Persistence and the pursuit of perfection shape a future industry leader

Even before heading to college Thomas Goyne has gained a wealth of field care knowledge.
Photo by Mark Moran.

Every so often, Sports Illustrated comes out with its “Where Will They Be?” issue, which profiles rising young stars who the magazine predicts are destined for big things. We’d like to expand on that premise to profile someone who, while not a competitive athlete, seems just as likely to make his mark in the world of sports. Meet Thomas Goyne. Goyne has just begun his freshman year of college, but he’s already pushed himself to gain a wealth of experience that he hopes will pay off in a career in sports field management.

Goyne, from Mountain Top, Pa., was just a child when he first developed his love of sports field maintenance. “All through Little League, my dad helped prep the field before the games for us. It got to the point where I would go out at night and help work on the field with him,” Goyne recalls. “He was really good at it and it just always seemed like we did a nice job.” Whenever he saw or played on a baseball field, Goyne’s thoughts turned to how he might be able to perfect it.

Getting his feet wet

When he was 13 and in eighth grade, Goyne’s parents placed a bid in a Philadelphia Phillies charity auction for a chance to be groundskeeper for a day. “My entire family chipped in on it, and I got an opportunity to be a groundskeeper for a day with the Phillies grounds crew and their head groundskeeper, Mike Boekholder,” he explains.

While the average person might have been thrilled just to be down on the field before the game, Goyne saw this as a great chance to really learn. “Mike was nice enough to say that, instead of just watering the field or changing a base before the game, I could come down and stay with them even before and after the game,” he recalls. “That’s when I realized what a career it was and that this is really for me. This is what I want to do.”

It was Goyne’s first time seeing a field maintained at a high level. “It was such a large crew putting in so much effort into a single sports field,” he marvels. Goyne credits Boekholder not simply for giving him a chance to be a part of the grounds crew for that day, but for taking the time to see that the youngster had an actual interest in and passion for the work. “I became friends with him and we kept in contact. He would always help me out and answer any questions I had. He invited me back about a year later and I had another chance to work on the field for a game again,” Goyne says. “I just can’t explain all the ways that Mike has helped me.”

Goyne returned once more one November to see the Phillies’ field regraded and resodded, giving him an opportunity to get a look beyond maintenance and see how top- level sports fields are actually constructed.

His next learning opportunity came when he got a chance to work (from about age 14 to 17) under Bill Butler, then groundskeeper for the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs (AAA affiliate of the Phillies). That experience included helping to prepare the field to host the AAA All-Star game.

All of the knowledge he gained helped Goyne earn the role of groundskeeper at his local American Legion baseball field while he was still in high school. “They knew that I was interested in it, and they saw me working on the field when I was playing on the team, so they asked me to take care of it and renovate it,” he explains. Butler helped Goyne develop a plan to aerify, overseed and topdress the diamond. “That’s the first time any of that had ever been done to the field,” Goyne notes, adding that it was also his first time conducting this type of maintenance versus game day prep. “It was really the first time I could see how valuable these cultural practices are. Those are the important things.”

Goyne traveled to Kansas City to work on the Royals’ field with head groundskeeper Trevor Vance.
Photos courtesy of Thomas Goyne, unless otherwise noted.

Making it to the big leagues

Around the same time, Goyne developed another valuable friendship, with legendary groundskeeper George Toma. “He’s originally from the same area I am. There was an article about me in the newspaper and my mom sent it to his wife. George wrote me a letter, and from that we exchanged a few more letters. Then I got to go down and meet him at the Minnesota Twins’ spring training [in Fort Myers, Fla.] and spend the day working with him on the fields that they take care of down there,” Goyne says.

Toma also arranged for Goyne to travel to Kansas City to work on the Royals’ field with head groundskeeper Trevor Vance. “I got to go out there for three days and work for the Royals and learn how they do things there. Every place you go, somebody does something a little different,” he says of the experiences he has accumulated.

