George Toma eyes his football field, searching for any blemishes. When you’re grounds keeping for a Super Bowl, you want perfection. After all, thousands of screaming fans, not to mention the millions of viewers watching the game on their TV, will be seeing your field. Four months later, Toma is on the job again. He is preparing to leave, but first he makes sure every blade of grass is in order. When you’re working on a high school practice baseball field, you must strive for perfection. But Toma is hardly working. It’s not work if you’re enjoying every second of it.
“When a lot of people turn a certain age they want to do certain things,” Royals’ hall-of-famer George Brett said. “Some people retire from being an accountant and all they want to do is play golf. Some people retire from being a doctor and all they want to do is fish. George Toma never retired. All he wants to do is work on fields.”
In 67 years, grounds-keeping legend George Toma has done it all. He was the Royals’ groundskeeper until 1997 and oversaw the Minnesota Twins’ spring training field last spring. But baseball is only one side of George Toma’s career. He has tended the fields for every Super Bowl in NFL history. He cut grass in both the 1984 and 1996 Summer Olympics. He managed Pontiac Silverdome’s indoor field in the 1993 World Cup Soccer tournament. And his latest job—East’s baseball practice field.
Toma was a driving force behind fixing the field this summer. The 80-year-old NFL hall-of-famer could be seen cutting grass, filling holes and spreading dirt, gradually altering the field’s poor condition. And it was poor.
“I took a good look at East’s baseball field,” Brett said. “The infield was unlevel, the grass wasn’t growing in certain areas. It was simply unplayable.”
Brett knew Toma well from his days with the royals. He was sure that Toma’s love for grounds keeping, along with his generous spirit, would compel him to help with the project. He decided to call Toma for advice on how to fix the condition of the field.
Brett had no idea what “advice” would entail.
The next day, a meeting was held on the field. Several problems faced the group, which at that time included Brett, Dr. Krawitz, fathers of East baseball players, and Toma. Severe grass growths engulfed the infield. Large, useless metal polls lay in the batting cages. Potholes were scattered about the outfield.
“I was a very discouraged,” Toma said. “The infield was all grass. When it rained, it was a lake, and the field was so rough it was like a washboard.”
Discouraged but not defeated. He would continue to spend a couple hours nearly every day on the field for months. To this day, Toma mows the field every Friday afternoon, going far beyond Brett’s expectations.
“I called him for advice, and the next day he was out there working like it was the seventh game of the Royals’ world series,” Brett said. “That’s why they call him the Nitty-Gritty Dirt Man. That’s why the NFL hired him to do all those Super Bowls. That’s why he’s the best groundskeeper in the world. He takes such pride in his efforts and in his work.”
Brett and Toma weren’t the only ones working on the field. They both credit most of the work to East’s baseball team. From uprooting weeds to filling holes, the team was dedicated to fixing this field.
“Toma has a saying,” Brett said, “and that saying is ‘and then some.’ You do your job, and then some. The boys did their job, and then some. They were lifting weights from 8 to 10, and on the field working from 10 to 1.”
‘And then some’ isn’t just Toma’s saying. It’s his work ethic.
“It’s that little extra,” he said. “Those three little words distinguish the mediocre from the great.”
Sophomore Jason Sabin, one of the many baseball players who worked on the practice field, described how Toma was on the field assisting them with the work load.
“He instructed us on most of the work, but he even helped,” Sabin said. “For a guy his age, that was pretty cool.”
Toma and Brett also secured donations from Ryan’s Lawn and Turf for field equipment. If the workers needed additional materials, Toma supplied them. For these reasons, this project cost the school district nothing.
And after a couple of weeks, major changes could be seen in the baseball field.
“Before, there was no distinct line between what was grass and what was dirt,” Krawitz explained. “That changed very quickly. I was just floored because this field was starting to look pretty good.”
In addition to laying dirt and planting seed, adult volunteers, usually the parents of baseball players, trimmed the grass growths that lined the fencing. They also helped the players, carrying rusted pipes and spreading dirt. Moms brought turkey sandwiches and coolers filled with ice water and Gatorade, much to the satisfaction of the tired workers. According to Toma, this project was a “family affair.”
“Everyone—coaches, players, parents—were all part of this project,” Toma said. “And that’s good, because it’ll be up to the parents and players to take care of the field in the future. They’ll be the groundskeepers.”
And they’ll have learned from the best. From the players to parents, Toma directed everyone, offering his expertise. But Brett believes Toma’s knowledge of grounds keeping isn’t the only reason he is considered the best. It’s the work ethic, the determination to always strive for greatness, which defines this Nitty-Gritty Dirt Man. It’s why he’s considered the best. It’s why this NFL hall-of-famer chose to work on a practice field on Delmar.
“Are his sons going to play on that field? No, they graduated from high school,” Brett said. “He didn’t get paid one cent for his work, but there’s no place he’d rather be than working on that field.”