Grass-Roots Man on a Plastic Field

Kansas City Royals' groundskeeper George Toma has high visibility in a low-profile job. TITAN OF TURF

WHEN the bright lights go on and the game begins, these professionals fade into the shadows. Unknown to fans, unappreciated, at times, by the stadium owners who employ them: They are the groundskeepers of professional sports - the people who prepare the fields on which the games are played. So when one of their number steps into the limelight, groundskeepers cheer.

Such is the case with George Toma, one of the most well known and controversial groundskeepers in America.

``Groundskeepers are usually the dirt of the organization - they're way down,'' Mr. Toma says. He is sitting in his small, cluttered office behind the outfield of the Kansas City Royals' stadium. ``The owners of a lot of these clubs have a lot of money invested in their players. ...They have the best doctors available. You find today weight rooms look better than hotel lobbies,'' he says. ``And it seems that when it comes down to the playing field, where the game is being played, it stops. Nobody cares....'' about the playing field.''

Well, almost nobody. Toma, the groundskeeper for the Kansas City Royals, says he gets a lot of support from his organization. Although he works for a baseball team, he has gained the most attention from his work in football. The National Football League (NFL) has brought him in to whip fields into shape for all 24 Super Bowls. He has done the Pro Bowl football games, helped out in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and, with his son Chip, formed a company that works on sports fields around the country and as far away as Japan and Taiwan.

``George has probably done more for the industry of groundskeeping than anyone else,'' says Steve Wightman, stadium turf manager for San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium. ``He's kind of elevated it up to a profession.''

In 1982, Sports Illustrated magazine featured Toma in an article, calling him the ``Nitty Gritty Dirt Man.'' He's also been called the ``Sultan of Sod'' and the ``Turf Magician.'' And Toma, who endorses various lawn products, appears to like the heightened visibility.

``George is the type who would go to a stadium wearing a yellow jacket when everyone else was wearing dark green,'' says Steve Cockerham, a turf agronomist at the University of California at Riverside who worked with Toma during the 1984 Olympics. ``It's helping the industry.''

Painting the grass for TV

Perhaps groundskeeping doesn't get the respect it deserves because the mechanics of the job are about as exotic as yard work.

In the case of grass playing fields, it's almost identical: Stadiums use the same grass varieties as homeowners do (Bermuda grass in the South; rye grasses, blue grasses, and fescues in the North). Crews mow - albeit to very exacting standards - and fertilize. (If you only fertilize your lawn once a year, do it in the fall, Toma advises.) The large embankment of grass beyond the Royals' outfield fence (the only other real grass is in the bullpens) is more brown than green during the early part of the baseball season. That wouldn't do for TV. So Toma and his crew use a special grass paint.

Artificial turf is used in the Royals' stadium. And in some ways, it is even more demanding than grass, Toma says. His crew has to sweep the field, vacuum around the base pits to get the dirt out (otherwise, the turf would harden like concrete), and shampoo it to get out tobacco and other stains. If it is raining before a game, as it is on this particular day, the crew covers up the infield and, on occasion, gets out a sweeping machine to take up excess water in the field.

It's the art of this job - the juggling of sports, weather, personnel, and other factors - that separates the merely good from the great groundskeepers, Toma says. ``The most important part of it is the first three letters in the word `management': M-A-N.''

Does all this work really affect the game? Oh yes! Long-cut grass slows down a ground ball and affects a running back in football. If one Super Bowl team is used to artificial turf and the other to a longer-cut grass, the league may instruct Toma to cut the grass at an in-between length for the championship game.

Some groundskeepers carry their responsibility to extremes, though, especially in baseball. Besides adjusting the length of the grass in the infield (long grass also makes bunts harder to field) groundskeepers may subtly grade the area around foul lines so that a ball rolls fair instead of foul - or vice versa. Heavy watering of the base paths may slow down a visiting team with fast runners.

``My hat always used to go off to Gene Bossard up in Chicago. You know, he was pretty good at doctoring the field. I'd say Gene would win 20 games a year sometimes,'' Toma says. The longtime White Sox groundskeeper retired in 1983. But ``that's groundskeeping by deceit, and I never cheated in my 45 years in the game.''

There are legitimate issues, too. Some teams like the dirt in the batters' box packed hard. Toma says Wade Boggs, the Boston Red Sox star, has criticized him for making the box too hard for him to dig his cleats in. Pitchers want their mound a certain way (Toma uses Georgia clay and Jordan clay from Maryland). All of this requires constant interaction with players and coach.

Even in an age of multi-million-dollar contracts to players, groundskeepers average only about $35,000 a year in the professional and major leagues, Toma estimates. In 1946, when he started out of high school as groundskeeper for a minor-league team in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., he earned $50 a month for keeping up the grounds, which also meant cleaning the restrooms and stands and running the scoreboard during games.

Born in the coal-mining town of Edwardsville, Pa., Toma got into groundskeeping because he thought mining was too dangerous. Except for a stint in the Army during the Korean War, he has been a groundskeeper ever since graduating from high school, working the minor leagues for the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers. In 1957, he broke into the major leagues with the Kansas City Athletics. When the A's moved to Oakland, Calif., a decade later, he stayed to work with the Kansas City Chiefs football team. The team soon moved with the Kansas City Royals into a brand-new stadium with artificial turf, which meant that the grass expert had to learn new ways.

His greatest triumph?

Perhaps Toma's greatest triumph came in 1981, when the NFL called him in to help turn around Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The field was in terrible shape, with great big chunks coming loose when football players ran on it. ``We had a team song called `Slip-Sliding Away,''' recalls Barney Barron, the local superintendent of parks.

The field's condition was especially important, as the San Francisco 49ers were to use it for their playoff games. Toma suggested and helped install a short-term solution: putting a brand new layer of sod on top. It held up very well for both playoff games, despite heavy rains and delays. The following season, San Francisco had to tear out the new sod and begin a long-term improvement program.

``What he's respected for is the short-term event,'' Mr. Cockerham says. ``What makes him controversial is that he's very outspoken and opinionated.''

A personality conflict led Toma to resign from the Stadium Turf Managers Association, which he had founded with four others in 1980. Perhaps Toma's most controversial event was the 1989 Super Bowl in Miami, where his field came apart midway through the game. Yet, in an interview afterwards, Toma seemed to lay the blame on another groundskeeper.

``He's undoubtedly brought a great deal of recognition to our profession,'' Mr. Barron says. But ``George has a way of laying the blame on someone else than himself.''

None of this controversy seems to faze Toma, who is busy on other projects, including a mysterious light green patch of grass growing in one of the Royals' bullpens.

``That's a different grass we're fooling around with,'' he says. ``Maybe it could be one of the grasses that could be grown inside of a dome.'' Grow a grass field indoors? ``I think it could be done,'' says the Sultan of Sod. ``And it may be done.''

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