CHICAGO -- Nobody prepares a Major League baseball field like White Sox groundskeeper Roger Bossard.
Don't take our word for it. The absolute best in the business has designed and built 12 other Major League fields aside from U.S. Cellular's special four blends of bluegrass. The 2011 campaign marks his 45th season on the job for the White Sox, starting back in 1967 when he was 17, so he has obviously gained a few inside nuances of the profession over the past four-plus decades.
Yet, getting the White Sox field ready for the home opener always holds a special challenge and feeling for the man in charge of everything from the infield grass to the warning track.
"Opening Day to me, and to a lot of people, barring the playoffs, it is the most important day of the season," said Bossard, sitting in his office at U.S. Cellular Field during a recent interview. "But it's funny. This is my 45th Opening Day, and I have to tell you for everybody, and not just myself, when Opening Day is over with, there's a huge sigh because it's the first day and the biggest day of the year. You get that over with, and everything falls into place."
In the highly skilled and technical groundskeeping world of Bossard, preparation begins long before the week of the game, let alone game day. In 2011, it's the White Sox with the second Major League Baseball home opener in Chicago, playing host to Tampa Bay at 1:10 p.m. CT on Thursday.
Bossard certainly wasn't disappointed in the Cubs going first during a 6-3 loss to Pittsburgh on April 1, allowing him more time to deal with the aftereffects of a rather harsh Chicago winter. But Bossard has raised his job to a science, meaning he's ready to handle everything from sleet to snow to driving rain to get this field in pristine condition.
Take a look at the process followed upon his return from Spring Training on March 15, as explained by Bossard.
"Believe it or not, the first thing I do is I'll turn the water on," Bossard said. "City water is about 48 degrees. My concern always is bringing the plant, the grass, out of dormancy. You have to heat up the soil temperatures to 44 or 45 degrees with bluegrass. I do that. I turn the water on immediately.
"Actually about [two weeks] ago, my whole field was a tinty dark black. I take charcoal and I spray it all over my field. It's a little trick of the trade I learned from the family. It gives me another eight degrees heat. So I'm relatively green right now.
"I'll spray my grass with activated charcoal," Bossard said. "Then, I use my canvas and do a lot of overhead heating. If it's 28 or 30 degrees and the sun is out, by putting my tarp down, I'll actually get another five or six degrees underneath the tarp and bring the grass out of its dormancy."
Even 20 inches or so of snow falling during one winter night or more snow coming before Thursday doesn't bother Bossard, who said snow acts like "a blanket for my grass." But infield clay, which Bossard deems the most important part because it's the home of all the action, suffered through a condition called heaving, where snow and ice crystals get within the particles of clay.
When they freeze, it splits the clay and there's no cementation to it. So Bossard has been adding soil conditioner, getting that area compacted. More than 40 tons of warning-track material has been put down in that area with the help of Bossard's crew, who swing into action two weeks before Opening Day.
"It's always rough," said Bossard of home opener preparation. "You are dealing with the weather elements. Will there be sleet or snow? Should you cover up or take the tarp off? In spring, it's a lot more difficult than it is in the summer."
"I've been through it all. The worst one I've ever saw -- and I've seen snow on Opening Day many times -- in the early '70s, John Allyn owned the team. His brother put in Astroturf in '69 where the infield grass is. One of those years in the early '70s, it was snowing on Opening Day and the snow was sticking to the Astroturf. It was quite something to see."
If ever a job was in a family's bloodlines, it's this groundskeeping profession and the Bossards. Their family crest might be the picture of a man dragging an infield. Bossard's grandfather Emil started on the job with Cleveland in 1930, along with his three boys: Harold, Marshall and Gene. The White Sox needed a groundskeeper in 1940, and that job went to Gene, Roger's father.
Emil Bossard was in charge from 1930-1969, and when he left, Roger's two uncles took over. They retired in the mid-'70s, while Roger's cousin, Brian, held the job with the Padres for seven years and with the Yankees for two, before he passed away at 41 due to a heart attack.
"Between the six of us, we've now got over 230 years," said Bossard of the first family of groundskeeping. "My little guy, Brandon, I don't know what he's going to do. I've got a pretty good idea of what he's going to do."
And someday if or when Brandon Bossard is working on Major League fields, he will have learned from a legend in the profession. He also will know the importance of having the field in top form for that special first day.
"You know, it is fun, but it's a little bit of pressure," Bossard said. "You want to make sure you are ready. The last thing you want to have happen is that the infield is too soft or too hard or god forbid the grass isn't green, so you do a lot of little things."
"I'm here on Opening Day around 5:30 a.m., and my crew comes in about 6 a.m. And you know ... it's the biggest day of the year. Just give me sun and 50 degrees and everyone is happy."