Goyne says that, while the budgets are very different, he has found ways to take the practices he has learned on professional sports fields and implement them on the high school baseball field that he cares for. “Our field always had poor drainage. I saw that at all of the professional fields they use infield conditioner, a calcined clay product. So I brought that idea back to my field, worked that into the infield skin material and topdressed with it. That’s something that can make a world of difference on any field,” he cites as one example. He has also tried to adopt some of the behind-the-scenes maintenance practices he has seen, especially the edging of lips and moisture management on the infield.

Most recently, Goyne worked at Blue Ridge Trail, a 27-hole golf course in his local area. That experience has given him valuable experience with turfgrass (including hand- watering bentgrass greens in the heat of summer), and he will expand on that education at one of the nation’s top turf colleges. Goyne graduated from high school this past May and recently entered Penn State with plans to major in turfgrass science.

A future in field care

He looks forward to the education that awaits him in the classroom and the science lab. “Today, a degree is really required to get a top level job. That education is necessary because it backs up and supports everything you’re going to do,” he notes. “You really need to know the latest research and what the current practices are.”

As a high school student, Thomas Goyne had an opportunity to travel to the Minnesota Twins’ spring training facility to work under legendary Groundskeeper George Toma.

At the same time, Goyne is also determined to continue his practical education. “I looked at other schools, and what made Penn State stand out for me is that they were the one school that provided an opportunity to get on a grounds crew and manage their sports surfaces,” he explains. “I think that’s the best way to learn: to get out there and do it.”

With that in mind, Goyne took it upon himself – months before his first class started – to apply for a job on the staff that maintains the renowned Beaver Stadium football field and other fields and grounds on campus. He expects to work about 20 hours per week in the mornings, so has scheduled his classes for the afternoon.

Along with the maintenance, Goyne is looking forward to seeing fields prepared before and after seasons begin and end, as well as renovation projects. His new boss, Penn State Head Groundskeeper Herb Combs, told Goyne something during the interview process that made an immediate impact. “He said, ‘I don’t believe things around here should be nice because we had to do it twice. We do things once and we do them the best we can,'” he recalls.

Goyne shares that philosophy: “You want to be perfect. And if you’re not going to do something right, you might as well not even do it at all.”

While Goyne will gain experience in managing all types of sports fields while at Penn State, his true passion remains on the diamond. “I’ve played baseball my whole life, and that’s really what’s fueled it,” he explains. He also feels baseball is the perfect fit for someone who wants to perfect a natural field: “You’ve seen football lean toward artificial turf, and baseball went to artificial turf but has come back. I think we’ll see baseball stay with a natural surface.”

Goyne perfects an infield.
Photo by Mark Moran.

Finally, he likes the challenge that baseball field maintenance presents with its many different surfaces and materials, from the warning track to the mound. “Everyone sees all the green grass, but not many people realize there are only three players who stand on it the entire game. Seventy percent of the game is played on the skin surface, which requires so much care and attention that I don’t think the average person pays attention to,” states Goyne.

Nobody knows where his career in sports field management will eventually take him, but even at a young age Goyne has demonstrated two traits necessary when building any career: The persistence to seek out opportunities and the desire to learn from others with more experience.

He’s undoubtedly a go-getter who has searched out opportunities rather than sitting back. “It’s been instrumental to reach out to guys and keep in contact with them and ask them questions,” states Goyne. “I would not have been able to go where I’ve gone and experience what I’ve experienced if it wasn’t for them. I think most guys in the profession want to see younger guys get interested in it, because most younger people today aren’t interested in working outdoors.”

Which brings up another critical trait necessary to advance in any career, and especially in sports field management: Hard work. While helping out with high-profile fields has been invaluable, working tirelessly behind the scenes on fields and golf courses in his local area is perhaps where Goyne has proven to himself that this is the life for him. “I think you want to get a good, hard taste of your profession before you get into it. If you’re not ready to put the time in, don’t do it,” he advises.

Goyne says that one of Toma’s oft-cited quotes is from Vince Lombardi: You have to have the will to prepare to win. “And that holds very true with sports fields,” says Goyne. “I’m excited to enter the turfgrass profession. I’m excited to see how well I can do. I’m excited to learn.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.