You're mine now, kid. Sooner or later, I knew my opening would come. I knew your father would bring you here on a picture Sunday morning when the team was on the road. Just like I did with my sons, and like my sons, when they grew up, did with theirs. A year, that's nothin' for a dead man to wait. You're mine now.
Your dad thinks you're safe. Roger thinks he can let you watch him fan rainbows with his hose between second base and third while your sister runs like wind round the bases. He thinks he can leave you shoeless in the sunlight behind home plate, kicking and cooing, your nose in the grass and your fingers in the dirt . . . without you hearing the whisper.
I know, Brandon. I know I'm nearly 20 years dead and you're not much more than a year old, but that doesn't mean your great-grandpa Emil can't talk to you. Who do you think your dad's hearing and seeing right now as he waters the infield? His own father, six months gone—I'll guarantee you.
You were born to this field, to this life, Brandon. Nine decades, three generations, more than 235 years of groundskeeping when you throw all of us Bossards into a heap and total up our toil—that's the seed you come from. Old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland? That was our field. That was a Bossard. Old Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, the Polo Grounds in New York City, Fenway Park in Boston, Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego? All Bossards. Old Comiskey Park in Chicago and new Comiskey, where you're running your fingers through the infield right now, best infield on earth? Bossards. The infields at Yankee Stadium and Pro Player in Miami, the entire field at Busch in St. Louis, the soil and grass at the new fields being built in Detroit, Milwaukee and Seattle, not to mention a hundred minor league and spring training diamonds? Bossards, Bossards, Bossards.
Nobody really knows who we are or what we do, but trust me: You'll influence pennant races, swing World Series—the fate of the 2038 Chicago White Sox easily could rest in your hands. Ten to 12 wins a season, that's what old White Sox owner Bill Veeck and Cleveland Indians player-manager Lou Boudreau said we were worth. Millions watching will never know, but you will. That's enough for a Bossard.
Shhhhh. Here comes your father. He wants you to break the chain, to leave behind his craft, the one passed from your great-grandfather to your grandfather to your father and uncles and cousin. He's telling people he'd rather you be a doctor or lawyer! Can you believe that? He says that those jobs would be less stressful than groundskeeping! That having to stand up in a courtroom and choose the words that determine whether a human being lives or dies would be more relaxing than being a big league groundskeeper with our standards. That having to cram all night for exams during four years of medical school, then to work 36-hour shifts for six or seven more years of training and then to get called in the middle of the night to come in and open up somebody's chest with a scalpel wouldn't be as tense as being a Bossard. And you know what? I don't care if your father's right or not. You belong here!
Whoa. Better calm down. Better lower my voice and wait till he goes by. But, by god, I'll pass along the secrets. I'll teach you how to steal a pennant. I'll tell you about your bloodline. I'll whisper in your ear.
There. It's safe now. Rog just noticed an itsy-bitsy difference in the shade of the grass near first base. That'll keep him churned up for a while. As long as we're here, let's start with this dirt right in front of home plate. It's critical, Brandon. The first bounce a ground ball takes is the most important one. Back in '48, when I was the Indians' groundskeeper, our infielders had all the range of a grubworm, so I took a pickax, went down a good half-foot, filled in the area around home with loose dirt, turned it into oatmeal with the hose, concealed it with an inch of dry dirt, and guess what? We won the championship with those grubworms, and I took the World Series money the players awarded me and bought a beaut of a brand-new Buick—which I used, I might add, to compact many a minor league and spring training infield.
I was so good at deadening ground balls that when Willie Mays kangaroo-hopped a clutch double over our third baseman's head to win Game 4 of the '54 Series, Joe DiMaggio himself, perched up in the press box, declared, "First time I ever saw that happen to the Bossards. It calls for a congressional investigation."
And good as I was at it, my son Gene—that's your grandpa—here in Chicago might've been better. Back in '67 Geno pulled so many shenanigans that the White Sox, who finished the season with a team batting average of .225 and not a regular player over .241, were tied for first on Sept. 6. They were loaded with sinkerball pitchers, who could roll out of bed on Christmas morning and make a batter roll a ground ball. So Gene and Roger, who was only 18 then, would come out with a pickax and a hose at 2 a.m., when the lights were out, and go to work in front of home plate. I can see Gene now, those shoulders hunched like he just wanted to get a couple of inches closer to the ground, that shirt unbuttoned to the belt, those pants rolled up to mid-calf, that laugh so deep and rich it could reach home plate from the warning track on one bounce, and that fat stogie, an inch of it going to ash in one strong pull when somebody messed with his field.
