It is dawn on game day. The first fingers of morning light stretch across the October sky, casting coral and violet hues, and Greg Self is already at Noble's employee softball field directing the finishing touches on a six-month personal quest to better a small piece of Noble's campus.
Self discusses the proper position of the first base line with his volunteer grounds crew. "It should go down the center of the two bags," he says, pointing at the first base and the new orange safety base he helped install – one of countless upgrades. When the teams take the field in a few hours for the annual company softball tournament, they will discover a very different playing surface than the year before. As it turns out, creating a field of dreams takes a lot of work.
By day, Self is a desktop systems specialist in the computing services department, troubleshooting error messages and quashing computer bugs for Noble's 400 employees. Nearly every evening since mid-March, he has crossed Sam Noble Parkway to North Campus to resume his semi-secret project – fixing the softball field.
When the softball tournament began six years ago, a team of employees managed to turn the long-abandoned field into something playable. Still, the stone-littered infield was more suited for mining than softball; but no one seemed to care, and countless memories have been made ever since.
Last year, while practicing with Noble's intramural softball team, Self watched as a routine ground ball hit an infield washout, ricocheted off a rock and knocked a player silly. "It sparked something," he says. "We needed to make this place safe and nice."
Self reached out to Josh Anderson, a research associate in the small grains breeding lab, who had worked on the grounds crew for the Boston Red Sox. Anderson became Self's Yoda, providing expertise and a plan, while Self invested the sweat equity.
Terry Martin, landscape services manager, and Rodney Pierce, equipment supervisor, fueled the project by providing Self access to needed equipment – a tractor, a tiller and an ATV.
Self arrived on his first work night and decided to start with a small but long-held irritant – a softball-sized rock near second base that he had stared at for two years. Today would be its reckoning.
Hand-digging revealed the rock actually was the visible curve of a small boulder. Several hours of shoveling later, Self heaved a stone the size of a Labrador Retriever into the bed of his truck. "OK, this is going to be fun," he remembers thinking.
Self returned to the field four nights a week for the next several months. He tilled, watered and cleaned. The ground was so hard-packed he built his own drag out of two-by-four lumber and 60-penny nails to aerate. "We had to break it loose," he explains. The more he loosened the soil, the more trash he unearthed.
Glass, pottery, nails, railroad spikes and rocks (lots and lots of rocks) sprang from the ground. For every rock he picked up, the field seemed to push two more to the surface. He even discovered an old sprinkler system, the heads of which, with the approval of Martin, he removed by hand.
He quit counting how many hours he had invested at 250. It didn't matter anyway. He was in for the long haul. "It's one of those things," he says. "We work at Noble, and we want to do the best possible job whether it's in the lab, helping a farmer or out here. We don't scratch the surface and say, 'That's good enough.'"
Soon signs of life reappeared. The soil went from looking bland and lifeless to a milk chocolate brown. The infield grass recovered, allowing him to cut a perfect arc from first to third base. With only weeks until the tournament, fellow employees Caleb Knight and Samantha Ephgrave joined Self for the final push. They continued dragging, leveling and cleaning right up until two days before the first pitch. Then Mother Nature decided not to cooperate. She dumped several inches of rain on the field, leaving it spongy. "When she's dry, she's a field of dreams," he said on tournament day, looking up at the morning sun. "She'll dry up by afternoon."
Indeed it did, and Self's half year of work was rewarded. Each game was played without incident – no balls careening off of rocks, no injuries due to field obstructions.
As for Self, his team lost in the opening round. He spent less than 30 minutes enjoying his handiwork firsthand. It didn't matter, though, he was satisfied. "Be noble is one of our core values," he says. "It's on our employee badges. We have to live up to that every day and in everything we do."