Smith says. "Knott went in and his bid was higher."
Henry J. Knott Inc. is Baltimore Masonry's chief competition in the Baltimore brick marketplace. Knott is not a union shop. Knott was awarded the block-laying part of the job something like stretching the canvas for the artist. (Worse. Cinder block is America's shame. Why else would we paint it? We don't usually feel the need to paint brick, do we?)
Charlie Smith could have gone to Knott, by the way "I coulda been riding around in one of Knott's vehicles with a phone right now" but he wanted to stay on the sites, laying the bricks. He wanted to stay union.
"This job was godsent. We've been hanging by a thread. This was godsent. 'Til this came along, we were getting a smaller and smaller percentage of the work."
Baltimore Masonry used to mostly build schools, but now they're losing so much to drywall: "The kids can push right through it," Charlie says. "We used to do more elevator shafts, too. In this building they're brick, But in the VA hospital? Stairwells and shafts are drywall."
Charlie Smith shakes his head.
"This town is a brick town. Local One! We were the first local! Now all you're seein' is precast and glass." Charlie isn't just lamenting the loss Of work, either; his aesthetics are weighing in. Concrete looks terrible most of the time. It's heavy and it's ugly. Concrete in the rain, streaked and soiled, is ugly as hell. There's no question about the distinctly impermanent look that modern materials lend big buildings, or of brick's opposite effect.
As we talk, a fire truck passes on Russell. The driver bleats his horn. Smith waves. Union to union, workman to workman.
"Once in a lifetime you can build a stadium," he says.
Above us a bricklayer gives a thumbs-up sign. It is not because things are going well; it is because he needs a brick, and in the bricklayer's signing code, a thumb means a thumbnail bullnose. Ten fingers would mean he needs a comer slope for the quoin.
"Let's go lay brick," Charlie Smith says suddenly, with such enthusiasm and appetite, with so much emphasis that each word deserves to have its first letter capitalized. It's a startling proposition, not the sort of statement you'd expect to hear from the mouths of other workmen: "Let's go bag groceries," or, "Let's go write an editorial." It is the declaration of a man who would rather lay brick than talk about it. And it is the one way to prove to the world that laying brick is more than you think it is.
Laying brick is all rhythm: Dip the flat trowel in the mortar to scoop it up, slap the stuff on top of the last brick with your right hand, drop a brick onto the new mortar with the left, take the comer of the trowel and trim the excess mortar off, dip the trowel back into the barrow, start it up again.
"I worked on the Russian embassy," Smith says as he slaps a few bricks himself. "They had cameras on the wall. They were watching you all the time."
To get on the wall he'd had to walk up to the concourse level, crawl over the ledge down onto the rickety planks of scaffolding, walk out to the comer of the tower, and climb down five feet on the scaffolding. The planks supported a barrow full of mortar and stacks of several thousand bullnose (fingernail) bricks, fired by Calvert, rose red the color.
Watch a good mortar man on the wall and the bricks start to pile up effortlessly, as if they're all freeze frames adding up to an animated cartoon; before your eyes, the blank precast concrete support turns into the walls of a stadium whose brickwork could be in Venice.
"Brick changes color three times for you," Charlie says. "When you lay it up, it's wet. Then it dries. Then it gets washed down, it's another color still."
He notes my amusement at the perfection of his stroke.
"Like slicing lunch meat at a deli," he says. But it's not. Smith leaves no excess mortar. The line from brick to brick is perfect. It is like watching a good singles hitter, a Rod Carew, a man who makes a living from hits that don't look so much as if a baseball being violently slapped around a field, but rather like the ball is being gently, though forcefully, redirected. A good mason makes the bricks look as if they're eager to be on the wall.
It is not nearly as easy as it looks. The bullnose brick a toenail is heavy in your left hand; the uncooperative mortar drops and drips off the trowel. You slap it down, it's much too thick, and when you slap the next brick down mortar comes shooting out of the grout like frosting between two slabs of steel.
Several minutes later five bricks on the wall of Camden Yards have been laid not by Local One but by a bystander, and they are the five shakiest bricks you'd ever want to see.
