PORTLAND – The pitcher’s mound at Hadlock Field was looking pretty ragged when I approached it around 10 a.m. with members of the Portland Sea Dogs grounds crew.

Jason Cooke — the assistant head groundskeeper — told me he was in the process of adding more clay to the top and front slope of the mound. So the looser material on top of the mound had been scraped off to expose some craters and pock marks in the clay. Cooke, a former college pitcher, told me he was pretty particular about how he wanted the mound to look and feel.

So he would not rush, and he would not use machines or heavy equipment. He would take it slow and do the work in small chunks, by hand.

First, he wet the areas where he wanted to apply clay, so the clay would stick to the mound. Then he and I got on the wet ground, on our knees, and began patting handfuls of clay into the holes and pock marks. After about five minutes we had an area about two feet square filled in.

Then we got up and Cooke handed me a broom, to smooth out the clay and make sure none of the water puddled up. Then we began tamping the clay with a wooden-handled tamping tool – it looked like a shovel handle but with a heavy, square piece of metal on the end.

But I couldn’t just start tamping.

“First, you have to tamp around the edges, not too hard, just enough to set it where you want it,” said Cooke, 31, of Westbrook. “Then you can start tamping harder, from the top of the mound down. You can go across, and overlap, until you’re all the way down. Then you can really tamp hard.”

I picked up the tamping tool and hit the ground as hard as I could, feeling some pain in my arms and chest. Cooke showed me how he’d do it – Pick the tool up, let it drop through his fingers, then grab hold as it hits the ground.

“Let the tool do the work,” he told me.

I guess. But I still thought it would take quite a toll on one’s knees and arms and legs to do as much hands-on yard work as I saw Cooke do in a couple hours on a game day last week. Basically, it was like yard work at home, but on much bigger scale, with much bigger expectations.

The Sea Dogs are one class below AAA, so Cooke and his fellow groundskeepers are well aware that their field is preparing future major leaguers.

“It starts with how it plays, how the players play on it,” said Cooke. “But I also like to think of it as having an artistic side, as giving people something else to look at when they come to the ballpark. It’s part of the experience of coming to the ballpark.”

To express his artistic side, Cooke often mows the grass in creative patterns, like they do at big league fields. In a small office behind the center field wall, he showed my pictures of patterns he’s done in the past, including connecting swirls or criss-crossed lines that create a giant diamond shape in the outfield. But today was not a mowing day. It was more of a rake and pick up stuff with your hands kind of day.

The day began for Cooke and the two other full-time groundskeepers — head groundskeeper Rick Anderson and assistant Joe Dubail — at around 8:30 a.m., in preparation for a 6 p.m. game. They began by taking the tarp off the field, placed there because of overnight rain. They gathered everyone working in the park at the time — assistant general managers, ticket takers, office workers — to come and help roll up the tarp.

Then they began their many game day tasks: Re-applying clay and dirt to the batter’s box and to the pitcher’s mound, as well as to the mounds in the bull pens; smoothing out the infield dirt, base paths and warning track by dragging a metal screen behind a small tractor; raking clumps of dirt out of the grass.

Much of the work had to be done by 1:30 p.m., when the Sea Dogs would take batting practice. Cooke is also the pitching coach for the South Portland High School baseball team, so he often takes off in the afternoon to coach, then comes back and stays through that night’s game — in case of a rain delay or some field maintenance is needed.

For Cooke, being a groundskeeper is a way to keep connected with the game he’s always loved, and to stay on the field. After graduating from South Portland High School, he pitched at the college level, at the University of Rhode Island. He worked for the city of South Portland, maintaining ball fields, before getting this job.

While the clay was drying on the mound, Cooke handed me a rake and pointed to spots along the first-base line where clumps of clay and dirt were in the grass, kicked there by players running by in cleats.

So I raked the clumps of dirt out of the grass, onto the base path, but I pulled some grass onto the dirt as well.

“That’s O.K., we’ll just pick that up later,” said Cooke.

One way to pick up grass, or weeds, or rocks, from the dirt is to “drag” the dirt areas with a metal screen pulled by a tractor. Cooke started up the tractor for me, showing me the throttle and choke controls and then told me to take one pass around the warning track, which rings the entire stadium.

As I drove around the field, sitting on the rumbling tractor and surveying the empty stands and the green grass, I thought “This is a nice way to spend a morning.” I was only going about as fast as a toddler on a tricycle, so it was pretty easy to steer.

However, when I made a turn near the picnic pavilion on the first base side, I was worried about not scuffing the grass and instead bumped lightly into the stadium wall.

“Yeah, you were looking at the grass side and forgot about the other side,” said Cooke. “It’s something you have to get a feel for.”

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]