Next day at batting practice, pitcher Gary Peters would holler, "Hey, Geno, when you gonna start cultivating that rice paddy?" and Bill Melton, the Sox third baseman, would hoot, "What're you guys doin', growing mosquito larvae?" Sox hitters hated the muck so much, they'd try to slap balls into it and spatter the sportswriters' pants during batting practice so they'd write about it, but back then nobody did. Got so boggy, kid, that one day Ken Harrelson of the Boston Red Sox hit a bullet that was sure to skip by the mound into centerfield, but, hell's bells, the first hop hit Bossard's Swamp and stuck, I mean stuck, right there in front of home! Dick Williams, the Red Sox manager, went nuts, the ump called Geno on the carpet, and Geno—I swear he smoked those five cigars a day to have something to clench so he could keep a straight face—mumbled something about his hose havingsprung a leak, but the ump stopped the game and ordered him to dry out the whole area. Quickest thing Gene could've done, which is what I'd do when we had a high-ball pitcher slated to start and I wanted to convert the Swamp to Sahara in a snap, was pour a couple gallons of gas on it, strike a match and let it blaze for 15 minutes. But you can't pull a stunt like that in front of 30,000 people.
Awww, quit looking at me like that, kid. That ain't cheating; it's called taking advantage of your strengths and the other club's weaknesses. For crying out loud, baseball's meant to be a little shady—what other sport has spitballs and stolen bases and hidden-ball tricks? It's a game of inches, son, and inches are what Bossards specialize in. Look at the batter's box. You think the ump's gonna notice three, four inches' difference either way? If your opponent's got a flamethrower on the hill, you move the box back, give your guys a tenth of a second more to react. 'Course, if the other pitcher's throwing slop, you move the box up, so your guys can get in their pokes before the ball breaks. Heck, sometimes you move it up just to discombobulate a hot hitter who loves to dig in deep. You've gotta confer with your skipper every day, Brandon, especially before the first game of a series. Boudreau and I, the White Sox' Eddie Stanky and your grandpa Gene, Chicago's Tony La Russa and your dad—you shoulda heard us pickin' apart the other team the day before a game.
See? We've got time. Your dad's checking the weather computer in his office for the third time this morning, can't help obsessing any more than I could: We're Swiss. Picture a Swiss watchmaker—which plenty of Bossards were—peering through his loupe and threading a screw a third of a millimeter wide through a gnat's-ass timing washer into the side of a balancing wheel a millimeter wide and adjusting it just enough to make sure that the second hand ticks exactly 86,400 times each day forevermore. Now think of that wristwatch as a piece of earth 107,000 square feet in size, throw thunderstorms and droughts and mole crickets and fungus and hundreds of pairs of cleats at it and, every now and then, 30,000 or 40,000 lunatics, and you have some idea of the pangs of a Bossard bent over a ball field.
Look at your dad. One bad hop keeps him awake all night and brings him back at dawn with his hair still rumpled by the pillow. Got no weight to lose, and he loses seven pounds a season anyway, even with the three packets of Lean Gainer he throws in the juicer to gulp each day. Your grandpa Gene was even worse—he'd melt from 210 in February to 175 in August. See the bags under your father's eyes? Six a.m. wake-up without ever setting an alarm, wolfs down breakfast, works a 110-hour week when the team's at home, reels into bed at midnight and, oh, cuts back to maybe 55 hours when the White Sox are on the road, a regular vacation. If it weren't for those pictures of you and your seven-year-old sister, Brittany, in his office, some weeks he might not see you at all. Thunderclap at 2 a.m.? Out of bed like a shot, racing down the interstate to make sure the tarp's anchored and the wind won't blow it off—a rainout could cost your ball club more than half a million bucks.
