By Gordy Jones
The Twins looked great during their home opener, and so did Target Field itself. I’ve written many times about head groundskeeper Larry DeVito, and the marvelous job that he and his staff do making Target Field one of the nicest parks in the majors. But the team is also blessed in Fort Myers, having groundskeeper George Toma keeping their fields at CenturyLink Sports Complex pristine.
If you’ve been to Fort Myers to watch the Twins at spring training, you have probably seen George in action — watering the infield, mowing the turf, or, more likely nowadays, at the age of 87, shooting the breeze with colleagues, players, and fans – sometimes even signing autographs. He is well known in Fort Myers, having worked there since 1991, but also across the sports world.
George was born in 1929 in the Pennsylvania coal-mining town of Wilkes Barre. When he was 10 years old, his father passed away, and he took jobs on a vegetable farm and on a chicken farm to help support his family. When he turned 12, a neighbor who worked for the local ball team, The Barons, offered him a job on the grounds crew. He accepted the job, loved it, and built a reputation as a hard worker. A few years later, Bill Veeck bought a group of teams in the area, and offered him a job as head groundskeeper. He said that was his big break. Soon he was working all over the country.
After serving his country in the Korean War, George was offered several groundskeeping jobs in the United States and Canada. One of the job offers came from the Kansas City Athletics. Other groundskeepers told him not to take that job because the field hadn’t been cared for and was in pretty rough shape. Once George saw the field himself, he told the A’s, “I think I’ll take this job. This field is in such bad shape now that if I mess it up, nobody will notice.” He not only took the job, but stayed on when the Royals moved in and the A’s moved to Oakland. He is now in the Royals Hall of Fame. George is also in the MLB Groundskeepers Hall of Fame. He has also worked college football games, including the Cotton Bowl, and has worked NFL games. In 1962 the Kansas Chiefs pulled into Kansas City and in 1966 they were playing for the Championship and George worked that game. Commissioner Pete Roselle took notice and said publicly that George maintained the best-looking football fields in either leagues. Word got out, and George worked the first Super Bowl, and every Super Bowl since. He is now in the NFL Hall of Fame. George has worked Pro Bowls, World Cup Soccer, the Olympics, and is an accomplished public speaker. George said he can’t wait to work Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis. He said, “I’ll be there, God willing, because He’s the boss.”
George recalled one visit he made to Minneapolis in 1991 to inspect the Dome before Super Bowl XXVI. That was the year of the Halloween blizzard. He laughed about how much snow there was, and said when he returned in January for the game, snow was still on top of the Dome.
Former Twins’ groundskeeper Dick Erickson is George’s hero. Dick was in charge of Lexington Ball Park for the original St. Paul Saints, and then a legend at Metropolitan Stadium. He had the difficult task of converting the field from baseball field to a soccer pitch to football field, and then back to baseball, and that was after turf was mud-soaked and torn up. Dick later had an easier task of maintaining the climate-controlled field of the Dome.
I asked George his thoughts on the Twins’ current groundskeeper, Larry DeVito. He smiled and said, “He’s a great groundskeeper. He’s very meticulous. He does a heck of a job. He knows all phases of groundskeeping: the grass, the dirt — he has one of the best infields in the game today.”
If you make the trip to Fort Myers next March to see the Twins, it would be worth seeking out this walking history book, and I’m sure George would love to talk to you.
The Boys are Back!
Plenty of Twins alumni turned out for the Twins’ home opener, celebrating the ceremonial first pitch — which was thrown by longtime Twins bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek, who is battling pancreatic cancer.
Torii Hunter and LaTroy Hawkins were there looking sharp in their fancy suits. Both are employed by the Twins as special assistants. A.J. Pierzynski was there as well. A.J. is retired from baseball, but landed a great part-time job as an analyst for Fox. Former Twins manager Tom Kelly was there in the brown, leather World Series jacket he is often seen wearing, and Ron Gardenhire, who is battling prostate cancer, was on hand, too.
I asked LaTroy what it felt like coming back to Minnesota. He said, “I have a lot of fond memories of Minnesota, but all of my memories are over at the MetroDome. But this is a great ballpark, and I can’t wait to watch a game here, especially a night game. I can’t wait to sit in a box or in a seat and actually just watch the Twins play. I have tons of friends here. I have my fan club from when I was a player. The club is still together, and I’m very involved with all of the members.”
Twins GM Thad Levine is responsible for hiring LaTroy, who played in Texas, where Thad was before coming to Minnesota. LaTroy nearly took a similar job with the Rangers, but Thad said to hold off. He smiled and said, “At first I didn’t know why he would say that, but now I understand.”