I can’t figure out how to get into the stadium.
Not a good start — a terrible one, in fact.
It’s Wednesday, May 6, and I’m in Los Angeles, standing outside Gate C at Dodger Stadium. It’s 7:25 a.m., but it’s supposed to be 7.
And I’m supposed to be at Gate A.
My interview subject is Chaz Perea, landscape manager for Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers and the first full-time arborist to be employed by a major league team. On this beautiful Southern California morning, Perea is waiting inside the stadium (patiently, I’m hoping) for me so I can interview him and tour this gorgeous, breathtaking, 365-acre slice of baseball — and American — heaven.
I get out my iPhone and give Perea a call. I tell him, “I’m at Gate C, I’m still looking for Gate A. I’ll be there soon.” He responds, “If you’re at Gate C, look at the map on the gate. Follow the directions to Gate A. See you soon!”
This map he mentioned… I stare at and study it like I’m an art dealer looking for the slightest, smallest imperfection on a painting. I’m trying to figure out the confusing, winding, curving roads that surround this gigantic complex and determine how to get to Gate A (in my mind at that moment, Gate A stands for Gate A-gitated, as I’m starting to get impatient and am feeling very stupid). At last, after spending what feels like eternity staring at the map, I figure out how to get to Gate A.
I get back into my car, follow the correct route — feeling foolish, as it was quite simple, but I’m terrible with directions — and a few minutes later I’m driving up to that ever-elusive Gate A. I’ve made it, and, once inside the stadium, I can finally begin my interview with Perea. He proceeds to take me on a lengthy tour of the Dodger Stadium grounds, explaining how he cares for all of the trees and plants, the history of these trees and plants and what it’s like for a 29-year-old former golf course grounds crew worker to be in charge of the landscape for one of the more recognizable sports venues in the country.
Once we get started, that terrible start earlier in the morning is now a distant memory.
A little background and the arborist at work
Dodger Stadium is quite a sight, to say the least. Built in the Los Angeles community of Chavez Ravine, the stadium overlooks downtown Los Angeles and provides spectacular views of the city to the south, the green, tree-lined hills of Elysian Park to the north and east, and the San Gabriel Mountains beyond the outfield pavilions. Thousands of decorative plants and trees grow outside the stadium’s gates, massive parking lots and all around the complex essentially as far as the eye can see.
One man (and his staff) manages every single one of these plants and trees — International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist Chaz Perea.
The Arizona native has worked for the Dodgers since 2009. He graduated from the horticultural studies program at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California, where he teaches courses in integrated pest management and horticulture science, and is working online on a master’s in crop science from the University of Illinois. Before joining the Dodgers organization, Perea worked at a country club/golf course in California.
The change of scenery is something for which Perea is grateful, to say the least.
“I have the run of things out here as far as having the power to choose what gets planted and what gets removed,” he says. “This is such a big, notable property… It’s great. I didn’t have this job, necessarily, as a dream job in mind. I knew I just liked working with plants, and I knew I wanted to work with my hands and be outdoors. This is an incredibly unique setting; it’s really, really fun.”
Perea’s staff at Dodger Stadium hovers around 10 employees. They are responsible for all the trees, plants and landscapes (some hardscapes as well) in and around the campus.
On days when the Dodgers play at home, Perea and the staff arrive to work at 5 a.m., and their primary task is to do any cleanup and/or repair to landscapes, as needed. When the Dodgers are on the road, the staff does more repair as well as pruning, irrigating and any other task needed to keep the trees and plants healthy and looking good. “[Days when the Dodgers aren’t playing at home] are much more productive days for my crew,” Perea says. “We can get the boom lift out and really do some intensive work.”
The 365-acre stadium campus includes 200-plus species of plant life. “I was familiar with about 75 percent of them before I came here, from either working on golf courses or from my own experiences,” Perea explains.
Even with such familiarity, he says, he needed a significant adjustment period to work in such a gigantic place.
“I spent six months here before I felt comfortable finding all of the nooks and crannies,” Perea recalls.
From the outside first
Our tour consists mainly of Perea driving me around the campus and surrounding areas, pointing out things of note as we go.
The scope of what Perea and his staff do is staggering. Not only do the plants and trees inside the grounds have to be taken care of, but also the hundreds of plants and trees found on slopes and hills all around the stadium – a result of the unique landscape that surrounds the campus. This is the most challenging aspect of Perea’s job.
“This whole place is so unique, the tiered effect, the way everything is structured,” Perea marvels, pointing to the slopes as we zip around in a golf cart. “What a concept, right? A guy came and looked at this massive chunk of land and thought, ‘Let’s tear it out and build a baseball stadium.’ Crazy!”
The sloped areas have received no supplemental irrigation in 30 years, Perea says. “The slopes are a huge challenge. There’s lots of babying involved on these slopes; there are lots more legs involved. If you can’t haul 50 pounds up these slopes, on a steep grade, day in and day out, you’re pretty worthless out here. You won’t last.”