See him squinting? Won't wear sunglasses, afraid they'll keep him from detecting a fungus the size of a thumbprint. Won't carry a beeper or cell phone, like most groundskeepers do—the beep might break his concentration. My god, look how that 50-year-old man walks—like he's trying to catch a Metro, not mildew. Gets killer sinus headaches but won't take aspirin, won't stay home sick; might've missed two, three days in three decades, but only when somebody died, like me. Better that he ache or vomit or burn up with fever here; better that he get a disease than his field get one. Cost him his first marriage—irreconcilable Bossardism. Oh, yes, I know Rog, 'cause I know myself.
Remember this, kid, when it's your turn: It's your field. A city may build it, an owner may buy it, players may race and dive and slide across it, some of 'em for 10 or 15 years. But they all end up leaving, and you don't. It's yours, and if you don't feel that way about it, maybe you ought to plan on filing briefs or feeling lymph nodes, like your daddy wants. And something else: A big league ball field's different from a football field or a basketball court or a hockey rink. It's part of the performance! A baseball fan shells out, say, 20 bucks—a fourth of that's for the ball field, for that first glimpse, that catch in his throat when he sees that sweep of emerald green, that compass curve of infield dirt, those perfect white lines. If it's marred or pocked, boy, that fan's been cheated. Players can make errors, but not big league groundskeepers.
There goes your dad. Checking the irrigation control panel for the zillionth time, terrified of the water not coming on when it should or coming on when it shouldn't, of all the world watching Roger Bossard's sprinklers turn on in the bottom of the fifth on SportsCenter. Up you go on my shoulders. We've got time for a little walk. You ain't seen nothin' yet.
This next little beauty I'm gonna show you . . . look, this one's got to stay between you and me and the foul pole. Folks in this country just take it for granted, like cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving, that home plate to first base is 90 feet. Thing is, did you ever see anybody measure? Think about it. Two, three plays a ball game are bang-bang, and if you've got a speed team, a roster full of Punch 'n' Judy hitters, you don't think the odds tilt your way if you play 81 games on a field with a baseline of 89 feet? Don't go looking at me that way again, boy. Most of my Indians teams back in the '30s, '40s and '50s were power clubs, slower than stegosauruses, so I didn't have to do it all that often. Can't vouch for Gene, though, after the White Sox sweet-talked him into leaving Cleveland and becoming the youngest head groundskeeper in major league history—age of 23, in 1941. All the Sox had were banjo hitters and flyboys.
Here's the secret, Brandon: Keep your infield grass border a foot shorter than the one in your typical field, even when you're not fudging. If your grass extends too close to the base path between first and second, an 89-foot baseline will stick out like a turkey in a cowboy hat.
Now I'll put you back on the ground for a minute. Assume the baby position. That's it, real low. Notice anything? Your eyeballs ain't tilted, kid—the baselines are! Gene tilted 'em in, so bunts would stay fair in Chicago; I tilted 'em out, so bunts would roll foul in Cleveland—we had the stegosauruses, remember? Not only would Gene tilt them in, but he'd also lay so many layers of lime on the baselines that they'd act as bumpers to keep bunts fair.
Lord, the battles we used to wage with rakes and hoses and lawnmower blades, Gene and I—a headline writer back then called it the GROUND WAR. Father against son, each working every angle on his 2 2/3 acres to give his team an edge. Gene letting his infield go four days without water before the Indians came to town, turning Comiskey to brick so his nickel-and-dimers could ricochet a single through the infield. Me and my sons Harold and Marshall siphoning half of Lake Erie onto our infield in Cleveland before the White Sox came calling. Gene's grass scalped to the nub,three quarters of an inch; our grass waving in the wind, three inches tall. "Wish I had brought my shotgun"—that's what Al Lopez, the old Chicago manager, moaned after one game in Cleveland. "There must be quail out there!"
