On U.S. Highway 27, just off of Interstate 4 on the route from the west to Orlando, is Haines City, Fla. I first visited Haines City in the early 1960s. The Kansas City Athletics held an early spring training session at the Haines City High School baseball field. From there, we went to our regular spring training site at Connie Mack Stadium in West Palm Beach. That was back in the days when President Kennedy would make many visits to Palm Beach. We had only one field for the A’s. Our minor league teams would train in northwest Florida at cities like Pensacola, Fort Walton Beach and Panama City.
I had to get the fields ready for the minor leagues and would stay at Pensacola Beach. In those days it was barren with only a handful of motels, but they had great seafood in the area, and it’s where I learned to eat raw oysters. I would work on the Pensacola fields and drive to the two other towns to prepare their fields. After getting them in shape, I would go to West Palm Beach for the Kansas City Athletics’ spring training.
Years later, when I returned to Haines City, there was an amusement park there called Circus World. Later, a larger, beautiful amusement park was built called Boardwalk and Baseball. They built six fields, and the KC Royals moved their spring training there from Fort Myers, Fla. It was quite a park. The boardwalk lumber was shipped from Australia. Ewing Kauffman, the owner of the KC Royals, built a beautiful dormitory for the minor league players since baseball was year-round there. Games were played every day from park opening around 9 a.m. to about midnight, when everything closed down. The park had their own team coached by Floyd Perry, who also ran the complete baseball operation with college teams, high school teams, all types of teams playing there. At one time Chris Berman and ESPN did many shows from Boardwalk and Baseball.
If you’ve watched some of Floyd’s presentations on groundskeeping, many of the slides originated at Baseball City. After Boardwalk and Baseball was built, Anheuser-Busch, which also owned SeaWorld, bought the park. They later closed the amusement park, but the baseball part ran for a while. Then the Royals moved spring training to Springdale, Ariz., and everything closed down.
Mike Hurd was the first head groundskeeper at Boardwalk and Baseball. Mike left and ran a few spring training sites for other major league teams. He’s currently a turf equipment salesman, a long way from a high school worker at Circus World.
During the winter months, when things were busy, young people came down from the north to work the four months of spring training. We had great people. After Mike Hurd left, Matt Taylor took over as head groundskeeper. He moved on to Greenville, S.C., and on to the Atlanta Braves’ Double-A club in Mississippi. Ed Mangan took over and, as he always does, did a terrific job. The Royals wanted 13 pitching mounds built in a row. We did it in one day due to the dedicated crew. Eddie moved on. I recommend him for the Atlanta Braves’ job and the NFL. Barney Lopas came down from Appleton, Wis. He’s currently the head groundskeeper for the Anaheim Angels, a top field in the American League. Chad Mulholland came from an Arizona high school to spring training at Baseball City, then on to the Richmond Braves. He’s now assistant groundskeeper with the Philadelphia Phillies. Tom Nielsen came down from Milwaukee. Tom is now the award-winning head groundskeeper for the Triple-A Louisville Bats. Also coming from Milwaukee was Kirt Bakos, now head groundskeeper for the Washington Redskins. Billy Ball was a pitcher on Floyd Perry’s park baseball team. Billy took care of field one just about by himself. Oh, what a beautiful, outstanding field. Billy went on to work for the Carolina Panthers and minor league baseball. Lee Keller came down from Burlington, Vt. Currently, Lee works for the University of Vermont and has his own athletic field maintenance company. Lee has been on the Super Bowl crew for 12 years.
I found one young man in the stands at Baseball City selling Coca-Cola. He had such enthusiasm selling pop, I told our assistant general manager, Jay Hinrich, I was going to talk to him. When I learned he was from Salem, Mass., I asked why he was in Florida. He told me he was out of school and came down on spring break with friends, but ran out of money so had to make some. I asked if he liked baseball and learned he loved it and had played it. When I asked if he wanted a job on my grounds crew, he said yes. So, we hired Billy Butler on the spot for the crew at Baseball City. Later, we sent him to George Brett’s baseball team in Spokane, Wash., and then brought him to Kansas City in 1995 when we went to natural grass. Billy moved along doing an excellent job with various clubs. Currently he’s the head groundskeeper in Lehigh Valley, Pa. Today, the former Baseball City site is a large shopping center.
I’ve never had anyone work for me, we’ve always worked together as a team. I sincerely enjoyed working with these young men. I am extremely proud of all these great groundskeepers.
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 67 years in the profession.