[Editor’s Note: This post was written by Nick Elam, who has been on the Cincinnati Reds grounds crew for the last 15 years. He was previously on the grounds crew with the Dayton Dragons, as well. Thanks for the piece, Nick!]
December 2020 marks the end of Steve Lord’s six-year run as Reds’ Head Groundskeeper, and he’s leaving on top. Steve might not have felt that way when he started the job in March 2015. He was walking into a daunting storm, as Great American Ball Park was set to host Major League Baseball’s All-Star Weekend that season. Steve’s field would be in an international spotlight, and he would have to tackle all the challenges that came with it.
Then again, MLB groundskeepers live for storms. The profession itself can be like this, as advancement in the field often requires the sacrifice and boldness to follow a winding path. In Steve’s case, this path has taken him from his native Michigan and his beloved alma mater, Michigan State University, to an internship with minor league Round Rock in Texas, to working his way up to a top assistant position with the Texas Rangers, to the helm with the Cincinnati Reds.
Adaptability is key – not just to changing weather patterns, but different cultures, colleagues, and employees. Steve is able to find the right dynamic and relatability with all of his employees – from his top assistants (with extensive experience and expertise, and who practically live at the ballpark), to a handful of additional full-time employees and college interns (seeking to gain experience and expertise, and who aspire to practically live at a ballpark or golf course someday), to several part-time, gameday employees (working full-time jobs in other walks of life).
As one of those gameday employees, I remember my toughest challenge when joining the Reds grounds crew in 2006 (or any gameday employee’s toughest challenge when joining the grounds crew) – being put to the test along with my new coworkers during preseason tarp practice, to see if we could roll out the tarp and cover the field in the desired 90 seconds or less. Not always an easy feat, but this pales in comparison to the challenge Steve faced when stepping in as head groundskeeper in 2015. Not only did he face from Day 1 the immeasurable time, sweat, and pressure that any head groundskeeper must face, but over the next few months he would face the added time, sweat, and pressure associated with hosting Major League Baseball’s biggest in-season spectacle, and having the greatest baseball players in the world all competing on his field.
Steve navigated this first major storm masterfully. 2015 All-Star Weekend was a smashing success, bringing pride to the Reds organization and city of Cincinnati. And he has navigated every storm since. His remarkable work ethic is partly responsible (Steve didn’t regard the final out of a long homestand as an opportunity to relax or breathe a sigh of relief – he regarded it as the starting gun to begin repairing and preparing the field for the next homestand). His positivity and professionalism are partly responsible (whenever a snafu ran us into trouble, Steve was instantly searching for solutions rather than dwelling on the problem). Steve’s wealth of knowledge about turf management is certainly partly responsible, too. But more importantly, Steve Lord is knowledgeable about people. His nickname “SodLord” is born out of affection just as much as it is respect.
If you ask any grounds crew member, you’ll find a common theme: that Steve worked hard, and kept us working hard, but always made the job fun. Patrick, a former grounds crew legend, recalls one of his first days working with Steve: “I can’t imagine what was going through his mind. It was Easter Sunday, the next day was Opening Day, he and his family had just moved to Cincinnati.” But from the start, Steve displayed his work ethic and sense of humor, and because of this Patrick says “I knew right away I was going to like this guy.”
Steve M., a 17-year grounds crew veteran, including the last five years as a Reds gameday employee, cites Steve Lord’s excellence of his craft, “his work ethic, his willingness to lead from the frontline, his clarity of communication, and even at 10PM (with 14-15 hours already invested in the day, and an hour or more to go), his ability to engage in intellectual conversation about politics, business, sports management,” even astronomy, all without ego or smugness, and his ability to laugh and make laugh in a variety of ways – from subtle and nuanced humor, to everyman humor, to a perfect sense of gallows humor when a storm front was barreling down on Great American Ball Park in the early innings of a game.
That laughter in the face of adversity continued right into 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic posed all-new obstacles and challenges for the grounds crew. As always, Steve made the best of a tough situation. The Reds’ grounds crew drew national attention for creating as much of a home-field advantage as we could in an otherwise empty ballpark. Steve led our charge with noisemakers, rally gear, and words of encouragement for the team.
Steve is a believer in second chances, understands the strengths of each grounds crew member, and can find the good in anyone or anything, even when others can’t. (The man actually enjoys Peeps marshmallow candy, and more than just a little bit.)
Eric, a six-year Reds grounds crew veteran mainly working in a gameday role, noticed Steve’s leadership and empowerment of interns: Steve welcomed “several interns from across the country, getting them all to work together from various backgrounds and allowing them the freedom to learn, allowing them a chance to do things most other head groundskeepers wouldn’t do.”
Yes, in an official capacity Steve was our boss, and in every sense he is a leader, but when talking with fellow grounds crew members about Steve, you hear the word “friend” used more than any other term. Robyn, a 12-year Reds grounds crew veteran, sums it up best: “Steve is calming and caring. He is great at his job and takes it seriously, but he does not take himself seriously. He always had our backs and had fun with us, which is why we’d follow him into a hurricane to tarp the field…in 90 seconds or less.”
Now, Steve and his young family have earned the opportunity to return back home to Michigan, where he will contribute in a key role to a highly-respected distributor in the turf industry. Steve’s expertise will benefit sports fields, golf courses, lawns, green spaces, and their groundskeepers all throughout the region. Steve has earned a loyalty and respect from every place he’s been, and has been quickly and fully embraced everywhere he goes. With his next career move, he’ll get to enjoy both. Our crew couldn’t be happier for him.