Let me show you something, kid, since we're here at first base. See this patch of dirt, where a runner leads off and takes his first four, five steps when he's stealing second? Oh, boy, did I have some fun here! Just before the Pale Hose came to Cleveland for a crucial series in the '50s, I told Yankees skipper Casey Stengel, "Chicago won't steal any bases against us this weekend." Casey's fuzzy ol' eyebrows shot up: "How can you soak this field any more than it is now?" I said, "That's my secret." So I got out the pickax, the rake and the hose, went down a good foot, and . . . well, let's just say the result was nearly as dramatic as what Gene and Roger got away with in the early '70s, when the A's had Billy North and Bert Campaneris stealing everything that wasn't padlocked. One time North got on base right off the bat and took that first step to swipe second, only to find himself half-crawling, half-swimming through porridge as the pickoff tag was slapped on his spine and Gene and Rog slapped themselves laughing. You think you're gonna have that kind of fun walking around in a suit and a tie with a briefcase full of depositions?
Speaking of padlocked, your great-grandpa's the one who figured out how to padlock bases. Not to brag, but I had a brain for that sort of thing. Watched too many sacks get yanked right out by their stakes on a hard slide; it offended me. So I came up with those metal posts and sleeves to anchor the bags—they're still used today. I also came up with those protective screens used during batting practice in front of the pitcher and first baseman and behind second, and it was me who cooked up the roller-and-rope contraption that cut in half the time it took to get the tarp onto the infield, and it was my idea to start using the spun-glass material that cut the weight of the thing in half, and I was the first fella to stripe the grass, the way almost every big league groundskeeper does today. Not to brag, but I also invented the nail drag—the two-by-four frame bristling with tenpenny nails—and the cocoa mat, both of which you'll see grounds crews pulling behind them to smooth out infields to this day. I'm the one who had dogs roam the stands to pounce on balls before fans could in St. Paul, in the American Association, when times were hard and the owner couldn't afford to lose 'em during batting practice.
I ain't sayin' it, naturally, but others did: Nobody in the business could shine my shoes. Who did the mighty Yankees call in just before the '53 World Series when their field wasn't looking tip-top? Who did the Red Sox and the Giants and the Cardinals call when their infields went to hell and they needed to start over? Who redid every infield in the American Association back in the Twenties and Thirties?
This fella George Toma, the groundskeeper who did 32 Super Bowls and a couple of Olympics—who trained him? I ain't sayin', but he'll tell you ol' Emil shoulda been voted to the Hall of Fame. He'll tell you about the pool-table fields I laid without any of the gizmos they got today, just an eyeball and a string. He'll tell you how, in just a day, I could take two kids with rakes and a 10-quart bucket and seed a whole ball field that'd make your heart sing, and how the only guy you could talk about in the same breath as Emil Bossard was Johnny Appleseed. But Mr. Appleseed, with all due respect, could never tell you what I'm fixing to tell you about doctoring a pitcher's mound.
Don't wait, kid. Soon as your club brings a new twirler to town, you find out how he likes his mound: high, low, steep slope, gradual slope, short porch, long porch. Porch—that's what we call the dirt behind the rubber, where the pitcher takes that backward step as he rocks into his windup. If you've got a hurler who can live with a short porch, wheeee, the havoc you can raise with a visiting pitcher who takes a long step back. In my day, regulation mound height was 15 inches, but I'd change it for our starter. Bob Feller liked to ride high, and I got away with 18.
See that visitors' bullpen mound way out there? What I suggest, son, is to shave four or five inches off that and add three inches to your game mound. Their reliever comes in, feels like he's all of a sudden standing on Mount Everest, and his first half-dozen pitches sail in nose-high. Sure, the league sends a cop twice a year to check your mound height, but—get this—they call in advance to warn you!
Dirt. Can't emphasize it enough, kid. Your infield dirt is where 70% of your plays in a ball game are made, and where 70% of your blood, sweat and tears gotta go. Ask your dad. I started pounding it into his noggin when he was just a teenager: "How's your dirt, Rog? You learning your dirt?"