"I seen Palmer pitch his no-hitter in '69," Smith says after we've climbed off the wall. We are walking down the stairwell, on the outside of which his men are now bricking. "I was one of the three thousand who saw Brooks beat Cleveland in the ninth in his last year. You'd have thought he'd won the Series. Gentile, Powell I'm listening on the radio when he powdered three.
"Sometimes we'd go to the games," he recalls. "Get a six. Fill a two-liter jug. You'd buy the first cup, then keep filling it from the jug."
On our way down the stairs we run into the president of Baltimore Masonry, Victor Campitelli. Campitelli's father founded the company.
"The big one we did," Victor tells me, "is the Physics and Astronomy Building at Johns Hopkins. Where they record all the Hubble telescope stuff."
Victor calls Charlie aside, and they chat. I regard the flat concrete precast wall onto which Charlie's crew has yet to lay the brick skin. Victor is doing all the talking. I wonder if, on his way in, he'd glanced up at the wall and seen five bricks with mortar dripping from beneath them.
Charlie and I walk out of the park, to the spot where thousands of bricks are stacked.
"Here," he says, hefting two bullnose toenails. "Take these. Use 'em for bookends."
I take one in each hand. They are much heavier than the fateful five. They are extremely heavy. They weigh as much, it seems, as the earth's original ingredients. Real things could be built of these bricks.
Charlie has turned around to regard the wall. He is quiet. We look at the wall. It is hypnotic, in its scale, in its subtlety. Brick does that. Who isn't drawn, at one point or another, even to America's brick ruins? By the nobility of their stature? They have a particularly stalwart feel, even in the decomposing. In the backyards of industrial cities, the factories sit, empty windows staring blankly, unblinking; remnants of neon signs are in tatters, but the brick shells still stand, ivy curling up the walls, trying to tear them down, and not succeeding. The sight of golden sun setting on good crimson brick is a color that is unduplicatable.
At first Smith appears to be watching his crew. In fact, he is regarding the soaring plane of red brick. The bullnoses, the detail, the arches. The wall of Camden Yards nearly matches the soaring wall of the warehouse a tapestry of another time.
"This was designed," Charlie Smith says, with a nod at Camden Warehouse, "by an architect who knew brickwork."
"That's me," Stuart Smith says.
He means the brick face of Camden Yards, the one he designed, carefully, replete with all of the subtle ripples and ridges. He designed it after spending a few days examining, in the minutest of details, the old brick monolith of the Powerhouse building, the old power plant down on the harbor his favorite building in the city.
But he also means, in another sense, that he and the brick are one, and that he and the park are one. After all, he spent four thousand hours with the place. That's five hundred work days, most of it in design.
Stuart Smith is no relation to Charlie Smith, although now, of course, they are bonded forever. Stuart was the project designer on Camden Yards. You wouldn't know it unless you read the in-house memos circulated by HOK, but he was. Stuart Smith designed more than the brick; the arches are his, too. The steel trusses? Stuart and Joe Spear worked on those drawings. A lot of detail belongs to Stuart Smith. But it's the brick you should know about.
When Smith arrived on the scene, off his work helping HOK to design an arena in Sheffield, England, the Camden Yards master plan had been finished. It showed a brick façade, but that's all. The eventual design the way the bricks are used, the thirty palates that Charlie Smith so admires is his.
"I had a piece of this pie," Stuart Smith says after thinking the sentence through carefully.
"Wouldn't we like to say all but a sliver? In my eyes, in my four thousand hours of design, I feel I brought some good ideas to the stadium."
It's not that he is looking for more credit than he deserves, although a little individual credit would be nice. While the internal memos at HOK cited Spear as Principal in Charge and Stuart Smith as Project Designer, the official history, in Progressive Architecture, cited him as nothing but a member of the design team. So as time passes, Stuart Smith, once a designer of stadiums, now setting his sights on buildings of more diversity of design, has found himself fading into the fog of history.
