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The Final Season: Braves field director and Forsyth resident juggles two stadiums

 
POSTED: April 21, 2016 12:29 p.m.

Keep up. Ed Mangan is on the move.

It’s the first Friday of April, and in the guts of Turner Field the bustle of preparations before the 20th and final Opening Day at the current home of the Atlanta Braves are palpable. Venders are still organizing inventory. Signage is still being hung. Seasonal employees are still getting new ID badges. Still more hopeful employees are lined up at a discreet entrance on Bill Lucas Drive before interviews. Mangan scurries past it all, navigating through the stadium tunnels until he comes to a pair of green metal doors. On it is a small blue plaque with ED MANGAN GROUNDS KEEPING written on it in thin white letters.

Seconds after he opens the doors to his office the phone rings and he answers.

“$451 per square foot turf, is that right?” says Mangan, 55, as he turns down Fox News on the flat. A dusty golf club leans against a concrete pillar in the middle of the office. A broken crossbow hangs on the other side. A shelf made from half an old sunbaked canoe holds books and pictures.

The only field director Turner Field has ever had hardly has time for housekeeping. He’s too busy juggling the patch of grass and dirt outside his office window and the blueprints sprawled out on two leather couches.

When he pulls the curtain back, he can see all of Turner Field from behind the right field wall. When he looks at the blueprints, he can imagine what will be next: SunTrust Park, the team’s new $672 million digs set to open for the 2017 season.

Right now, Mangan has to think of both. The final season at “the Ted” begins in four days (which the Braves lose 4-3 in extra innings to the rival Nationals), and players will be in the next two days for workouts. The field has been in regular season mode for several days, but rain is in the forecast.

His crew just uncovered the field after storms came through the night before, so Mangan trades glances from the weather radar on his computer to the sky outside his window.

“We got quite a bit of rain last night,” Mangan says, “so if we get some more this afternoon we’ll have to put the tarp back on.”

The opening of SunTrust Park is less than 365 days away now, so Mangan keeps the blueprints accessible, some rolled up, some flattened to reveal computer drawings of its details. All the space inside the lower walls is Mangan’s.

“You’re just so busy right now,” Mangan says.

Seven days a week

During the Braves’ 81 home games, Mangan stations himself in what he calls the Radar Room, a small windowless bunker just a few steps inside the home dugout. It’s a strategic location, close enough to the manager in the dugout and umpires on the field to consult if inclement weather threatens.

The room is sparse – two chairs, some sunflower seeds and bottles of water. Two flat screen televisions play the game, one live and the other tape-delayed. He tracks the weather on two computer monitors. Former Braves manager Bobby Cox would join Mangan there after he got ejected (which was plenty for the most ejected manager in baseball history) to watch the rest of the game.

Here’s a misconception you have about Mangan’s job: you see the green and think, well, it’s just grass. I have grass in my yard. I mow it every now and then. That’s it. You see the empty stadium when the team is on a road trip and think, oh, must be nothing to do for the grounds crew.

“From the first week of March through November, something is done to the turf or field seven days a week,” Mangan says. “It’s a living, breathing entity out there,” Mangan adds.

Indeed, Mangan is more than “head landscaper” of Turner Field.

He is a biologist, chemist, meteorologist, maybe even therapist who has to navigate the varying preferences of players (Infielders and pitchers want the infield grass to play slower to get more time to react to groundballs and prevent them from going into the outfield where they become hits. Hitters, naturally, prefer the opposite.)

Over the course of six years, Mangan rehabilitated Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium’s playing surface while the Braves transformed into one of major league baseball’s most successful franchises. After Atlanta hosted the 1996 Summer Olympics, the Braves converted Centennial Olympic Stadium, the event’s centerpiece, into Turner Field.

Mangan has overseen the almost three acres and 120,000 square feet of turf ever since. It is a playing surface of his own creation, one he has tweaked over time with advancements in turf varieties. The grass now blends Bermuda Tifway 419 in the outfield and Platinum TE Paspalum in the infield and foul territory.

The regiment to maintain it is rigorous.

Mangan and his crew’s day starts early. Their itinerary stretches from the first mow of the day to watering and prepping the infield, edging and dragging the warning track, reconstructing the pitcher’s mound and fine-tuning home plate before setting up the batting cages, mats and fungo nets for batting practice. Part-time crew arrives two hours before first pitch to help polish off the field; they chalk the lines, water the infield and sweep the mound.

After the final out, there’s still plenty more to be done.

Mangan coordinates all the work like a tactical commander. Of most importance is the preparation.

“Everything we do is national television,” Mangan says. “I want to have a plan for everything, have a back-up plan if that doesn’t work, and then have another back-up plan if that doesn’t work either.”

‘You earn what you get’

Mangan didn’t intend to be in charge of a professional sports team’s turf. Born in Middletown, N.J., his family moved to Louisiana, where he discovered the Braves on the local television channel. He earned a degree in horticulture from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. One day he hoped to be the manager of a plant nursey.

After college, Mangan followed his parents to Florida, where they had moved, and he needed a job.