Another interesting part of the outskirts of the campus is the fact that some of the trees (mostly palms, in this case) in Perea’s care grow over into the yards of homes that are shockingly close to the stadium grounds – another unique aspect of Dodger Stadium. This area is called Solano Canyon, a close-knit, village-like community completely surrounded by Elysian Park, which borders the outskirts of the stadium. When it comes time to prune one of these trees, or remove one, Perea has to knock on doors and explain to the homeowner what he needs to do and why. Part of our tour is driving through these winding, curving, unique and beautiful canyon roads. Perea speaks highly of the people who live here. “We have such a great relationship with this community,” he says.
Time for a tree ID class
Back on the stadium grounds, Perea is pointing out the highlights of the Dodger Stadium landscape.
There is so much to see and look at, I find it difficult to keep up from my passenger seat of the golf cart as I’m listening to Perea, asking questions and taking pictures. While doing all of this simultaneously, I was thinking, “I should have brought my assistant.”
More accurately, I was thinking: “I need to get an assistant.”
“We have a lot of California staples on these grounds,” Perea tells me early in our tour. One of these California staples is the Washingtonia robusta, more commonly known as the Mexican Fan palm, a tree that is synonymous with Los Angeles and California. There are more than 500 of these in and around Dodger Stadium. Perea says they are pruned three times (pre-baseball season, during the season and postseason) in a good year, with manual hand saws that have a 9-inch, curved blade. (To reduce gas and oil usage, and keep carbon exhaust emissions to a minimum, Perea’s team uses chain saws as little as possible, opting for the manual saw for pruning where possible.) These palms have been at the stadium since the beginning, in 1962, and a lot of them have sprouted up from seeds over time, Perea explains. These are also drought-tolerant trees, which is ideal, considering the historic drought conditions through which California is suffering.
Another palm tree commonly found here is the Canary Island date palm, which is easily identifiable by its massive canopy and also is one of the more expensive palms you can buy, on a per-foot basis, according to Perea.
Other trees we encounter include various pine, eucalyptus, evergreen pear, Brazilian pepper, olive, Shamel ash, various citrus and avocado, Chinese elm, California bay (umbrella trees) and giant birds-of-paradise.
There also is a wide variety of agave species on the campus, as we see throughout the morning. Perea has been planting them all around for the past few years. “They’re great in terms of reducing water and fertilizer,” he says.
As we make our way around, we stop at certain examples of all these trees, and Perea describes why he planted them (or why he’s removing them), what pests they’re dealing with and why they are (or aren’t) a positive addition to the campus.
Each species planted here has a story — a past, a present and a future.
For example, the evergreen pear trees require significant corrective pruning, Perea points out, to get them to look “functional.” After corrective pruning, the trees’ canopies are twice as big and the flowers twice as plentiful.
Another interesting thing seen all around the campus is what Perea calls the “champagne bowls.” They are concrete structures, shaped like a champagne glass, that hold various plant species. There are 149 across campus, and they were installed in 1963. When the bowls become damaged – for example, if the concrete cracks – it’s up to Perea and his staff to fix them. We stopped at one in particular that, in the center, held “agave attenauta and a dark-purple Aeonium atropurpureum with Sedum rubrotinctum (sometimes called “pork and beans”) at the bottom,” Perea describes. As we move along, seeing these “champagne bowls” every few minutes, I find myself marveling at them, as they’re just another example of how wonderfully uncommon and charming this setting truly is.
Talking about pests
The Shamel ash trees presented Perea with a pest he’d never dealt with up to that point — leafcurl ash aphid. “These ash trees hadn’t been pruned in about 15 years,” Perea says, as he gets out of the golf cart and points one out to me. “When our guys were doing some work out here, we found a lot of the leaves were curled up on these trees, and they had a ton of honeydew on them. Because of the amount of new, vigorous growth these were experiencing, we ended up with the leafcurl ash aphid. I was shocked just how badly it dinged up these trees. The battle to fight it off took years.”
Staggered around the Dodger Stadium campus are four species of avocado and 12 species of citrus trees. Both the various citrus and avocado trees on campus have had their dealings with pests, as Perea details to me as we stop to look at some examples. “The Asian citrus psyllid was found not too far away in some surrounding residential neighborhoods,” he says. “This psyllid introduces a virus that puts these trees out of business. There’s no treatment; you just cut and remove.”
Regarding the avocado trees, Perea talks about the polyphagous shot hole borer that wreaks havoc with these species. “These borers are found throughout Southern California,” Perea explains. “They’re bizarre pests that usually have a narrow host range. They look exactly like a bark beetle, from top to bottom, but very small differences can be seen under a microscope. They bore into the tree just like the bark beetle, except they go further, carrying fungi in their mouthparts that inoculate the tree’s entire vascular system. The new generation feeds on those fungi. It’s a pretty vicious cycle, and this is a very aggressive pest.”