Just as troubling to Smith is that history keeps being written the Orioles' way.
In fact, Smith says, when he arrived on the scene in the middle of the steel versus concrete debate, he realized right off that the media were "not flying the HOK flag."
"We were pretty insignificant in the project, if you read the press. That's where the tensions came between HOK and Janet Marie Smith. You know, [speaking] as one of the young architects, we were trying to move HOK forward in innovative design. We wanted to market the stadium: 'Hey, this is ours!'"
Smith, for example, designed the arches. Arches were drawn on the master plan; Smith turned them into the deep arches that now stand impressive passages, serious, weighty entrances, instead of adornments.
"We did a lot of the design work," he says."They had input. Janet Marie had some magnificent ideas, but we were still the architects. It was a collaboration, [but] when it came to press acknowledgment, it was more toward the Orioles defining the stadium than us designing it."
In truth, Stuart Smith was not only designing the park, along with Joe Spear, who was working on other projects at the time; Smith often found himself sent alone into meetings with the Orioles. The aftertaste of that relationship, more than anything else, soured Smith on the experience of having contributed to Camden Yards.
"There were a lot of tensions," Smith says. "When you went into a good meeting, we'd present something, they liked it, you came out feeling pretty good. But fifty percent of the time, if not more, you came out saying, 'Man, I hate doing this.'
"I knew [Lucchino's] reputation. He hated HOK. He was one of the people who made it a rough deal. I was in meetings when we were doing interior design of the club level. He came in and said, 'That's an ugly color. I don't like that. Why are you doing this?'"
Even knowing Lucchino's reputation didn't prepare Stuart Smith for the extent of Lucchino's temper, which is legendary in Orioles offices. His sorest memory? Walking into a meeting in Florida and watching Lucchino, with whom he thought he was working, turn on him:
"We were doing a proposal for a spring-training facility. Janet asked Joe if I could work on that design. Nobody wanted to go. I felt kind of bad that nobody else in the office would do it except me. I go to Florida by myself. I'm supposed to have a meeting with Lucchino, and Janet and USF&G [United States Fidelity & Guaranty Insurance Co.]. It was supposed to be a little presentation. I walk in and Lucchino says, 'What are you going to say?' I walk by the courtroom. There are TV cameras. A lot of people. It's a public city hearing!
"It was humbling. I got halfway through. Lucchino jumps up and says, 'No, that's not right. Sit down.' I was pretty livid at Joe for making me go down there. No one else wanted to be a support system. And here I am getting reamed by Lucchino....It was like he almost enjoyed it.
"I went into these meetings a lot of times by myself. Once I came in with a graphics package, sick as a dog, walked in in the middle because my plane was late. They started hatcheting this graphics package. I took a lot of blows. I put in a lot of time. I don't want to sound ungrateful...but I probably do. But hey, look, I did a lot of the stadium."
Stuart Smith grew up in Lebanon, Missouri, 104 miles southwest of St. Louis. He was a Joe Torre fan. He would travel to Busch at least twice a month as a kid. His father ran halfback for Missouri; now he runs a cooperage business in Lebanon that supplies barrels for Jim Beam and Hiram Walker.
From high school Smith went to Kansas State University, Joe Spear's school, for the five-year bachelor of architecture program. He joined a small firm where he was doing design for Hallmark card stores, when he got a call from a friend at HOK. They were looking for someone with design experience. HOK took him on in 1988. He worked on a graphics package for the scoreboard in St. Petersburg, and the detail of the façade in Comiskey, and the arena in Sheffield, before coming to Camden Yards in the spring of 1989. The question of steel and concrete was not yet decided, but the stadium design the way it would look was set. It was up to Spear and Smith to design specific details of the brick, of the arches, of the scoreboard.
Stuart Smith, not incidentally, never had a desire to design sports architecture. He had not been bitten by the big-bowl bug. Nor was he in it for the money. He did enjoy the perks at least, in Chicago. Which is another thing that grates.