He found one at Baseball City Stadium, the spring training home at the time of the Kansas City Royals. It was part of Boardwark and Baseball, a theme park in Haines City, Fla., that made a failed attempt to compete with Disney World in the late 1980s.

To start out, Mangan made $4 an hour digging ditches for irrigation lines.

The work was brutal, but Mangan could handle it. Work had been a constant presence in his life. His dad was a carpenter who on the side bought houses and refurbished them on the weekends to either rent or sell. Mangan and his siblings were dad’s crew picking up nails, collecting cut-off pieces of wood, sweeping up saw dust, hopping on top of roof rafters.

“My dad’s famous quotes was, ‘What, you want to live forever? Get out there,’” Mangan says.

At eleven years old, his dad pushed him to get his first real job, though by New Jersey law at the time you had to be fifteen to get an employment certificate. No problem. His dad signed the forms anyway, and Mangan began caddying at a local golf course.

It was eleven miles from home. There was only one car in the family, and it left when Mangan’s dad went to work in the morning and returned when he came home that evening, so Mangan rode his bike there and back. If his bike had a flat tire or busted chain, he walked.

Mangan caddied for four years, working his way up from single A caddie to double A caddie where he could carry two golf bags and advise on club lengths and distances. When Mangan turned fifteen, he worked in construction and restaurants. He always worked.

“That was the way we were brought up,” Mangan says. “My dad kind of instilled that. It was accountability, discipline, behavior. There were no shortcuts. You earn what you get.”

Mangan quickly earned a promotion to supervisor over all of Boardwalk and Baseball. One influential person took notice of Mangan’s work: John Schuerholz, then general manager of the Kansas City Royals. Schuerholz was hired by the Atlanta Braves in 1990, and he inherited the league’s worst team and arguably its worst playing field, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

Schuerholz asked Mangan to come with him to Atlanta. Schuerholz would be in charge of fixing the team. He asked Mangan to be in charge of fixing the field.

“A lot of people said, ‘You’re going to the Braves?’ What are you doing?’” Mangan says. “I said, ‘Why not?’ If you can make a difference, that’s your job, is to try to improve or try to grow. How do you not take that opportunity?”

So Mangan moved to the Atlanta area with his wife, Janeen, whom he’d met in the accounting department at Boardwalk and Baseball. They first lived in Duluth, then Alpharetta and are now settled in Cumming with their four boys, Jake, Micky, Ty and Colby, who all attend Pinecrest Academy.

A new house

Turner Field’s surface has to be fit for more than just Braves games. The stadium hosts several concerts a year, college baseball games, high school baseball games, clinics and other special events, all of which do damage to the field that Mangan and his crew must repair. Sometimes the events and the Braves’ home stands give Mangan little respite from the grind of the work.

“You may work seven, fourteen, twenty-one days long or straight without a day off,” Mangan says. “That’s the cross you bear.”

Often, when the work has piled up and the traffic is still thick after a game, Mangan will grab his bow and head through the tunnels of Turner Field to where he stores a lot of the materials used on the field. The sand and clay and warning track make a good backdrop for his moveable target.

“It’s safe and out of the way,” Mangan says, and he will shoot in private, alone with his thoughts.

“You need something to do other than grind, grind, grind,” Mangan says. “A lot of things have been solved on the golf course or bow range.”

The work requires sacrifices. Mangan has also been field director for the past fifteen Super Bowls, so he’s gone all of February. From the Super Bowl he goes to Spring Training to get the team’s facility ready for the arrival of pitchers and catchers. After the first few games, he comes back to Atlanta to prepare Turner Field for Opening Day.

“Ed has sacrificed a lot for our family,” Janeen says. “He’s away from us a lot. He does it because he loves his family.”

The Braves announced in November 2013 the team would be moving out of downtown Atlanta, its home since relocating from Milwaukee in 1966, to Cobb County.

Mangan’s work planning the new stadium’s playing surface began the next day.

On the phone that Friday before Opening Day, he made adjustments to an order for RPO7, plastic grass to be used in the batting tunnels and bullpen area of SunTrust Park. “I can get it from AstroTurf for $285,” Mangan says on the phone, “and I think it’s a better product. But your install stays the same.”

Later, his attention turns back to Turner Field. Among the many items on his to-do list is filling in an Opening Day logo that has been spray painted in front of the first base line.

Mangan doesn’t express nostalgia over Turner Field’s demise. Maybe he just doesn’t have time. He’s already closed up one stadium, after all.

About SunTrust Park, Mangan is excited about “everything,” he says. “You’re moving into a new house, a new neighborhood, a new amusement park. And then of course the challenge of starting from scratch.”

So you may feel like Turner Field has been yours these 20 seasons. You watched the Olympics here, a World Series, an MLB All-Star Game, playoff games and comeback wins. You took your kid to its first game, bought them cotton candy, a hat with that scripted A, a Chipper jersey, chopped your hand in the air. You saw all-stars and MVPs and Cy Young winners and that stooped, aww-shucks manager. You saw fireworks on Fridays. You saw heroes and foibles. You came here with the masses to cheer or escape or both. And it all glowed with the magnificent green of a baseball field.

SunTrust Park will too. Mangan will make sure of that.

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