Back 40 to 50 years ago we were pioneers. Now we have everything, and the best of it, and still, at times we struggle and cannot give the players a good, safe field. We need to do our homework. I recently watched a story on HBO about the start of the American Football League by Lamar Hunt and the other owners. I knew these people. They had a vision and they followed through with it. That helped make the NFL what it is today. Lamar Hunt of the Chiefs and Tex Schramm of the Cowboys were two men who always wanted excellent playing fields.
On July 26, I had a great thrill again to see one of our up-and-coming young groundskeepers who came to Kansas City to spend three days with Trevor Vance, head groundskeeper for the Kansas City Royals. This young man, 14 years old, is from my home area Wilkes-Barre, Pa. This young man’s name is Thomas Goyne, and he is already an outstanding groundskeeper. Tommy started at the young age of 12, the same age I was when I started out. Tommy is maintaining Little League fields plus the Crestwood High School and Mountain Post American Legion fields. He even made his own nail drags. This past spring, he also spent time with me at the Minnesota Twins’ spring training in Fort Myers, Fla. His groundskeeping dream began two years ago when his parents put in the winning bid at a Phillies’ auction for him to spend a day as a groundskeeper with two outstanding groundskeepers, Mike Boekholder and Chad Mulholland at the Philadelphia Phillies Citizens Bank Park. He’s since had many return visits.
I visited Tommy at Royals Stadium. Talking with Trevor Vance, an excellent groundskeeper and teacher, he was amazed by Tommy’s knowledge and work ethic at age 14. Trevor told me if Tommy wants to spend the summer working on his grounds crew when he reaches 16 years old, he definitely has a job.
We all must do the best we can even if the people above us don’t care. I was talking with a major league groundskeeper about a conversation he had with a general manager of a baseball club. I was sorry to hear about that GM’s attitude. He stated that he couldn’t care less about how a playing field looked, just so they could play on it. This is so sad to hear.
I have worked with some GMs with the same attitude. I always remember Eddie Mangan, head groundskeeper for the Atlanta Braves, saying, “Do the job. If the people above you don’t care what the playing field looks like or plays like, don’t get into their mentality. Do the job for the players and the fans, but most of all do it for yourself.” That’s the right attitude.
A great playing field can be a deciding factor for a player. Years ago, outfielder Torii Hunter told me he thought the field at the Angel Stadium of Anaheim was the best in baseball, and he repeated that many of the times that we talked. In an interview with USA Today, Torii said, “I love the ballpark. That’s definitely one of the reasons why I chose the Angels, the scenery, the sun, the grass … The grass is perfect. Every time I went there to play (as a Minnesota Twin), the ball never snaked. It’s a true bounce.”
It was great to see the field get that kind of recognition. It would have been even better if they had mentioned Barney Lopas, the head groundskeeper, and his grounds crew.
A couple weeks ago, I spent three days in Kansas City at the old Kansas City Athletics’ reunion. You all know how many stories go around at a reunion. I was talking with Skip Lockwood, a relief pitcher who was with the A’s and was traded to the New York Mets and then to the Boston Red Sox. His first day at Fenway Park, he left the dugout before the game started to go sit in the Red Sox bullpen. While he was walking out there, he took a few steps on the infield dirt. Joe Mooney, the head groundskeeper, yelled, “Rookie, keep off my infield dirt!” After the game, Skip went to his car and found four flat tires with a note on the windshield that read “Rookie, keep off my infield dirt.” There are many Joe Mooney stories, for Joe ruled Fenway Park with an iron hand. It was Tom Yawkey, the owner, and Joe Mooney, with no levels in between. Even though Joe was going to retire, he couldn’t stay away, and is still at Fenway Park with David Mellor, now the head groundskeeper.
I could tell many stories. One goes back to Emil Bossard, the greatest groundskeeper that ever lived. I worked with Emil for spring training. The story goes that Notre Dame played a football game on his field and, knowing Emil, he ruled the roost. He had rules. Notre Dame did not follow one of the rules and kept running underneath the goal post, so Emil had his crew put the canvas on the field.
Emil and Joe were tough. They would do anything for you, but you had to go by the rules. We need more groundskeepers like Joe Mooney and Emil Bossard and Eddie Mangan to help control our playing fields.
George Toma is an NFL Hall of Fame inductee, one of the founders of the Sports Turf Managers Association and mentor to hundreds of sports field managers over his 68 years in the profession.