"After having the privilege of working on the White Sox and Baltimore...well, first off, the Sox' stadium will never be the Orioles' stadium, for a lot of reasons. Like the site. The Sox' stadium has bullet-proof glass on the first level, Camden Yards an iron fence, for instance.
"But the difference between the Sox and the Orioles there were a lot more perks working with the Sox. They'd be happy to get you tickets, or baseballs, little things that said you were doing a good job. 'Even though we chewed you out in this meeting, you're doing a great job.' The Orioles never offered anything like that. The Sox gave us a suite. The Orioles? Well, we had one on Opening Day, but we didn't get it until the last minute.
"That was another sore point: They're chewing on us in meetings for virtually no reason, the attitude Lucchino had, and they're getting all the press for the stadium, and here we are they decide, 'Let's change this,' and myself and many others were putting in seventyhour weeks to make changes they wanted to make that we weren't even able, to bill for."
Smith had no problem with Janet Marie Smith, although he agrees strongly that the credit as in, the name of the architect should go to Joe Spear: "He was the guy." At the same time, he insists, he enjoyed working with Janet Marie: "I was kind of put in the middle of wanting to please the Orioles, and do a good job for HOK. I had to try to be careful not to say to Joe, 'Janet suggested this, why don't we do this?' or, 'Janet, this is a lousy idea.' It's kind of tricky.
"In the long run, all of the good ideas came out, whether it took one meeting or ten meetings. It put a lot of pressures on people. Unnecessary pressures."
Stuart Smith is now out of the stadium game. He is glad of it, and not just because he was never recognized publicly as the project designer. It's because he got tired of his nickname his second nickname. His first nickname was "youngster." It was spawned soon after he arrived at the age of twenty-six at HOK.
The second was "old-timer." "Since I worked on Comiskey, and now the Orioles, I was called oldtimer. I was working on these old-time buildings. And that's not what interests me. I'm more into the new modernist architecture. I mean, once the Orioles were on board, Cleveland wants one just like it! Then Denver. The next ten will be like the Orioles."
At the age of twenty-nine, Stuart Smith didn't feel like an old-timer. He left HOK and enrolled in the master's program at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
"I was just ready to move on. I was going to be cornered into designing stadiums."
If he was determined not to let that happen before Opening Day at Camden Yards, that day's experience clinched it. It was nothing like Opening Day at Comiskey; in Comiskey, HOK had a suite prepared for them long in advance. They still have the use of it now.
In Baltimore, on Opening Day, the HOK folks found themselves without a suite. An hour before game time, Joe Spear was sipping coffee in the press dining room. Only at the last minute was something arranged, and HOK was accommodated.
Many people in Baltimore who deal with the Orioles on a commercial basis find them arrogant. They speak of contracts broken. They speak of the Orioles' belief that, since they are the Orioles, they should automatically command respect.
They do not command Stuart Smith's.
But his brickwork rivets everyone. His and Local One's. So that now, to anyone approaching the city by car from the South, for whatever reason, whether to view baseball or not, the first glimpse is anchored by a rust-colored brick building laced with steel and arches-not as beautiful in detail, perhaps, as it is in its subtlety. With the warehouse on its east, and the brick of Ridgely's Delight on its west, backed by the skyline, Camden Yards is at once a huddle of weight and lightness. From within the park, the warehouse is the most commanding design feature. From without, the brick compels the eye. The brick makes Camden Yards fit. The design of the brick the details, the quoins, the arches defines the Yards from the outsidethe canvas of the brick.
I am standing amid a wash of green so beautiful and so vast that somehow, I know it should be cordoned off. It should be shaped like a baseball field. It should be rigorously framed, like a work of art, shouldn't it? Because there's nothing as immaculate and patterned, no piece of earth so lorded over, as a major-league baseball diamond. In a ballpark it is flawless mowed into perfect whorls, into vertical and horizontal naps. A baseball field should be an exhibit.
