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Fickle weather is grounds for busy crew

Would it be October in New England without a strong breeze, a chill in the air, menacing rain clouds skipping across the autumn sky?

The Red Sox and Indians opened the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park last night, and from a weather standpoint, it was everything we expect from October baseball in our town - predictably confounding.

"The forecast," the club proclaimed in a late-afternoon press release, "is of course subject to change as the day progresses."

For Dave Mellor and his grounds crew, that was hardly news. Mellor, the club's chief of flora and fauna as the director of grounds, spent the day leading his charges through a number of tarpaulin changes. A little rain, a little sun, and a first pitch at 7:11 p.m. made for a very busy Mellor, who began monitoring the day's weather once his alarm clock went off at 4:45 a.m. at his home in Norfolk.

"Weather dictates so much of what we do," said the 43-year-old Mellor, who became Fenway's lawn doctor when Joe Mooney handed over the rake just prior to the 2001 season. "We did the tarp, oh, three or four times. It rained and we covered it up. Then the sun came out, and you can't have it covering the grass when the sun's out."

Beyond that bit of quick-change artistry, however, it was ostensibly business as usual tending to the ancient ballpark, now 95 years old with a few million lawn trimmings gone by. Even though it rained a few times, Mellor's crew mowed the lawn, keeping the lush Kentucky bluegrass at its usual 1 1/2-inch length.

"We normally mow it every day, but not always when it rains," said Mellor. "If we weren't playing, we wouldn't mow it. But my feeling is we want the field to play tomorrow the same way it plays today. So we mowed it. And we plan to mow it [today]."

Rain, which was never too heavy in the Back Bay yesterday, no longer causes much of a problem inside Fenway. Long gone are the days when 10 or more tons of kitty litter, dozens of absorbent puddle pillows, and sometimes helicopters were employed to whisk water out of the emerald bandbox.

Following the 2004 World Series, the field was stripped of its 90,000 square feet (a bit over two acres) of lawn, and some 18 million tons of soil were hauled away. Beneath the lawn now sits only a 1-inch blanket of soil, spread over a 9-inch base of sand, all of it supported by a 3-inch sub-base of pea gravel.

Now when it rains, or even when it pours, Fenway's field whisks away nature's perspiration faster than a giant Under Armour sweat shirt. Puddles need not apply.

"Safety and playability are our top priorities," said Mellor, who grew up in Piqua, Ohio, went to Ohio State, and got his big break in the ballpark biz in 1984 when he joined the County Stadium crew that manicured the field for the Milwaukee Brewers. "No doubt we take a lot of pride in aesthetics, but I've always said that I'd rather have a field that doesn't look good, just so long as it plays well."

The Red Sox and Indians were able to take batting practice at their appointed times. Josh Beckett's first pitch went off without a hitch. With that new quick-drain field beneath everyone's feet at Fenway, ominous weather is so much water off a groundskeeper's back.

When Mellor took the job at Fenway, on the recommendation of Mooney, a man he calls his mentor, the new man on the job had to be schooled on the many different ways rain could foul up Fenway. Day No. 1 on the job, the two men sat in the stands, and Mooney told Mellor that heavy rains often flooded the dugouts.

"Not really a problem," said Mellor. "I saw plenty of that at County Stadium."

Heavier rain, Mooney told him, would blow the drain covers off beneath the stands on the third base side, and water would shoot up, geyser-like, from the ground.

Right there, with that bit of Old Faithful imagery, Mooney had the new hire's attention. Gushing water. Something he never saw in Milwaukee.

But wait, Mooney warned, there was more.

"He tells me, 'And when it really, really, really rains, the camera pit over on first base will flood,' " recalled Mellor. "And then he says, 'And fish will swim out on the field.' Hey, I'm new here, right? I didn't challenge him. All I said was, 'OK, Joe, yeah, got that.' "

Fast-forward to Opening Day 2001, with the Yankees in town. It rained and rained, to the point that the tarp cradled 2 1/2 inches of water. Making his appointed rounds, Mellor swung by first base, and there it was, just as Mooney warned - a fish.

"I kid you not . . . I couldn't believe it," said Mellor. "A fish! I looked all around, figuring they had some camera in the stands or something, and I was on 'Candid Camera.' But then I looked over to second base, and there was more. From the camera pit to second base, a total of eight fish. I only wish I had taken a picture. In fact, I should have kept one and had it mounted."

According to Mellor, when contractors ripped out the old field, sure enough, they found a drain line that acted as the conduit that made Fenway the fish-friendliest ballpark in North America.

"Next time I saw Joe," recalled Mellor, noting that Mooney still works at Fenway in various maintenance roles, "I said to him, 'Oh my gosh, Joe, tell me anything and I'll believe you.' "

Kevin Paul Dupont can b reached at dupont@globe.com.

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