Two more pests Perea is battling are the eucalyptus longhorn bore and the bark beetle. “There’s always something going on here,” Perea says, clearly exasperated with the mere thought of these annoying and destructive pests.
Despite pest problems, and despite that fact that Perea’s specialty is ornamentals and not fruit trees, both citrus varieties and avocado trees are here to stay at Dodger Stadium. “This is California!” Perea exclaims as to why he keeps them around. “Citrus and avocado are iconic,” he adds. “Look, I’m going to give it a whirl. This forces me to treat these completely organically and safe, and to treat them as though we are eating off of the land…just like Dodger fans and our community would like to see things treated.”
What to plant and other factors
One of the recurring themes of our interview is the topic of planting and selection. When Perea took this job, he spent much of his time figuring out which plants and trees he wanted to remove from the landscape for one reason or another. Conversely, he also had to decide what to plant, which required extensive knowledge of each species and the growing climate on the stadium campus.
Planning, and prioritizing what to plant and when, is something that still occupies a considerable amount of Perea’s time and is an essential part of being the Dodgers’ landscape manager. And this process, like most others, involves trial and error.
“All of these different trees have their own growth habits, and some require you to be more aggressive than others,” Perea says of the selection process. “Some you have to let play out a little longer.
“The main factor when going though the process is ‘How much water does a plant use?'” Perea further explains. “Considering the drought out here, we’re pretty stingy about that. I’ll turn irrigation off in October and won’t turn it back on until May. A lot of plants do suffer from not having supplemental irrigation to go along with a few small rains we get during that time. The thing is, I’m not looking to keep plants and trees around that can’t handle drought conditions. This drought isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. We’re going to be on reclaimed water sooner or later, which is something we’ll have to work with.”
This drought — which encompasses 98 percent of California — is something that also comes up often during the interview, and rightfully so. Before the drought, stadium workers never had to soak trees and plants surrounding the ballpark and its sprawling parking lots. “These areas haven’t had any supplemental irrigation since somewhere in the ’80s,” Perea says.
Regarding water-saving measures, Dodger Stadium — the largest and third oldest in Major League Baseball — now features a water-saving irrigation system that measures underground moisture levels, and some ground covers have been replaced with mulch.
Also, to save the acacia, eucalyptus, sumac and walnut trees, Perea is trying an experimental device created by Santa Monica startup Skywell. The device, in Perea’s workshop/nursery area, pulls moisture out of the air and cools it to produce water droplets. During humid periods, the machine works by condensation, cooling atmospheric water below its dew point. It generates 100 gallons of water in a few days — enough to keep many trees on life support during the drought without bringing up the stadium’s overall usage of imported water. “We feel it’s important to experiment with new technology,” Perea tells me as we look at the machine, which looks like it’s from the future, like maybe something you’d see on “Star Trek.”
The nursery is another area included in Perea’s kingdom. He uses the area — which also is home to the workshop and storage bays — to grow new plants and experiment on diverse species to see how they react to treatments for various maladies. Overall, it’s an impressive, well-organized area that’s vital to Perea’s operation. As I look around, I can’t help but think it feels like the laboratory of a scientist… with chain saws, safety gear, a boom lift and piles of soil and dirt thrown in.
OK, so, on second thought, not really like a scientist’s laboratory at all.
View from the top
Perhaps my favorite part of the tour comes from the highest point — the area known as “Top Deck” at Dodger Stadium, which is a pavilion literally at its top, where you can look down on everything. We arrive here and are afforded a spectacular, breathtaking view of not only the stadium, but the canyons, mountains and — more importantly, for this article — the campus’ trees and plants in all of their natural beauty and glory.
This is where Perea and I are able to discuss his job in a grander sense; in other words, talk about more than just scientific tree names, borers and pruning schedules.
“This is THE view… TV doesn’t do this justice, right?” he says to me, gesturing to his surroundings as I try to take it all in.
Looking at him, I get the feeling that, even though he’s been up here countless times, the view is still enjoyable for him.
We spend our time up here talking about the differences between what Perea’s job was like at first, as compared with now. He makes it clear that he’s come a long way, for the better.
“I felt like an out-of-towner every day,” Perea says, thinking to back to when he first started here in 2009. “And it was probably about a year and a half or two years before I could come up with a proper mental inventory of what’s here and communicate that to the staff, comfortably. At first, it was all about repairing, as opposed to planting. I did a whole lot of corrective pruning and whole lot of, ‘This has no business here, it’s got to go.’ That process took years, and it’s still going on.
“The first three years were very different [from] how it is here now,” he says with a smile and a wry shake of his head.
Perea comes across as someone who is confident in his job and his craft, but also as one constantly seeking to learn more about his profession and how he can improve — characteristics that serve Major League Baseball’s first full-time arborist very well.
“Every day I come to work, I think, ‘this place is really special.'” Perea tells me.
Good thing I found Gate A.