This one is just a field, by the side of Route 13, south of Salisbury, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore. A patch of perfect green grass set amid the unruly roadside weeds, there in front of the Arby's, this square of green is the subtle but effective standard of the Oakwood Sod Farm. Take the next right, down a dirt road lined by ragweed and morning glory and lamb's-quarter, past the chicken houses, just before you get to the big farmhouse surrounded by eleven huge, elder, sleepy oaks, and there it is, on the right, sandwiched between two golden fields of soybeans.
It's nothing but a field. A four-acre field of pleasant green grass. It invites a stroll. Or a five-on-five touch football game. It invites a beautiful woman in a bathing suit reclining on a towel, accompanied by a tube of suntan lotion, a drink, and a good novel.
It's not even completely flat. It rolls. It doesn't start or stop anywhere, either. Not really. You park your car, walk beneath a few oaks, and you're on the grass.
"This is it," says Gary Wilber, with half a shrug. He is wearing a red sweatshirt, blue jeans, tan boots, and a green baseball hat embellished by a tan braid laid across the top of the visor. The legend OAKWOOD SOD FARM adorns the crown. Green and tan are the colors of the Oakwood Sod Farm. It only makes sense.
Gary is wearing sunglasses; this is to be expected, as sunlight glances off green and yellow everywhere. His expression is very calm, even nonchalant, considering that we are standing on the grass that will soon become the home of the Baltimore Orioles. Right now it belongs to no one but the buttery Eastern Shore sun and, of course, the Wilber brothers. Technically it belongs to all of the Wilbers, including Gary and Alan's parents, but if truth be told, the sod operation on the Wilber farm belongs to the brothers. This is their mark. The family farm had always turned a profit, ever since their grandfather had come down from Connecticut to get away from the New England winters, and settled here on the Shore. The Wilbers' mother and father bought this tract in 1946. They did not choose it for its sandy soil, but it's a good thing the soil was sandy, because when the Orioles went to the University of Maryland Agricultural School in 1989 to divine which of the local sod farms had soil sandy enough to meet the specifications of the state-of-the-art drainage system they were installing, the school told them about the Wilber brothers over in Salisbury. The sandiest sod soil in the whole state, they were told, lies beneath Oakwood Sod Farm
The Wilber brothers signed the contract in August 1989, ordered the seed in September, and seeded in October. By the fall of 1991, they had grown four acres of baseball.
It wasn't that the Wilbers felt the overwhelming need to diversify; one hundred acres of corn, five hundred acres of soybeans, and twenty-eight-thousand chickens were handful enough. The family was doing quite well.
It was Gary Wilber's ambition that did it. Actually, that and the golf course association.
"Part of it," Gary says, "is we were looking to do something different. Here I was the youngest son...looking for a part of the farm business that I could...to put in a tactful way, that I was in charge of." We are walking, slowly, the length of the field. Off to each side of us, the soy acreage beckons golden. We are heading for the end of the field, which tapers off into woods and behind the woods, a stream, which is being tapped underground, and fed into the sod.
"I was an agronomy major at Maryland, and there was a scholarship available from a golf course association. You had to take a turf course. They usually give it to someone in the turf program. But at that point, there weren't that many turf people. Actually, I also ended up getting another [scholarship] from the Delmarva Corn and Soybean Association."
Gary figured he'd give a shot at being one of the turf people.
Absently, he reaches down to pull at a tuft of crabgrass. It seems as if the grass should cry out in pain when he does so. I wonder aloud if we should even be walking on it. Gary laughs.
"It has the toughness to stand up to traffic. It was top quality a couple of months ago already."
His brother Alan has joined us. Alan also wears sunglasses. For how subdued they are, though, the Wilbers emanate pleasantness in waves. They act as if they are hosting a cousin they always liked well enough and hadn't seen in a while.
"It's pretty durable stuff," Alan says. He reached down and, not without some difficulty, pulls out a plug of the grass. He holds it up, and the roots of the grass are thick and interwoven in the sandy dirt. In the clump Alan displays there seems to be more root than soil.
"Those are underground stems called rhizomes they weave together. You couldn't pull it apart. In two weeks you won't be able to lift a piece off this ground."
