Dayton grad treasures experience with Reds grounds crew in strange 2020 season

Nick Elam is sort of a renaissance man. The Madison High School and University of Dayton graduate is a professor at Ball State University. He created the Elam Ending, the rule that has transformed the ends of games in The Basketball Tournament and was even used in the NBA All-Star Game earlier this year.

Also, for the last 15 years, Elam has also found time to work for the Cincinnati Reds grounds crew at Great American Ball Park. He got his start in that line of work in 2003 with the Dayton Dragons when he needed a summer job, and it led to a position three years later in Cincinnati.

In 2020, Elam’s long groundskeeping career led to a unique opportunity. He was one of the few people who got to watch the Cincinnati Reds in person. Not even the players' families had that access. The grounds crew started the season watching games from the left-field side and then moved to the right-field line, near the Reds dugout, because they would be in the shade more often.

From that position, the grounds crew also was better able to cheer on the team, and they did so with gusto. It was a storyline all season as the Reds played in front of a mostly-empty ballpark. Fans never got to attend because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“When you’re the only spectators in the stands, it’s hard not to cheer,” Elam said Thursday. “It just naturally took over. I think the players appreciated that and even helped with that effort by supplying us with the noisemakers.”

The Reds (29-28) played the last of 30 home games Wednesday. They beat the Milwaukee Brewers 6-1 to keep pace in the race for one of the four remaining National League playoff bids.

Elam didn’t attend that game but worked nine or 10 games this season. He typically does 25-30 games in a 162-game season. This year, the job changed for the grounds crew because of the new health-and-safety protocols.

“That means sanitizing all our equipment on a regular basis every day,” Elam said. “For a short time this summer, it was super hot. It was around 100 degrees. When you’re running around carrying 50 pounds of dirt with a mask on, that’s hard to get used to. Through all of that, I was just reminding myself that having this privilege, being able to attend these games in person when so many people would want to be able to and aren’t able to, it was special in a way. But I’m eager to get fans in the ballpark as soon as possible.”

The grounds crew had many fun exchanges with visiting players, Elam said. They were always in the ear of the first basemen, and the opposing first-base coaches enjoyed their antics.

On Wednesday, the grounds crew raised the decibel level a notch for a game that had a postseason feel. They banged on buckets, one of which was titled during the final homestand the Rally Bucket.

“Whenever there was a big play or the possibility of a big play, one of our guys would put the bucket on his head and bang on the bucket himself,” Elam said, “and then other people around him would bang on the bucket.”

The grounds crew also shook noisemakers. Several wore Halloween masks. They did their part to inspire the home team with everyone else, save for a few people sitting with owner Bob Castellini in the Press Club behind home plate, watching at home or maybe from a boat on the Ohio River or sitting outside the front gate on lawn chairs.

The Reds thanked the grounds crew many times throughout the season and one more time after the final home game. The players walked toward the groundskeepers, who got in a line and slapped hands with the players. It was a fitting ending for a strange season at Great American Ball Park.

No one was more grateful for the job the grounds crew did than Joey Votto, who said one opposing player told him earlier in the season, “I hate that group.”

Votto thought, “That’s exactly what we need. We want the opposing team to hate, be annoyed by them. I think they don’t care in the least. They carried us at times when we needed energy, something different. They make noise. They cheer. They talk mess. They’ve been fantastic all year, and we’re going to miss them. Does this ever happen again? I’m not entirely sure. This was very fun. It was really fun.”

The Reds will enter the final series of the season on the road against the Minnesota Twins with the chance to earn the first postseason berth in seven years. From here on out, they will play without the grounds crew and without out fans at all.

In the end, Votto wasn’t sure of what effect having no fans had on the team, which is 16-13 at home and 13-15 on the road.

“A lot of people going into the season asked about the fans,” Votto said. “It’s interesting. When you’re out there competing, of course, the fans are a part of it, but when you’re competing you’re trying to do your very best. I don’t know how much of a difference having the fans made in terms of results. I couldn’t really tell you that, but I can say having the grounds crew in our corner was a distinct advantage for us because no other city had that. There were times deep into the games where I felt, ‘Holy cow, I feel the energy from them.’ It’s been such a treat. We’ve made the very best of this.”

About the Author