What Travel Writers Say

Getting the dirt on Toronto

© By Mike Keenan
Boston fans


Playing Field


Jay fan


Rogers Centre

Baseball sculpture

Centre Field

Grounds crew

  Marriott Renaissance Hotel A world class city such as Toronto offers a choice of many four-diamond rated hotels with the regular amenities: air conditioning, alarm clock, bottled water, coffee maker/tea service, Internet browser/Web TV, iron and board, bathtub with spray jets, hair dryer, separate tub and shower, wet bar, newspaper, shoeshine, restaurants, lounges, myriad recreational facilities from weight room to swimming and sauna. However, what the others don't offer that the Marriot Renaissance does is the fact that it's located inside a major league sports and entertainment venue, the Rogers Centre, boasting seventy field view rooms from where one may watch events such as the Blue Jays in action against the Yankees, Red Sox or other pretenders to the major league throne. Ideally situated in the entertainment district and adjacent to the busy Convention Centre, the location is a realtor's dream. Looming above the ball diamond with its opened roof, the inspiring CN Tower is so lofty that it's visible clear across Lake Ontario to admirers from New York State. You never get lost!
     Young Gabriel from Port Perry, a Niagara College grad, greets me warmly as I register, praising his college teachers as industry-trained and experienced, ensuring a practical education. He informs me there are two other Niagara grads employed here. I check in and go for a stroll. At Gate 3, a sign reads: "Rogers Centre - the most dynamic and versatile entertainment center in the world," accompanied with pictures of gala dinners, trade and consumer shows, multi-cultural festivals, special functions, private field events, indoor carnival, sporting events, field shows, concerts, receptions and more.
     Later, from my perch in a soft-cushioned chair, deep centre field, I watch an exciting Jay's victory and action directly below me in the bullpen where Jays' pitchers warm up prior to their entrance as firemen, dampening sparks created by opposition batters. With this panoramic, Olympian view inside the Rogers Centre, I find that what transpires after the game is as interesting as the match itself. I observe the grounds crew clean and ready the field for a good night's sleep. Shiny blue New Holland tractors and Polaris Industry utility vehicles weave across the field. Intrigued by the choreography of men and machines, I arrange an interview with Tom Farrell, the boss.
     Tom started with the Jays in 1987 as a 15-year-old high school ticket-taker who jumped to the grounds crew at 17. Upon high school graduation in 1991, he envisioned his career options - policing or a career in art, but in 1992-3, enthusiastically, he placed everything on hold. The Jays were engaged in a thrilling pennant race which led to the World Series and two championships. Fate intervened. In 1983, the head groundskeeper, in his thirties, died from cancer. Tom was asked to supervise in the interim. He remained on a temporary basis for a few years, but after the strike in 1994, applied to the Ontario College of Art and Design; was accepted and about to start the when the Jays asked if he would work another year. Fortunately, it became a full-time position. "My philosophy was that I could always do art in my spare time, and I needed a steady paycheck." He's been with the Jays since, and most of his art is geared towards cartooning which he can fashion quickly.
     With Tom as my tutor, I become a dirt expert. They use five different types of clay on the infield, a diamond mix around the bases and the perimeter of home plate, but at the home plate core where batters stand, (the batter's box) they employ red clay. The clay about the bases contains more sand and breaks up easier, softer for players when they slide. It takes water better when it dries out, recovering quickly; it also drains well whereas the clay in the batter's box is harder and more resilient, not leaving big holes at the end of the day. A few years ago, Tom switched to gray clay, used now in the batter's box.
     We examine the pitching mound composed more of a shining red than that which surrounds the bases, the bulk of it red bean clay, but within the landing area and the area in front of the rubber where the pitcher pushes off, gray clay. "Some folks call that blue gumbo. It's more resilient, very tough, hard to break through; when moist, it's gummy and moulds to the cleats nicely," explains Tom. I sense I'm attending an agricultural 101 lecture at Guelph University. "The players like it, and a lot of clubs use it, although it's not standardized throughout the league. Chicago was an originator, and that's where we got the information. Boston and New York also use it." The pitcher's "rubber" is actual rubber, a four sided slab, and ideally, you can pick it up and it rotate it to use a different side. Tom employs only one side and inserts a new rubber at the end of the year.
