In October, the playing surface at PNC Field was redone. A typical grass field for a Minor League team usually lasts around five years, give or take a few due to special events, usage or wear and tear. This process began in 2021 and ultimately was done immediately following the 2022 season.
Turf Specialists Inc. handled the installation, with supervision from Steve Horne, the RailRiders groundskeeper. Steve had a keen eye helping him facilitate and oversee the project. Roger Bossard, head groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field, was on hand throughout the process.
Bossard grew up on the grass and is a third-generation groundskeeper.
This is truly the family business. How interested were you in following the footsteps of those before you?
Roger Bossard: You have to know that it's my grandfather, my dad, my two uncles, my cousin and myself. I remember when I was nine years old and we'd get together for either Thanksgiving or Christmas. I can remember my mom and my aunt yelling at the guys to quit talking about dirt and grass. I go back that far. I was just brought up in it and I'm very fortunate. I actually love what I do.
Having decades under your belt, what are some of the tricks of the trade you have picked up or developed?
RB: I could probably talk for two hours, but I won't. There are 17 tricks of the trade. My first year was in 1967 and one of the earliest things I learned was how my dad sometimes literally froze the baseballs. It's not a snowball, right? I'm new to all this stuff, but dad had two rooms. One with a humidifier and one without. The baseballs literally would be anywhere from 1/2 to maybe 3/4 of an ounce heavier. You keep them in there for 10 days.
One year, we had three pitchers… Tommy John, Joe Harlan and Gary Peters… They are all low-ball pitchers. So we had to make sure it was almost mud in front of home plate. Kenny Harrelson used to talk about it all the time. People used to say when you come to the old park, you could hit the ball out, but if you have a low-ball pitcher, it won’t go far.
I mean it's a different game. The umpires back then… they let a lot of things go. Now you literally can't. I saw all that crazy stuff. When the Yankees used to come to Cleveland Stadium in the 40s, my grandpa would literally move the fence back 11 feet! I don't want anyone to think badly of my family because that is what everyone did then.
Hall-of-Famer Nellie Fox gave my dad probably the supreme compliment. He told me at the end of his career that he thought my dad added a year or year and a half to his career with how the field played. Dad would let the grass grow an extra inch or inch and a half on that side of the infield. That's what they did then.
Working in Chicago, you have the pleasure of working for the legendary owner, Bill Veeck. What was that experience like?
RB: I always remember Mr. Veeck fondly. He actually owned the White Sox couple of different times. He always stated he thought a good groundkeeper was worth maybe five to seven games. I'm not quite sure if I hold to that standard though. These days if you win five or seven games, you might be making about $8 or $9 million a year. I'm not quite there yet. However, being a third-generation family in the business, we've got over 225 years of experience as Major League head groundskeepers.
I actually believe a good groundskeeper is worth two to four games, and certainly, two to four games can be the difference from either winning the division or making the playoffs. What people really don't understand is that the groundskeepers do much more than just cut grass. You've got the infield positions. Each one of those infielders can be very particular about how the infield dirt plays. Some like it's soft. Some like it firm. I've been around long enough to know. I took care of the field for Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez [for the Yankees Spring Training complex in Tampa]. Robin Ventura, who was in Chicago for many years, liked third base almost like mud. Now the opposite, Frank Thomas always liked first base on the firm side. A good groundkeeper… that's what he does for the players. I go down to Spring Training for six weeks. Jerry Reinsdorf wants me down there to try to replicate the infield to the same way it would be in Chicago, which I think is really good thinking.
It goes both ways. Sometimes players will stop by and ask for their position to be a certain way. In Tim Anderson… I have shortstop who wants it a little bit soft for him at the beginning of the year. He asked if I could do him a favor and adjust it. That's my job. That's the 10th man on the field. Good groundskeepers are very close to the ballplayers, especially the infielders. You have to remember that 70% of the action is on the infield.
Minor League Baseball is all about family, fun and certainly crazy promotions. You happened to work for the White Sox the night that Mr. Veeck held Disco Demolition and were actually very close to the action. What happened?
RB: So I’m at the end of my 56th year with the White Sox and I love what I do. Third generation. And that was the one day I can remember telling my dad that I didn’t know if I was in the right industry! There is nothing worse for a groundskeeper than to see about 9,000 people come onto your field. And actually… there was a bonfire in centerfield with all those records. I was tasked with protecting the infield and my dad was going to protect home plate. It's cute… well. At the time it wasn’t cute but now it is. I was at second base and dad was at the plate. I’m swinging a broom at second base trying to keep people off the infield. I look back and I see my dad running off the field, leaving me there by myself! Home plate ended up going anyways. I will never forget that day. That really was a Bill Veeck experience. He was a great person.
How does the process for putting in a new surface go, like what we have just done at PNC Field?
RB: It actually starts about a year and a half ahead of time from when the grass goes in. You want to make sure that the plant is born and bred on a proper sand base since this is a sand base field. There are four cultivars of grass and you want to make sure you got the right cultivars, so it starts anywhere from 12 to 18 months ahead of time.
(Side Note- A cultivar is a plant variety that has been produced in cultivation by selective breeding.)
You line everything up and you just hope that when you start, you've got good weather. Now you had promised me 70 degrees and it's nowhere near that, so I'm a little bit mad about that! You make sure that all the crews are right. We had people come in from the Midwest with the laser grader to ensure everything was done properly. I mean this is a Major League facility, so it has to be done that way. MLB expects it to be Major League Baseball ready and that's what we do. A lot of people don't realize it you have young ballplayers and injured Major Leaguers plus guys who have been to the show and are trying to get back. It's got to be high quality and you have to start well ahead of time so you know what exactly needs to be done.
Where did this new sod come from?
RB: The new sod at PNC Field was born and bred in New Jersey. Tuckahoe Turf. They take care of, I think, probably a dozen other major facilities including football stadiums. The drainage system here can handle up to about a one-inch microburst of water on your field. Right around there, at most, and it should drain within 15-20 minutes. It has to be that way. It has to be MLB quality.
We in the RailRiders front office are well-versed in tarp pulls. What is a big league tarp pull like?
RB: We all have anywhere from like 22 to 26 people. I know at the Minor League level, you're lucky to get 15, and many times less. No matter where you go, the tarp can be an issue. It's never fun for anybody but we all know it is part of the job! The tarp material has changed over the years and gotten better… lighter, but it’s an issue everywhere.
Despite your family history with Chicago and Cleveland, you also built up a great respect around the game. What was your relationship with the Yankees?
RB: I’ve done quite a bit for the Yankees over the years. Mr. Steinbrenner… George Steinbrenner knew my grandpa well. I built their field at the Tampa facility. I had a lot to do with their first Spring Training facility over in Fort Lauderdale. I have to tell you how sharp Mr. Steinbrenner was. I did their field at Yankee Stadium. The first meeting we had, he said “Roger… when you come into the stadium, what is the first thing you do?” I told him you walk around and he said “No. You look at the field. The first thing everyone does is look at the field.” And he was right. I never thought about it that way, but the first thing is looking around and seeing how the field looks. He said that is how important it is. I knew Mr. Steinbrenner well and he always treated me well.