Interview by Tal Rosenberg
Photos by Jeffrey Marini
I was born and raised in Chicago—Jefferson Park. I think I was born a Cubs fan due to my mom and dad.
I remember going to the park, my father taking me. I think I was around five years old. Somehow I always missed school on Opening Day.
I played baseball throughout my [life]. I pitched. I played high school and I played one year of college ball, and then I played a little bit of semipro until my shoulder didn’t last as long as I wanted it to. I had some surgery done—a rotator cuff—but it’s all fine now.
I got lucky with a lot of the culture that I had. The parks that we played in when I was a kid, a lot of our responsibility would be when we were done playing, doing the upkeep of the field. We would all stay there a lot of times for 20 minutes, half an hour after the game doing some work. And my dad grew up on a farm. Going out in the field, I learned quite a bit from my father.
Somebody in our neighborhood here worked at Wrigley Field back in ’79. They asked me if I was looking for some work, and they said, “Would you like to come down and work part-time?” And I said, “Absolutely.” And I went down there, and as I was stepping on the field—love at first sight.
I was an everyday groundskeeper on the field in 1979. Roger O’Connor, that was the head groundskeeper before me. He was one of my mentors. When I started I was a young kid. He took me under his wing, and he taught me a tremendous amount. I kept my eyes open and my ears open. He said, “You need to work the field every day. You don’t just look at it from a distance and stand over in one corner all the time. You walk the whole field looking for any little possible problems. You catch them before it turns into a problem.”
“You have to be an artist, more or less, to be a groundskeeper.”
I became the head groundskeeper in 1995 and, unfortunately, it was not the way I would ever want to become a head groundskeeper. Roger got sick and he passed away during the season, and the Cubs asked me to fill in as the head groundskeeper for the remaining part of 1995, and I did but, obviously, with a sad heart.
I had some really good teachers throughout my career, and I’ve gone to a lot of seminars and have done schooling and gotten to know all the other groundskeepers throughout the major leagues. You got to go to turf school. The best thing they have out there right now is called the Sports Turf Managers Association. I emphasize, anybody who wants to get into the industry, that’s definitely a good direction to go.
It’s an art. You have to be an artist, more or less, to be a groundskeeper now with all the new techniques that are out and mowing patterns and all the different types of clays and fertilization. It’s a big team effort.
Times have changed. When I was there in ’95, we had a native field, basically soil. And in 2007 we put a brand-new field in. We went to a sand-based field, underground drainage, new sprinkler system—a state-of-the-art field.
Everybody asks, “Do you cover your whole field when wintertime comes?” Actually, just the reverse. We’re lucky enough that the field becomes pretty much off-limits come wintertime, and we try not to get anybody to walk on the field. Snow cover is actually a very, very good thing for grass. You’d be surprised with snow cover how much greener your grass gets in the spring than when we just have a cold winter with no snow cover—your grass will brown out a lot more.
Everybody wants to know about the ivy. I love the ivy. I just think when it comes in bloom, there’s nothing like it. The ivy is actually maintained on a constant basis. I probably have two guys that are spending anywhere from maybe about 20 hours a week trimming ivy. I’ll get that nice straight edge at the top. Whatever time it takes to keep the ivy as beautiful as we can, we make sure we do that.
Pretty much what happens is come late February me and the fellow groundskeepers we’re going and going and going. My guys, they work a lot of times seven days a week. Even if I should take a day off, I don’t live very far from the park. I need to go see the grass and I need to see the field. It just makes me feel better. My eating habits don’t get so good. I drop easily 15 to 20 pounds during the course of the season.
2003 was an extremely special year. That was probably one of my most favorite times. 2007 I think we had a great team. I say, “You love the Cubs, you love the team every year.” You got to take the good with the bad. Knock on wood, we’re having some good ones now. The good ones are going to come here for a while, I think.
We look for some groundskeepers for specific jobs, somebody maybe who has worked in the midwest that deals with similar weather conditions. That’s a big key because weather, obviously, here in Chicago is a big factor. Three years ago I brought in an assistant groundskeeper. His name is Justin Spillman, and he’s a really, really good guy. This year, I’m actually pushing back a little bit and I’m really trying to let him take charge.
But I hope to hang around for a while. They might have to throw me out. v