Sultans of Sod: Meet the groundskeepers who keep Busch Stadium green

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Sultans of Sod: Meet the groundskeepers who keep Busch Stadium green

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Emil Bossard, the legendary groundskeeper for the Cleveland Indians in the 1920s and beyond, was famous for trying to give his team the home-field advantage. When, for instance, Babe Ruth and the hated Yankees came to town, Bossard made sure the batter's box was drawn a few inches closer to the mound, cutting down the Bambino's reaction time against the Tribe's hurlers.

Emil's son Gene tended the White Sox diamond at old Comiskey Park until 1984, when his son Roger took over the family trade on Chicago's South Side. It was "The Sodfather," as Roger Bossard is now widely known, who installed the turf and drainage systems at both Busch stadiums and recommended that Bill Findley and his assistant, Chad Casella, maintain them.

"There's seventeen tricks of the trade. I passed on about eleven to Bill," Bossard quips. "I didn't tell him everything, because you know never know when the White Sox are going to play them."

The 37-year-old Findley, now in his fourteenth season as groundskeeper for the St. Louis Cardinals, says times have changed. "Back in the old days they used to call the groundskeeper the tenth player," he notes with a faint Southern drawl. "But that's changed a lot in Major League Baseball. Today, there's not a lot that we'd admit to."

Still, Casella concedes that groundskeepers still do their best to make sure the ball bounces in their teams' favor. "There are some little tricks of the trade," he confides. "Some things Tony [La Russa] likes us to do that bend the rules, so to speak, things that aren't black-and-white in the rule book. If you get teams that like to bunt a lot, you can try a few things with the baselines, so it's more likely to roll foul or fair."

Major League Baseball checks each ballpark three times a year to forestall any competitive advantages. Two of the visits come unannounced. Inspectors pay particular attention to the height and slope of the visitor's bullpen mound in order to prevent another noted Bossard ploy. "They would make the bullpen mound three inches higher than the game mound," recounts Casella. "So when a pitcher comes in, he feels like he's standing on top of a mountain."

On a warm spring afternoon, the diamond at Busch looks immaculate. The freshly mowed grass is striped like a checkerboard, as flat and green as a pool table. When complimented on the field's condition, Findley says it's only "at about 60 percent," and proceeds to rattle off a list of chores that will keep him and his crew of eleven full-time workers busy until Monday's opener.

Most important, Findley says, are the "skinned" parts of the field. "A lot of the aesthetics are in the grass, but the main part is the dirt. You've got six of your nine players standing on the dirt. If you can't get the dirt right, you're going to have a lot of guys angry with you."

Findley, like all diamond cutters, is obsessive about his terra firma. When the new stadium was being built, he requested that the entire infield from the old park be dug up and moved to the current site. But the new park was built so quickly there wasn't time to transfer the old dirt. Findley still isn't satisfied with the substitute dirt, a mixture of clay, sand, silt and soil conditioner that comes from Olathe, Kansas.

"It's slowly settling into place," he says of the replacement soil. "It's getting close, but it's not quite there. I'm pretty particular about my dirt."

Moisture, Findley explains, is the key to ensuring a true hop. He waters the infield clay up to eight times a day in August, making certain the first wetting leaves pools of standing water that will evaporate by noon, but soak into the soil and keep it soft.

It's a delicate process. Too much water and the clay quickly turns to muck; too little and it bakes like a brick, sending grounders scorching through the infield.

"I'm the only one that's allowed to water the dirt," Findley says flatly.

On game days Findley keeps a crew of about eighteen workers. He typically arrives at the ballpark at 7 a.m., twelve hours before the first pitch, and he'll stick around until about an hour after the final out.

It is not the job Findley envisioned when he was growing up in Augusta, Georgia. "I started in college as a math and computer-science major," he says. "It's a little bit of a stretch from growing grass, eh?"

While still in school, Findley started working for Casella at a local field in Augusta. When Casella became head groundskeeper for the Philadelphia Phillies' minor league team in Kannapolis, North Carolina, he brought Findley along as his assistant.

It was there that the pair met Roger Bossard, who, Findley proclaims, is "the man who molded me into the groundskeeper I am today."

Bossard, meanwhile, calls Findley "Without question, one of the top three young groundskeepers in baseball."

Bossard had been contracted to install a new drainage system at the field. The setup was the same as the one currently in place at Busch Stadium and at eight other major league ballparks, with the sod sitting on top of nine inches of sand and four inches of gravel, and capable of absorbing several inches of rain per hour.

Trimming the outfield grass at Busch is left to Findley's assistants. They are responsible for choosing the field's stripes and patterns, which are made by rollers that are fixed behind their lawnmower's blades. If the grass is tilted away from the viewer, it appears to be a light shade of green. If it's matted the other way, the reflection of the sunlight makes it seem darker.

While other groundskeepers are known for mowing team logos and laying down fanciful patterns in their outfields, Findley likes to keep it conservative.

"I let the guys do their thing, and if they get carried away, I reel 'em in. We don't do a lot of crazy things. This is about as crazy as we get," Findley says, gesturing toward the checkerboard pattern that will be in place Opening Day. "We got a little something special planned for the All-Star Game, but I don't want to divulge that."

Bar none, the biggest challenge for Findley's crew is keeping the field green in the stifling summer heat. "It's an art, really," he says. "A lot of people don't realize what we do here. We aren't working in California. A lot of the guys [other groundskeepers] are pretty glad it's not them out here."

"They say if you can grow grass here in St. Louis you can do it anywhere, including the moon," Casella adds.

Whereas the old Busch Stadium turf was a mix of two seasonal grasses to help cope with the Midwest's climate extremes, the new field is pure Kentucky bluegrass. It's hearty in cool temperatures but will brown in extreme heat.

"Believe it or not, when it's hot and humid we don't water as much, because the humidity will hold that moisture in," Findley says. "We water early in the morning, at 4 or 5 o'clock. With the bluegrass you just gotta kinda baby it."

He then offers a touch of groundskeeper Zen: "The turf will tell you when it needs water."

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