Home News SF Giants’ field operations sends in the drones at Oracle Park

SF Giants’ field operations sends in the drones at Oracle Park

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Greg Elliott is one of the very few horticultural wizards who require a pilot’s license to tend the grassy expanse he oversees.

Director of field operations at Oracle Park, Elliott has gone high tech for a very low tech crop, using drones to monitor soil moisture in the roughly two acres of grass and clay that the San Francisco Giants call home field.

Several times a week, drones soar above the outfield – cue “The Flight of the Valkyries” soundtrack – taking readings of how much water the soil has absorbed, gauging the health of the turf and assessing concerns about the infield’s surface.

The drones, Elliott says, are just another tool in his growing arsenal to keep the field healthy and ready for play.

“We really are the outliers in the league,” he says. “I feel like we’re doing our part to make this a preferred destination for ballplay, concerts and corporate events.”

Greg Elliott, the San Francisco Giants' senior director of field operations, hangs up the drone he uses to monitor the health of the Oracle Park playing field, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in San Francisco, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Greg Elliott, the San Francisco Giants’ senior director of field operations, hangs up the drone he uses to monitor the health of the Oracle Park playing field, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in San Francisco, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

The transformation of Oracle Park began 15 years ago, when Elliott first took the job of what was known then as head groundskeeper. He had worked at several stadiums and parks before arriving in San Francisco, but he soon discovered there were issues with the Giants’ field.

By then, the shiny new ballpark had been open for eight years of regular and postseason baseball and a variety of other activities, including Supercross, monster trucks and concerts. In that time, the soil had become compacted. After the first heavy rain of his tenure, he walked onto the field to find large sections covered in standing water.

As it turned out, every time the park hosted Supercross and monster truck rallies, the landscape crew had brought in tons of dirt and sand to create the tracks for those vehicles, using highway construction rollers to pack down the surface. The rollers are capable of compaction down six feet, but the baseball playing surface at Oracle is only 14 inches.

Greg Elliott, the San Francisco Giants' senior director of field operations, uses a Greensight drone to monitor the health of the playing field at Oracle Park, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in San Francisco, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Greg Elliott, the San Francisco Giants’ senior director of field operations, uses a Greensight drone to monitor the health of the playing field at Oracle Park, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in San Francisco, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Elliott needed to basically start over, and that began with finding a way to drain the field effectively.

He installed special devices beneath the field that allowed for quick drainage and manual drying, if needed. Next came buried sensors that report moisture content. Using that data, his crew could adjust watering schedules that accounted for rain, hot days and heavy fog for both day and night games.

To reduce compaction from heavy mowers, Elliott added lighter weight robotic mowers that can be programmed to cut at a specific height and in a specific direction.  If you were to stick around long enough after a game, you might spot the little automatons roving the outfield, mowing to the programmed specifications. And to test the compaction, the crew uses special devices that send shock waves into the soil to measure thickness and other soil qualities.

The use of drones was an idea Elliott had about three years ago, but the pandemic delayed the project, and Elliott needed to get his drone pilot’s license. Two years ago, the drones began flying at Oracle Park, adding yet more data to the growing list.

Contractors work to install new turf at Oracle Park on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, in San Francisco, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
Contractors work to install new turf at Oracle Park on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, in San Francisco, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

Technology melds with the expertise and observations of Elliott and his crew, helping them choose fertilizers and soil nutrients and even turf. Oracle Park uses a base of dormant Bermuda grass interseeded with Kentucky Blue. Old school soil testing combined with the wealth of data provided by Elliott’s high-tech gizmos tell him what nutrients to add into the irrigation system.

The field also is maintained to suit the players and the game, Elliott says. When the grass is maintained slightly longer in the outfield, for example, it slows the roll of the ball. When catcher Buster Posey returned after suffering a broken leg, Elliott and his crew made the surface behind and around the plate a bit more forgiving, compacting the soil underneath to provide support, but covering the area in a softer blanket of clay.

All the changes, Elliott says, are within league rules, and those that benefit the Giants also benefit the opposing players. During the 2014 World Series, the Kansas City Royals complained that the grounds crew was overwatering the infield in an attempt to slow them down.

“That was offensive to me,” Elliott says. “We water the infield the way our players want it. That’s the way it is throughout the season, not just during the World Series.”

Contractors work to install new turf at Oracle Park on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, in San Francisco, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
Contractors work to install new turf at Oracle Park on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, in San Francisco, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

Elliott prides himself not on the perfection of the field, but on its consistency. He wants the players to have the same conditions in every game. That’s what home field advantage is all about. The Giants play 81 home games, and if the players know what to expect on their own turf, chances of winning improve.



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