Cold case: Bossard braces for Opening Day

Roger Bossard has faced many challenges, but this cold stretch is as tough as it gets. Doug Padilla

CHICAGO -- After 47 years on the job, the redesign of over a dozen fields around Major League Baseball and the haunting memories of Disco Demolition Night, it is actually the current two-week stretch that is giving Chicago White Sox head groundskeeper Roger Bossard his biggest challenge.

He has more tricks of the trade than anybody else in his line of work, but outside of a magic wand there isn't much the guru of green grass can do with a recent cold snap that is starting to threaten Opening Day field conditions.

Bossard insists the field will be just fine on April 1 when the White Sox take on the Kansas City Royals at U.S. Cellular Field, but he is going to have to use everything taught to him by two previous generations of major league head groundskeepers, namely his father and grandfather. His father Gene preceded him as the White Sox's head groundskeeper, while his grandfather Emil was the Cleveland Indians head groundskeeper from 1932-68.

"I'm doing all the out-of-the-box remedies from 50 years ago when grandpa and dad tried doing it," Bossard said in his U.S. Cellular Field office this week. "I'm literally doing it now and I have this state-of-the-art field that they didn't have."

The grass isn't as green as Bossard usually has it at this point, but that is actually third on his priority list. He not only is more concerned with the frozen irrigation system under the field, but the clay infield that Bossard treats more like a living, breathing thing.

"The clay is the most important part of the field," Bossard said. "Seventy percent of the action is on the infield and that's the most important part. People see the grass, and cosmetically it looks good, but that's not the most important thing to me."

No longer willing to let Mother Nature help him out, starting Thursday night, Bossard started covering the field at night and will do it each night the temperature dips below 32 degrees while running two high powered heaters under the tarp. During the day, he is putting plywood over the clay and driving over it with a roller to draw moisture to the surface.

Bossard needs to first dry out the clay before he can start putting the moisture back into it and crafting it to the exact specifications each White Sox infielder requests.

"Every position is different," Bossard said. "If you ever talked to Ozzie (Guillen), the back six feet of the clay I always kept firm. That was for his footing. Yet in front it was soft. If you talk to Gordon Beckham he likes his whole area soft. Before the game, if people would actually watch me water really close they would say, ‘Ah, I'm starting to get it. He's watering this area more than the other area.'

"When Robin (Ventura) played third base he always liked it extremely soft. Every guy has his own thing. When (Kevin) Youkilis was here last year he liked the back half of third base firm for his footing. Yet when the ball was hit to him he wanted it to be soft in front for the cushion of the ball."

As for the turf, all it takes is a cruise down Lake Shore Drive to see miles of brown, dormant grasses. Lush green grass might be Bossard's No. 3 priority but that doesn't mean it isn't a concern.

With just 10 days to go before Opening Day, the outfield at U.S. Cellular Field is greener than anywhere else in town, but it isn't the hue Bossard is looking for. To combat the problem, he is using crushed charcoal (to raise surface temperature up to eight degrees) and has used hot fertilizers like ammonia nitrate and ammonia sulfate.

"It's done nothing for me," Bossard said. "The temperature literally gets down to the teens at night."

The weather forecast isn't great with a storm system moving in Sunday and Monday, but at least there appears to be some 40-degree days on the way for crunch time next week. Those temperatures might not for work somebody who wants their front lawn to come back to life, but Bossard can still use it to his advantage.

They don't consider him the best in the business for nothing. He gets between 15 and 20 calls a day from groundskeepers around the country for a reason.

"Bill Veeck once said a good groundskeeper is worth eight-to-10 victories a year," Bossard said. "That's not true because relief pitchers right now are in that $2 million-$3 million bracket and they are worth eight to 10 games. I can't make that money.

"I actually feel that a good groundskeeper could be worth three to four games and that's by doing exactly what the players want. The players always want a field that is steady. If it's soft all the time then that's fine. You'd hate to have the field soft one day, hard the next, soft the next. They don't know what they're playing on. It's their home field."

What Bossard knows for sure is that he will always remember what it took to get the field together for the start of this season. The memory will go right up there with the Opening Day blizzard of 1982 and the field at old Comiskey Park that was destroyed during Disco Demolition Night.

"I'm still the most fortunate person in the world," Bossard said. "I'm actually doing exactly what I want to do. It gets no better than that. I love what I do. The only day I felt like I had a job was Disco Demolition."