"It's Kentucky Blue Grass," Gary says. "Three strains of it. Midnight, Eclipse, and Touchdown. Midnight is the dark one. The other two lighter blades are Eclipse and Touchdown. They're very aggressive strains."
On your knees, up close, you can tell the Midnight from the other two. It's darker.
"It shows up well," Alan says, "on TV."
Up close, little winged insects hop from blade to blade so quickly that one moment they're on one blade, and the next they're on another, without appearing to have flown.
Trouble? "Leafhoppers," says Gary. "They're not a problem."
The problems come with the arrival of the sod webworms and the white grubs. In addition, the summer saw an onset of a disease called summer patch, but a little patch is acceptable. At least, that's what the Orioles told the Wilbers.
We continue to walk. The Wilbers neither hurry nor dawdle. They seem to enjoy walking on their grass.
"I had a fraternity brother at Alpha Gamma Rho who had a sod farm," Gary says, continuing his tale only after some prompting. "I'd been talking about it with him. I had to do a term paper for the turf course. I did it on the feasibility of starting a sod farm. My professor said it looked profitable. I ran the numbers and it looked like you could earn more per acre than corn or soybeans. He said, 'Why not give it a try?' I went to a meeting of sod growers The Maryland Turf Growers Association. Several of them invited me to their farms. They have monthly meetings. I learned from them."
It sounds easy. But it requires capital Gary says. Sod farming requires specialized machinery and marketing expertise.
"With corn," Gary says, "you just bring the corn to the silo. With sod you have to find a market and work with the landscaper."
"Sod has to be stronger than your typical lawn," Alan says. "And playing baseball stresses it.
"That's the real stuff learning how to make it sod and not grass."
The fragrance is everywhere. The worst thing about artificial turf is that it doesn't smell like anything although, in fact, that's not true; on very hot, sunny days plastic grass smells distinctly like a cheap child's toy left out all summer on the porch. And that's just the half of it. Equally unfortunate is the absence of grass smell in the artificially turfed ballpark. Without the scent of green grass in a stadium, the scents of nacho cheese sauce and beer baked into concrete become synonymous with the game.
There is no mistaking the scent of newly mown grass here.
Real grass is the stuff of baseball dreams; no one lays AstroTurf in a cornfield. A field of grass between two crops is the natural place for anyone to play a game of baseball, and our grass diamonds set among buildings are the urban echo of that rural fact. But farming, like baseball, doesn't work well when it tries to be more than it has to be. When Gaylord Perry went back to eastern Northern Carolina after his retirement to farm soy, it seemed the most perfect of matches, but his farm went belly-up. He bought all-new equipment when he didn't have to. Air-conditioned cabs on his tractors. Leased too much land. Went bankrupt. The locals sneered at him behind his back, thought he was trying to one-up them.
The Wilbers, on the other hand, seem exactly like the right farmers to supply baseball with its land.
"My dad grew up in the Depression," Gary says. "We've always had the philosophy we don't overextend ourselves. We always start small. We learn before we grow. We don't have the newest machinery. We watch how we spend our money. We make sure we pay our bills. We don't always use the newest tractor. We never got too large to the point where a lot of farmers have problems."
The Wilbers' newest tractor is an Allis-Chalmers 60-80. It's fifteen years old.
Gary and Alan Wilber have been entrusted with growing the single most sacred piece of greenery in American sport in decades. But together they are about as excitable as a glacier. There is something apt in this.
"A big order is all it was," says Gary. "We're not excitable types here."
What's odd is to see such stoicism in a young man. You would not be surprised at this demeanor in a seventy-year-old farmer; in a twenty-nine-year-old it's sort of remarkable.
Gary turns over his palms and kind of shrugs. Camden Yards, frankly, is no big deal to the Oakwood Sod brothers.
"People call us up and talk about it," Gary says, with the expression of a man who has just said something completely devoid of affect, such as, maybe, that tomorrow is expected to be the same temperature as today.
"You have people going down the road and they see the name on the truck and they honk," Alan says, leaning down to snatch at some crabgrass.