Go down five, six inches and to this day you'll strike dirt I laid a half-century ago. Ain't that somethin'? When Gene took the job here, back when he was barely old enough to vote, I helped him install this infield in old Comiskey. A rock pile, infielders used to call it before Gene came—ground balls took hops that could make a grizzled shortstop sing like a Vienna choirboy. Stick this under your bonnet, kid: There are 6,000 soil structures in the United States, but only 10% of 'em belong on a baseball infield. We brought in a native Midwest clay, one that water would soften but not turn to mush, mixed it nine parts to one with soil conditioner, and when we were done . . . well, Luke Appling, the old White Sox shortstop, could've kissed Gene. Loam, sweet loam, bounces so true that when old Comiskey was about to be demolished back in '90, Rog dug up that infield, all 550 tons, and hauled it in 22 dump-truck loads to the new Comiskey. A lady called him one day and asked, "Is it true that you're using the old Comiskey infield in the new park?" and when Rog said yes, she started crying. "I thought he was gone!" she said. "Now I'll always know where my dad is." Turns out Geno had let this lady scatter her old man's ashes across the Comiskey infield!
That big black hose? Don't you dare touch it! That's your father's paintbrush. Wouldn't let my sons Harold and Marshall hold mine till they turned gray, and Gene was nearly as neurotic with Rog. Give an infield too much water? Catastrophe! Too little? Apocalypse! Your father's got it down to a ritual—you could set your clock by it. Five wettings on game days: 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 25 minutes before batting practice and then one last wetting just before game time. Sorry to tell you, kid, but no two days are alike, so it's no formula, all feel, every time. Windy? Dirt's gonna dry out quicker, gotta give it more H2O. Humid? Ground's gonna hold moisture, gotta cut back. Cloudy? Sunny? Adjust again. Sun sets on the third base side? That means the first base side needs more drink. Rain last night? Factor that in too. It's all in the sweep of the wrist, the position of the forefinger over the mouth of the hose. Nozzles? Bossards are the only groundskeepers in baseball who don't need 'em, only ones with forefingers strong enough to control the flow on an inch-and-a-quarter hose. O.K., I'll admit it, for that final light spray just before game time, Rog'll resort to that beat-up nozzle Gene made back in the '40s, a keepsake nobody else better touch.
There, look at your daddy scurrying back and forth across that infield, stopping every few steps to cut a line with the edge of his sneaker and make sure it's dark and wet a good inch down. Highest water bill in baseball, softest and darkest infield on earth, and then that final touch, his secret weapon: that soil conditioner he piles near each infield position. Pro's Choice, it's called—Rog helped invent it—a calcined clay baked at 1,400 degrees in granulars that run from one- to three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter. Just before games, he shovels those piles of Pro's Choice across the heavy traffic areas, enough to make sure that the perfect sponginess he's achieved with those five wettings doesn't evaporate and break down for three hours—nine innings. Put your toes in it, boy, bounce on it! It's genius!
Our true trademark? Bossards custom-tailor every position to the infielder's taste. First we get to know him, become like a teammate, join in on pregame high jinks. Gene used to deposit the stub of his wet cigar on the plate just before a ball game, and poor Sherm Lollar, the Chicago catcher back in the '50s, had to pick up the dang thing and flick it away. Roger sprays Robin Ventura, the White Sox third baseman, every day during sprints. Robin gets revenge by knocking over Roger's piles of soil conditioner or scooping up balls in the outfield and using Rog for target practice. Robin likes his third base area soft. He gets it soft. Julio Cruz, the old second sacker, liked the front half soft for true bounces and the back 20 feet hard so he could charge everything and be flying by his fourth step. Every day, there it was waiting for him, like one egg over easy and one sunny-side up.
Here's how fanatical Bossards are about dirt: Gene and Rog are the only two groundskeepers in history, I'll bet you, who ever matted their infields during batting practice as well as before and after. You know how dangerous that is? Watch your dad do it someday, scampering around with one eye on the batter and one on the ground, like a squirrel trying to eat nuts in a backyard with a German shepherd. Can't bear the thought of a pockmark on his infield, even during warmups. Oh, he's paid for it, all right. Roger's been nailed a half-dozen times—Bill Melton knocked him clean off his feet once—and Gene took a line drive that busted his hand. See, those two could risk it because they were ballplayers as kids, damn good ones who trusted their instincts. Me? Never played a lick of ball, never dreamed I'd go anywhere near a ball field. And there never would've been a Bossard dynasty if it wasn't for a bottle of booze.