     We examine the mound at the end of today's game. It was worn down with a lot of pits and holes, the result of multiple pitchers, some of whom dig a deep hole with their cleats. "Good pitchers try to maintain as small an indentation as possible because they want a nice, solid, flat area to land on, not a huge trough. Little Leaguers tend to create a huge trench which is the opposite of what you want. You require as much height advantage as possible. The pros use only enough depth with which to push their foot off," instructs Tom.
     I ask, if like the icemaker at the Olympics, he inserted a good luck charm on the field. "When the mound was first built, the only thing we did was to sign the fiberglass disk that resides below ground to provide structure."
     There are 12 part-time groundskeepers. Tom is the only full-timer. There are two field crews, three if you consider engineering. A conversion crew deals with all of the turf, outfield walls, removable seating and seats inside the stadium. An engineering crew rotates the stands, lights, etc., and the grounds crew, whose prime responsibility is baseball and dirt, sets up for game days and batting practice, making sure pails of baseballs are out and anything else related to warm-ups.
     A seasonal part-time job, employees start in April and finish the beginning of October, earning $10 to $14 an hour. Most are students except for Paul Egan, with the crew since 1991. Paul is a substitute teacher but here, he's considered a specialist. "Paul performs an excellent job because our pitching mound is rated one of the best in the majors," advises Tom. Thus far, ladies have not been interested in applying for a grounds crew job, but Tom is open to applications. His squad exhibits a trim shape. "You have to enjoy running or athletic activities," cautions Tom. "Tom Cheek, the famed Jays broadcaster, a few years ago, coined the phrase 'the world's fastest grounds crew,' and it's stuck." I'm not surprised, watching the speedy removal of huge batting cages and other equipment prior to the game, the crew racing off the field in unison in record time.
     The VP of Operations makes the call on the retractable roof, consulting with Tom briefly, but also checking the radar, weather conditions, forecasts, temperature and wind speed before the roof is opened. After every game, approximately 45 minutes to an hour, they close the roof as the stadium is cleared, and open it again a couple of hours before game time. The stadium is not designed inside for exterior elements. There is no drainage for inclement weather.
     "The new synthetic grass is better than the Astroturf, and it's getting pretty close, though not as good as natural grass, but it's a portable system here, and considering what you can turn this building into, it's absolutely amazing that we can go from a baseball stadium to a football game to a monster truck show to a concert which we did last Thursday, and for each mode, you almost think the stadium was built just for it," marvels Tom.
     As a token gesture to his flirtation with the College of Art and Design, before every baseball game starts, he supervises the painting of all the chalk lines down the base paths, batter's box, catcher's box and the running lines, employing lime chalk with a can shaker, holes in the bottom. "Using wooden templates, it's easy," says Tom.
     At Rogers, there's no home field advantage because the field is prepared the way most players like it. "For example, when pitcher Roger Clemens was with the Jays, he liked the mound firm which is the way we normally keep it." Another attribute is the symmetry. "When you're playing left field or right field, all angles are the same, distances are the same and there are no tricks, in and outs. It doesn't matter what side you play on; it's identical," explains Tom.
     Does he miss Exhibition Stadium, the original park? "There was less stress then, and it was more fun. The players kidded around a lot. Now, baseball is a game with big money and therefore more stressful, but it's still enjoyable." As for me, I could get used to watching it from the well-appointed sanctuary of my hotel.

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.

Photo Credits
Mike Keenan

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Renaissance Toronto Hotel Downtown: http://marriott.com/property/propertypage/yyzbr
One Blue Jays Way, Toronto, Ontario, M5V 1J4
Phone: 1.416. 341.7100
Toronto Blue Jays: http://toronto.bluejays.mlb.com
Tourism Toronto: http://www.torontotourism.com/visitor
Wikipedia: http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toronto
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Toronto%2C_Ontario

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