It's all about the grass for Roger Baird.For the last 15 years, Baird has been in charge of the turf at Wrigley Field. And if you think the players are excited about Opening Day, they can't match Baird's enthusiasm. "It's like Christmas," he said. The head groundskeeper for the Cubs, Baird, 50, starts checking the National Weather Service forecast for Opening Day more than one month before the actual date. This year, the Cubs will kick off the 2011 campaign at home April 1 against the Pirates. It'll be the 13th time they've opened the season at home since 1979, which was Baird's first year working at Wrigley. He was in college then and needed a part-time job. "I thought I'd do this for a couple years," he said. He took over all groundskeeping duties full time midseason in 1995, and will begin the 2011 season after his most challenging winter. In a normal offseason, Baird works on the field up until Thanksgiving, then lets nature take over. There are 60 members of the grounds crew during the baseball season, but only three stay year-round. After the Cubs' Sept. 26 game, their last at Wrigley in 2010, Baird's focus shifted. "It was 100 percent different," he said. "After the last baseball game, we went right into football mode."
Wrigley couldn't rest this offseason because of the Nov. 20 college football game between Northwestern and Illinois. The crew had to tear out the pitcher's mound and the mounds in the bullpens and remove all of the infield clay. Left-field foul territory needed to be raised by eight inches to make it level, which required 40 tons of sand.New grass was needed, and although some Cubs opponents might doubt this, it had to be thicker to handle the bigger, heavier football players. Each piece of sod weighed 3,000 pounds, and the crew used a machine to lay it but needed manpower to make sure the seams were tight. And they had to make it look good. "I never realized with Northwestern how much purple there is," Baird said. They painted the end zone purple and the sideline purple. It took more than one coat. When the football game ended, Baird and crew had to reverse the process. The Cubs' front office gave him permission to re-sod the entire field, and that started two days after the game was over. He bought grass from Colorado because the nurseries in the Chicago area didn't have enough. The last piece of grass was put down on Dec. 10. "I've never laid sod at that time of year in my life," Baird said. That wasn't all the grounds crew had to deal with. On Feb. 1, nature dumped 20 inches of snow on the Chicago area. Baird wasn't able to go home because somebody needed to clean the parking lot and sidewalks around Wrigley. Most of that melted by early March, except for the right side of the field, which doesn't get as much sun. The crew had to remove some of the snow and ice. Two weeks before the season opener, Baird still had to build the visitors' bullpen, and he was praying for decent weather. A brief warmup in March helped melt all the snow. They were able to cross off one item from the long to-do list: They did not re-paint the scoreboard. That's done every other year. Baird cringed when he saw the Cubs' 2011 schedule. "I think all groundskeepers do that," he said. "April 1 is mighty early in the Midwest. Roger [Bossard, White Sox groundskeeper] on the South Side and I always talk -- 'Oh, it's your turn this year.' It definitely puts more pressure on you." There also is no off-day after the home opener, which gives Baird little security in case there is some unwanted precipitation on Opening Day. "That should almost be a written rule for any outdoor stadium, that there's a grace day," he said. In 2003, Baird and crew had installed a new field and they were hit with a major snowstorm right before Opening Day. "I'm crying, 'Don't ruin anything. Don't ruin anything,'" Baird said. Back to that infield grass. There have always been rumors that it's longer at Wrigley than anywhere else. "It might be a rumor," Baird said. "I believe we have one of the thickest grasses in baseball. It's not so much the height, it's the thickness. I've learned over my years that pitchers would love to have the grass knee-high. Hitters would like no grass." Who does he favor? "I listen to the manager and what he tells me is how we go," Baird said. During the season, Baird will reluctantly take three or four days off when the Cubs are out of town. Even on those days, he'll sneak down to Wrigley around 6 a.m. for a couple hours. "If I see the grass, I'm OK," he said. Baird said he loses 25 to 30 pounds during the course of the season because he worries about the field. He does have some superstitions heading into Opening Day, but wouldn't reveal them. "I get extremely nervous," he said. "I try not to tell people that. I've always got butterflies and hope everything goes well. 'Did I forget this? Did I forget that?' I'm like a little kid. I'm always happy when Opening Day goes by and nothing goes wrong." His biggest worry? The weather. "Only the guy upstairs knows," he said. His next choice is Chicago forecaster Tom Skilling. There are computers hooked up to the National Weather Service radar under the stands at Wrigley as well. Two weeks before the season opener, Chicago flirted with unseasonably warm temperatures in the 60s. Baird and his crew were putting some finishing touches on Wrigley and someone commented that they'd take that weather for Opening Day. "I'll take the blue sky," Baird said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.