Funny thing, Brandon. I was your age, just turning one, when I got on that boat in 1892. Imagine my old man, this hardheaded Swiss plumber, deciding one day to uproot his wife and four boys—ages seven, five, three and one—and plant 'em clear across the ocean to start over! Opens a hardware store and works till it's the biggest one in St. Paul. Baseball? You kiddin'? I didn't even finish school. All us boys (Mama had one more after we got here) learned a trade, and guess what mine was? Plumber, too.
So one day, must've been 1911 or '12, I'm 21, when things go a little slack in the plumbing racket and around Papa's store. I catch on hauling lumber for some new construction in the stands at Lexington Park, where the old St. Paul Saints played, and I'm not there but a couple weeks when they ask me to give the groundskeeper a hand. Turns out this fella has a hankering for the bottle, so on Opening Day, when he reports to the saloon instead of the stadium, they offer me his job, and 80 bucks a month is 25 more than I'm making patching pipes, and that's how come I'm showing you how to tinker with a ball field instead of a ball cock and flapper on a toilet.
That ballpark, over the next quarter century, is where I built my name and started grooming my three boys, Harold, Marshall and Gene. Marshall hated it at first, and even Gene was lukewarm, but a family legacy is a funny thing once it gets rolling. It turns into your destiny more than your choice. I understand that's what your father's scared of with you.
Anyway, my three sons became my assistants when the Indians offered me the job in '36, and in no time teams were beating down my door to hire the boys away. Gene left, the other two stayed, and before you knew it, Harold's son Brian, god rest his soul, started trailing us around Municipal Stadium, and he went on to become the Padres' and the Yankees' groundskeeper before passing on—couldn't have been much older than 40—five years ago. Before you knew it, Gene had Rog in a cute little White Sox uniform, shagging fly balls alongside the players' sons before ball games and following Gene around on off days, imitating him with the rake and the nail drag, trying so hard to get it just right that Gene confided to his wife, "He's a real Bossard."
Odd, how far a man has to go sometimes to realize that what he loves was right under his nose all the time. That's what going to Vietnam did for Rog. Saw some things there that are too terrible to talk about, came home after a year with pneumonia that darn near killed him, and sure, even though he'd figured for years that he'd end up as a groundskeeper, it was the spring after his discharge in 1968, working in the sun at Comiskey again, digging his fingers back into the dirt, that helped him to heal inside, to really appreciate the peace and beauty of a ballpark and cherish this craft. Worked under his dad till '83, and then Gene, at 65, turned the hose over to him.
Me? I worked those 100-hour weeks till that same age, then handed the head job at Municipal Stadium to Harold in '56. But I kept right on manicuring the Indians' minor league and spring training diamonds long after my wife died, till I was 88. You ask the old-timers in the Cleveland organization, they'll remember me—the wiry pepper pot with the chaw of tobacco in his cheek, the thick gnarly hands and the weatherbeaten face. The ol' coot driving the yellow '64 Impala SS convertible and still winking at the gals. Dare you to count the number of Indians and old ladies at my funeral when I finally got tired of breathing in '80.
Seems to me I've failed to discuss your alleys, kid. Simple: If your outfielders are faster than theirs, you lower your blade an inch when you're mowing your gaps, and conversely, if yours are slower, you raise it an inch, give your boys that extra second to cut off a—hey, you listening, boy? All right, go ahead and roll in it; I know how good it feels, and let's both thank god it's not that artificial crap they shoved down Gene's throat back in the '70s. Nothin' sorrier than seeing a Bossard down on his knees scouring tobacco stains off a strip of plastic: a sculptor turned into a scrubwoman.
What you're sprawling on, Brandon, is an eight-blend bluegrass, a hybrid hatched by your father and Dr. Hank Wilkinson of the University of Illinois, lying on top of a 12-inch sand drainage cavity that's still got me scratching my head. Nobody, least of all Gene or me, ever dreamed grass could grow on sand without mixing in 10% or 20% peat, but Rog proved us all wrong. Took him five years of experiments in three boxes out behind the wall in old Comiskey, but he was determined, because the peat's what slowed the drainage after a rain, which led to scarred fields and postponements. So what's he do, when it's time to install the new Comiskey field in '90? He goes sand a foot down, because water drains through it lickety-split, and he revolutionizes groundskeeping. Sure, he has to fertilize and water the hell out of it, because food and drink go through it like it's got the runs. Forty-eight hours without agua and this grass is cooked, and so's Rog, which means he can't go a day on the road without phoning to ask his assistant, Harry Smith, "How's the field? What's the weather like? You check the irrigation panel?" Fourteen fertilizings a year—your nitrogen for color, your phosphorus for root system, your potash for uprightness of blade—and a trim every day, just an eighth to a quarter of an inch.
