Toma still working spring training at age 88

At 5-foot-2, groundskeeper George Toma stands four and a half inches shorter than his golden rake. But the man, 88, looms large in sports.

Toma has guided the grounds crew at all 51 Super Bowls. He has installed and maintained fields for the NFL in London, Barcelona, Tokyo and Mexico City among others cities worldwide.

Toma casts a legacy in Lee County, too.

During the 1970s and ’80s at Terry Park in Fort Myers, Toma maintained the fields while working for the Kansas City Royals.

For the past 17 spring training seasons, with no plans to stop, Toma has worked for Lee County and the Minnesota Twins at Hammond Stadium. Former Lee County director of parks and recreation John Yarbrough met Toma during his Royals tenure at Terry Park and found an opportunity to bring him back as an independent contractor in 2000.

“To me, it meant that our workers, our ground maintenance staff, would be working with a legend. The legend,” Yarbrough said. “The professionalism that he has, you can’t get that anywhere. He’s forgotten more than anybody knows. He’s been at the Super Bowl longer than anybody in the NFL.

“I think the opportunity to surround our staff with that kind of knowledge and experience is priceless.”

Lee County pays Toma $7,800 for six weeks of many 12-hour days, which amounts to about $15 an hour or $1,300 a week.

The average Lee County groundskeeper makes $1,280.28, bi-weekly, about $31,200 a year.

The Minnesota Twins pay for Toma’s spring training lodging, although he spends more time tending the fields than at a nearby hotel.

“People think I’m a millionaire,” said Toma, who spends most of the year in Westwood, Kansas, not far from Kansas City, Missouri, where he cuts the lawns of his senior citizen neighbors during the summertime for free.

He said he never made more than $50,000 a year when working full-time for the Kansas City Royals.

“That’s my own fault,” Toma said. “I should have stuck up for myself. If I had never worked for the NFL, I never would have made things work for my family.”

Being underpaid might be Toma’s only regret. He encouraged his three sons to abide by his motto of “And then some,” a saying he cultivated to put forth additional effort in his endless pursuit of perfection.

Now there’s more than one Toma on the Lee County grounds crew. His oldest son, Chip Toma, 66, accepted a full-time job last summer at CenturyLink Sports Complex. He’s in charge of Field Three on the minor league side and helps his dad during the big-league Twins games, when all hands are on deck.

“He wants that minor-league field to be a field like it is in the big leagues,” George Toma said of Chip.

Rick Toma, 52, is the chief operating officer of The Money Source, Inc., a bank specializing in mortgages. Ryan Toma, 33, works as a pilot for Delta Airlines.

All three sons have served on Super Bowl crews with their dad at various times.

“Oh no, I don’t think any of us will retire per se,” Rick Toma said. “There’s such enjoyment in it. For some folks, if there’s not enjoyment, they watch the clock. When you love what you do, time is not an element at all.”

Toma reports for duty in Fort Myers about 10 days after the Super Bowl. He departs after the last spring training game has been played. He doesn’t delegate much, either.

“I guess the secret to a long life is you get a nail board and walk the infield all the time,” said Jim Steeg, who for 26 years worked for the NFL as an executive vice president, supervising the Super Bowl. Although Steeg, 66, is 22 years younger than Toma, George and Chip Toma considered Steeg a father figure.

“The group that works with him, they’re a different type of people,” Steeg said. “They’re non-stop workers. They’re the guys who put 16, 18 hours into a day. George is obviously the first to get there and the last to leave. There’s not a job that happens with this that he doesn’t do himself. If you’re talking about dragging the infield or whatever, he’s going to be out there doing it himself.

“I think a lot of people admire that.”

Groundskeepers across Major League Baseball, the NFL and even in auto racing, such as the crews at the Daytona Speedway, revere George Toma, the trunk of a groundskeeper’s tree that has grown many branches.

“Everyone gravitates to him, because he works so hard,” said Jim Leyland, a longtime major league and current manager of Team USA during the World Baseball Classic. He has known Toma since 1982. “If he was the groundskeeper, you never had to worry about the field. You knew it was going to be perfect.”

Boston Red Sox head groundskeeper David Mellor, 53, said Toma has been a mentor and friend for 35 years.

“My dream was to make it to the majors as a player,” Mellor said. “A month after I got out of college, I was hit by a car. Not only was my leg crushed, I thought my dreams were crushed. So my family urged me to find a career I would love to do.

“During a lot of that recovery, I thought about what I loved to do. I grew up taking care of people’s lawns, and I loved baseball. I wrote a letter to every major league groundskeeper.”

Only five wrote back to Mellor. Toma’s letter arrived first. It was handwritten and 16 pages long, dated Thanksgiving Day of that year. Mellor treasures the letter. He has worked for the Brewers, Angels, Giants, Green Bay Packers and now the Red Sox at Fenway Park, meaning Toma’s influence has spread to those teams as well.

“I have the utmost respect for him,” Mellor said. “He has an amazing spirit and he has been an amazing force for what he brought to our profession.”

Chip Toma looks like a near clone of his father, standing maybe an inch taller and having taken a near-identical career route. He worked for the NFL for a quarter of a century. He once installed a soccer field at the request of soccer legend Pele in Brazil. Chip Toma moved with his girlfriend to North Fort Myers last year with the intention to retire. That didn’t last long.

“The only way I could be happier is if I could open up a cantina on a Caribbean island,” Chip Toma said.

Chip Toma said he was beyond thrilled to work again alongside his father, nicknamed the “sod god” or, preferably, the “Nitty Gritty Dirt Man.”

George Toma said he had no plans to quit working for the Twins. Brian Dozier, the team’s second baseman, found that comforting.

“He really takes a lot of pride in our field,” Dozier said. “If I were to do a blind George or no-George test, I don’t know if I could. But I do know that when he’s out there, I don’t worry about anything.”

Lee County groundskeepers

George Toma, 88, has passed along 76 years of working knowledge as a groundskeeper to Lee County employees over the past 17 spring training seasons. Here’s a roster of the full-time Lee Co. groundskeepers, as provided by Lee County:


JetBlue Park: Emory Mandala, Bobby Allen, Nathan Gluck, Raul Tambunga, Flavio Arreola Cornejo, Will Rodgers, Aric Coffee, Eric Rubio, Randal Goist, Antonio Rodriguez

CenturyLink Sports Complex: Aaron Geary, Josh Landals, Pat Roemer, Chad Yoder, Jeff Mansell, Evan Smith, Chip Toma, Josh Brooks, John Mele, P.J. Boutwell, Terry Slawson

City of Palms Park: Juan Aranda, Matthew Lapierre, Mike Phillips, Zach Ayotte, Dolan Bechtol

Others: Kyle Katzenmeyer, Brian Kinney, Billy Macphee, Brady Marshall, Cory Rodgers, Evan Smith, John Steinman, Mike Tambunga, Ronald Thomas, Raymond Thompson