They are not surprised that they got the contract. Nor are they excited. Partly this is because they live on the Eastern Shore, which belongs to a different kind of people. The Orioles carry no weight on the Eastern Shore. It is known for two distinctly different subsets of Maryland citizenry: the horse set, with its helicopter-to-the-District commuters; and the clam diggers and fishermen of centuries past.
Partly they're not surprised because Gary and Alan Wilber know that they're good. The sandy soil, the consistency of the summer rains, the overwhelming success they've had with every crop since their first all of it pointed to their getting this job.
"We produce a quality sod," Alan says.
They are Maryland certified. In Maryland's certification process, they first check for noxious uncontrollable weeds, then they check your field. When you're ready to harvest, they inspect for worms.
"The second time our whole field was harvestable," Gary says. "We sold ninety percent to landscapers. Twelve cents a square foot, ten thousand feet. We made twelve hundred dollars."
"Then we did a football field at Salisbury State," Alan says.
"We're the local guys," says Gary, with a figurative shrug.
What if disaster had struck? What if some mutant strain of webworm had eaten the entire field?
Lazy smiles bloom on both faces.
"We knew it wasn't gonna die all at one time," Gary said. "We knew from experience it'd be ready if we managed it properly."
"We planted extra," Alan says. "We wanted room for error. We wanted every piece we sent them to be the highest quality."
"It'll work," Gary says, with some finality. "It's our job to grow this."
We are walking back toward the farm's office, a large sunny room attached to the north end of the farmhouse. We walk past the chicken houses. I ask Gary what kind of chickens they are.
He looks at me for a moment. Then he says, "They're just chickens."
Back in Baltimore, the stadium has garnered more publicity than anything in town since the barrage of Fort McHenry. Out here, on the Oakwood Sod Farm, nothing but calm rides the warm wind.
"It's funny," says Gary. "When we were first getting started it was a lot prettier. You become desensitized. We've noticed it a lot with houses we do. [Here,] it's part of your field. It's nothing special. But you put it next to a house and it's so beautiful."
In fact, it's very beautiful here, too. In the artificial confines of a stadium it's just another piece of the decoration. Out here, though, flanked by soy, bordered to the north by the woods and to the south by the dirt road, watched over by the eleven ancient oaks, the grass is surely as beautiful as it will ever get: grass as grass should be.
"Maybe we don't see the full picture yet," Alan says. "When we see it right now, it's a field out in the middle of two soybean fields."
A sign on the office wall in a room on the north side of the house exclaims the credo of the American Sod Producers Association: "To continually strive toward the betterment of our environment through the production of quality sod."
"We like to see clean water and air," says Alan, "and we think that sod is a good product to do that. It produces oxygen. People have gotten a good feel about trees because they know about them. I feel there's more grass with the ability to protect the environment. More so."
As I drive back toward state Route 13, back to Baltimore, the soy seems more golden than before, the grass greener. In the rear-view mirror Alan and Gary are watching my car kick its way down the road. Through the car window floats the scent, again, of newly mown grass. Perfume.
The real weave here is deeper and closer than the rhizomes the Wilbers are cultivating. The family and the farm in the very fabric of the earth, with good sand, and a lot of rain, forty-five years on this ridge it is strong and quiet and it speaks of nothing so much as this: that the earth and the men and women who till it make a bond that is not easily broken up.
Three weeks later, the first trucks came in at dusk. Pulling a special turf-cutting device behind a Massey-Ferguson tractor, Gary and Alan Wilber peeled their turf up in ribbons sixteen inches wide, which were cut every forty-five inches and folded in half. The work was done at night so that the sun would hit the sod as little as possible; with the strips folded over, heat generates inside and bakes the blades, and cool weather is the preferred climate for shipping.
The sod envelopes were loaded onto wooden pallets, one hundred pieces of sod per pallet. Eighteen pallets were loaded onto each truck: nine thousand square feet per load.
At Camden Yards, the Prescription Athletic Turf awaited.
They laid Gary and Alan's grass on top of it, and Camden Yards became a baseball field.
Copyright © 1993 by Peter Richmond