Bottom line is, Comiskey can swallow three inches of rain in a half-hour typhoon—192,000 gallons—and 45 minutes later the ump's croaking, "Play ball!" Five years from now, you'll see Roger's system in just about every big league ballpark in America, and damn right he was smart enough to patent it. Yessir, Brandon, your daddy's the one who majored in agronomy at Purdue, who sets up experiments under UV lamps, who was hired by a Saudi Arabian prince for three straight winters to make soccer fields grow in the desert. He's taken what Gene and I taught him to another galaxy, and more power to him, 'cause there's not a groundskeeper alive who packs the experience and the classroom smarts that Rog has.
But I wouldn't be honest if I didn't tell you about the agony. Right here in centerfield's the spot, over at old Comiskey, where the Veecks had that wooden container placed between games of a White Sox-Tigers doubleheader back in '79 and loaded it up with disco albums for Disco Demolition Night. About 53,000 people in the stands, half of 'em 20-year-olds juiced on beer, and once those albums went up in flames and the jackals started pouring out of the stands, I thought I was gonna lose my son and grandson both. Rog stood his ground trying to fight off the hordes, but the two of 'em finally had to make a run for Geno's office and lock the door. Took mounted police swinging clubs to beat the crowd back, then Gene and Rog came out and staggered across the battlefield like soldiers with shell shock. Patches of our dirt, our grass, clawed up by freaks with hair halfway to their asses! Our outfield scorched from a bonfire they'd started after dismantling the picnic benches out behind the leftfield wall. Rog, he was always more sensitive than Gene. It was as if somebody had carved up his child.
And that wasn't the end of it, because back then Bill Veeck was hanging on to the club by his fingernails, renting out the ballpark for anything that would help him stay out of the red. Poor Rog, running behind circus elephants and scooping up souvenirs . . . keeping all-night watch on roadies roaring in with forklifts and tractor-trailers and miles of cable to set up those gigantic rock-concert stages . . . then cringing when it rained, because it always rained, like God's punishment, and left the ball field looking like another one of those damn Woodstocks. Poor Rog, staying up all night and day laying another 20,000 square feet of Merion bluegrass.
He'll go to fists over this field, kid. Ain't naming names, but once he planted himself smack in front of a Cy Young winner who'd decided to warm up out here on the outfield grass instead of on a bullpen mound, and he dared Mr. Cy Young to fire a fastball through his forehead. Now you know why he has to pack himself away in his office when the annual company softball games and picnics roll around. Who knows? Maybe a doctor finding a white spot on a lung doesn't get as nervous as your daddy finding a brown spot on his field. Maybe lawyers don't ever have to do as much dry swallowing as Rog did that time the brown spot turned out to be a little gift from a front-office pooch.
Maybe I shouldn't even tell you the last three secrets, kid. Maybe you can't use 'em in this day and age, now that there are unions and attorneys and reporters crawling over everything like maggots. Maybe you won't have cubes large enough to try 'em anyway, but just in case. . . . This outfield fence? I used to move mine, according to who we played. A good 15 feet back when the Yanks came to town—screw Lou Gehrig.
And see that scoreboard? We'd perch my boys Harold or Marshall in ours, sit them in a little opening wearing white pants that our hitters could've seen from Tucson. Bob Feller'd be up there alongside 'em, stealing the catcher's signals through the 60-power spotting scope he'd had on the 20-millimeter gun he'd used to shoot down Japanese bombers on the USS Alabama. He'd pass the word to Harold or Marshall, and they'd cross their legs for a breaking ball and uncross 'em for a fastball, or vice versa, can't recollect which. Gene, he tipped off Chicago hitters by flicking a scoreboard lightbulb on and off. Cripes, if your catcher's fool enough not to camouflage his signals, he deserves to have 'em swiped.
