Since the 2017 season, perhaps no one in the Lexington Legends organization has spent more hours on the baseball diamond at Whitaker Bank Ballpark than Jonny Youngblood.
He’s on the field long before any game or practice, and he even comes in on days when the Legends are on the road.
Youngblood is not a Legends player, but he very well could have been. He could have been playing against them, too. He isn’t on the coaching staff and he’s not in the team’s front office, either.
Youngblood was chosen in the Major League Baseball Draft twice before he was 20 years old, but he never played a game beyond the collegiate level. He said he’s not upset about it.
Youngblood, 25, is the head groundskeeper for the Legends. It’s a profession he’s had his eyes on since his junior season as an outfielder for Lafayette High School.
“It doesn’t always work out how you want it, but it honestly worked out great,” Youngblood said. “I got a great degree from a great school and moved back home. A month later I got a job here.”
So how did a former two-time MLB Draft pick find himself only able to get on the field when hardly anyone else is even inside the ballpark?
According to Youngblood, his path from major league draft pick to minor league groundskeeper isn’t all that convoluted.
A four-year letter winner and two-time all-state and all-city selection at Lafayette, Youngblood said he didn’t start to think about life after baseball until he was a junior in high school. It was also around that time that he started paying closer attention to what went into maintaining the surface he’d played the game he loved on for so long.
“I think I found my passion for groundskeeping during my junior year of high school when we had to take care of the field day in and day out and make it look nice for the games,” he said. “I really did find satisfaction in that.”
As Youngblood’s curiosity grew beyond the basics of irrigation and mowing, his father mentioned that turf management could be a potential career path for his son.
“I knew people did it as a career but I figured they just fell into it,” Youngblood said. “There are more and more fields and parks popping up every day so it’s definitely becoming more common.”
Banking on himself
Not long after grass, artificial turf and dirt piqued his interest, a more traditional job opportunity for a young baseball player arose for Youngblood.
Following his senior season at Lafayette, Youngblood was selected in the 30th round of the 2011 MLB Draft by the Atlanta Braves. Instead of joining the Braves farm system that summer, Youngblood opted to remain an amateur in hopes of progressing in college and improving his draft stock.
Still, Youngblood thought he had more to prove and returned to Meridian.
“I either would have flourished or flopped big-time,” he said. “I thought it would be better for me to bank on myself and my development with college.”
After collecting 99 hits in 99 games and batting .288 in the junior-college ranks, Youngblood accepted a chance to move up. He received a scholarship to play at the University of Tennessee.
While the opportunity to play closer to home in a Power Five conference made Tennessee an easy choice, so too did the option to major in turfgrass science and management.
“It was a big learning curve,” said Youngblood, who had only taken basic botany and science classes at Meridian. “I talked to the groundskeepers at UT every day.”
What does a normal class load for a turfgrass management student look like?
“A lot of chemistry, a lot of biology,” he said. “It’s fairly basic biology and the only chemistry that comes into it is understanding chemicals and how they react with the plant itself or the soil. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, so if I can do it anyone can.”
Youngblood would appear in 35 games for the Volunteers during his two years in Knoxville, totaling five RBI and 11 runs as a center fielder. His name was never called in another MLB Draft, but he still managed to find his way into a major league organization.
After graduating from Tennessee in 2015, Youngblood spent a summer interning on the grounds crew at one of baseball’s most famous venues: Fenway Park.
“Being from Kentucky, I never thought that would be something I could do,” he said. “A lot of the guys up there from Boston would give all the interns some crap because we’d walk in every day and say, ‘Oh man, this is it.’”
Is he too young?
Two years later, Legends executive vice president and general manager Gary Durbin was tasked with finding a new groundskeeper. It didn’t take him long to narrow his search.
Durbin, whose son grew up playing baseball with Youngblood, saw a familiar name on a resume sent to him by the Legends’ field maintenance contract service.
“They called me and said they had two candidates,” Durbin said in an email. “When they sent me the resumes I saw Jonny’s, so I told them he was the guy I wanted.”
Durbin hired Youngblood as the head groundskeeper ahead of the 2017 season, and said that his youth and overall feel for the game are important parallels for his role in the organization.
“It’s awesome,” Durbin said. “He knows the game and knows how the field is supposed to play. Most players don’t respect the field when they are playing so he has really adjusted quickly to moving from a player to a head groundskeeper.”
The majority of day-to-day maintenance and on-field responsibilities fall on Youngblood, who has just one seasonal assistant to help.
“Day to day, it’s a grind but it’s something I love,” he said as sprinklers showered the infield dirt behind him on a hot July day. “I love being around the game, being around the guys and talking baseball.”
While it isn’t rare to be young, Durbin said most groundskeepers start out as assistants after college, but, “if you are good you move up quickly.”
“Jonny relates well to the players,” Durbin said. “Since he’s young and played the game himself, he can relate well to them and communicate the conditions of the playing field and what needs to be addressed to make the field the best for everyone.”
Youngblood said his goal is to stay in baseball, and his dream job varies daily. He used to look at major league fields and dream about playing on them one day. Now he admires what they look like and how they feel.
“I think about whether or not I could be playing right now, but I also think about the people I’ve met in my degree, where I’d be if I went and played in the pros and would’ve had a one-year college experience,” he said. “If I had to go back and do it again I’m not sure if I would change anything.”