Besides, what we did wasn't half as outrageous as what Geno did here in '67—this is the last secret—when he stuck all the baseballs in a cinder-block room with a humidifier for a dozen days before almost every ball game. I'm telling you, the walls and balls were dripping when he was done, the cardboard boxes would fall apart in your hands, but just to be sure, Gene would take the balls to the upper deck the day before a home stand and drop 'em on the warning track. If they bounced higher than five feet, back they went for more sleeping juice, till they felt so cold and clammy that one night Boston hurler Jim Lonborg swore he got frostbite. Shaved a good 15, 20 feet off a fly ball, but since the White Sox that season couldn't reach the wall with a siege gun, didn't hurt them. Unethical? Excuse me, but my son Gene was an every-Sunday-when-the-Sox-weren't-at-home Catholic, a Little League president, a village trustee and commissioner of the South Holland Police Board, and what's more, the snoop that the American League sent to shadow him every day for two solid weeks never found a darn thing.
Must've been a real eye-opener for Rog, though. That was his first year out of high school, first year of working full time with his father. And funny, no matter how much tension there was between them at home—typical teenage curfew stuff—it vanished when they got to the ballpark and down in the dirt. They were buddies, to the very end. And you need to know about that part too.
Never saw it coming. Gene was 80 and still healthy as a horse, still keeping his lawn like a putting green, still checking up on Roger's fertilizers and fungicides a few times a week, still jiggling you on his knee, till that night just a few weeks before last Christmas when he woke up tingling on his left side. Couldn't move his arm or leg on one side after the stroke, couldn't get off his back, couldn't squeeze out a clear sentence. Couldn't work a lick, and I've come to believe that's what kills Bossards. Because back in '70, when I was still working at the age of 79, I wanted to keep living so bad I stood for two hours on a window ledge on the 11th floor of the Pioneer International in Tucson through one of the worst hotel fires in history, till firemen fought their way through the building, laid me on a stretcher and carried me out unconscious. Went right back to keeping ground for seven more years, then finally hung up my rake, and that was it. Two years later, at 88, just lost my will to live in that nursing home and let myself die.
Maybe that's what happened to Gene after the stroke, once he realized he'd never be able to kneel down in the dirt and the grass and play with water again. God knows, Rog tried to use groundskeeping to keep him alive. Kept visiting and calling Gene to tell him what was going on at the spring-training fields Rog was laying in Florida and Arizona, tried to keep talking sod and soil, but seven weeks after the stroke Gene let go and let the ground keep him. They buried him on his 81st birthday, last Feb. 1, and etched a White Sox logo on the lower right corner of his gravestone.
Now I've got to get you back to your father, because even he, sooner or later, is bound to pull his nose out of the grass and notice his little boy's drifted off. But one last thing, Brandon, on this notion of his that there's too much stress in this job. Yessir, it's pressure, never being able to disappoint the ghosts looking over your shoulder. It's stress, working a job where an oily black spot the size of a quarter can mushroom and devour an entire ballpark in 48 hours—thank god Rog caught that pythium that gobbled up parks and golf courses all over Chicago four years ago. But you don't have to take it to the extremes your daddy does. You don't have to consult for eight other major league teams, and you don't have to solve the grass riddle in every retractable-dome stadium, and you don't have to grow soccer fields for Saudi sheiks, and you don't have to get down in the trenches and do every damn little chore with your crew, and you don't have to field 20 phone calls a day from every panicked Podunk groundskeeper in the country. You can say no to some folks. Every once in a while you've got to crack a cold one and pull out the poker cards, like Gene and I used to do. Then again, Gene and I never ended up living on a golf course with a couple of Mercedes and a Porsche in the garage like your father, so I'll just button up and let you make your own—
Holy moly, would you look at that? While I'm filling your noodle with the secrets, look who's grabbing the hose to help Rog pull it around the infield, and look at your daddy's jaw drop! No! Could it be? Brittany Bossard, first female groundskeeper in the history of baseball! See ya, Brandon—you'll make it, just keep crawling for home plate. . . . Hey, Brittany! Pssssst! Over here! Brittany!