George Toma is the most renowned groundskeeper in all of sports.
The Pennsylvania coal-country native is famous for grooming the gridiron for the all 53 Super Bowls, and over the years he has installed and maintained fields for the NFL in London, Barcelona, Tokyo and Mexico City.
Toma has also served as the head groundskeeper for the Kansas City Chiefs and Major League Baseball’s Kansas City Royals. And he was called upon to supervise grounds crews at the 1984 and 1996 Olympic Games and the 1994 World Cup.
In more recent times, he has worked for the Minnesota Twins at their spring training facility in Fort Myers, Fla.
A charter member of MLB’s Groundskeepers Hall of Fame, Toma is affectionately known as the Sod God, although it’s been said that Nitty Gritty Dirt Man is his preferred nickname.
Either moniker could just as easily be applied to one of our own, Scott Richard, who this summer will celebrate his 80th birthday and his 50th year manicuring the ball fields at the Pacific Little League complex on the grounds of the VA Medical Center.
Other than 10 years — Toma turned 90 in February — and the glitter of big-time stadium surroundings, the Sod God doesn’t have anything on Richard when it comes to the down-to-earth dedication and energetic work ethic that it takes to turn a common piece of ground into a Field of Dreams.
And for as long as Richard has been involved, Pacific Little League’s immaculate playing fields have set the gold standard not only in Walla Walla but across the state and quite likely the entire Pacific Northwest.
“One year when we held the state tournament here at Pacific, some folks from over around Seattle told us that our parking lot was better than the fields they played on,” Richard said in a recent interview, evoking just the right measure of justified pride and self-satisfaction.
Richard is a native Midwesterner. He grew up in Nebraska but moved with his family to the Walla Walla area in 1959.
It was a year or so later when he first began trekking to the Pacific League Field “just to watch the kids play,” he said. He and his new bride, Walla Walla native Marilynn Mele, were just beginning a family and Scott rightly figured that his young son Todd would one day be playing there.
Richard worked for Associated Grocers at that time and often crossed paths with Dwayne Headley, who worked at Bur-Bee and also happened to coach the Bur-Bee Little League team, one of eight Pacific League teams.
Richard would later work at Bur-Bee as well. And he and Headley became friends for life.
In 1969 Richard accepted Headley’s offer to be his assistant Little League coach.
“Dwayne knew we had boys coming up,” Scott said with a chuckle.
A year later, Todd Richard turned 9 and became the first of four Richard brothers to play for Bur-Bee.
It was also in 1969 that Scott was asked to help maintain the league’s one-and-only diamond. Fifty years later there are five Pacific Little League fields, four regulation-sized diamonds plus one T-ball field.
“It was just little things at first, and all volunteer,” Richard remembered. “I would go down after the last game of the day and set the sprinklers in the outfield.
“We just had hoses in those days,” he added. “I’d get the water going and then come back at midnight and move them.”
Ken Wolters was the league president at that time, Richard recalled, and it as Wolters who encouraged Richard to take on additional duties in maintaining the field.
“Up to that time, kids had been taking care of the field,” Richard said. “For me it happened pretty quick. Things needed to be done and I just started doing them.
“You had to mow and fertilize and spray for weeds. And before every game I’d be there to chalk the field.
“We only had the one field and it was still all volunteer labor. And pretty soon I had Marilynn out there bossing me around.”
As the years passed, the complex grew. And so did Richard’s responsibilities.
“More work,” is how Richard described it.
A second field was built sometime in the 1980s, Richard remembered, and fields three and four plus the T-ball field would soon follow. And a sizeable grant from Seahawks owner Paul Allen enabled the Pacific League to completely remodel its main field in 2000 in preparation for the 2001 state tournament.
“We used that money on new fencing, new backstops, new dugouts and a new scoreboard,” Richard said. Lights were also erected, he said, so that games could be played at night.
“We also built a meeting room on top of the concession stand, and from up there you could watch three fields at the same time,” Richard said.
Gradually, the league began to financially compensate Richard for the many hours he spent working on the fields. Richard estimated that he put in 20-to-30 hours a week before his retirement from Bur-Bee, and considerably more since.
“It’s about all I do now,” Richard said.
Richard didn’t say how much the league was compensating him for his labors. But he did have one observation when told that George Toma estimated he was making a modest $15 an hour for his most recent job at spring training in Florida.
“Fifteen dollars an hour sounds pretty doggone good,” he said with a grin.
Pacific Little League hosted its first state tournament in 1979 and it was quite the challenge.
“It was the first state Little League tournament held on the east side of the state,” Richard recollected. “Ken Wolters was still the president at that time, and we had the field in tip-top shape.
“But I can remember we would line up our pickup trucks around the field and turn on the lights so we could work after dark.”
In 2001, Pacific hosted the District 5 and state tournaments back-to-back, Richard said, and the district tournament proved to be even more exhausting than the state tourney.
“In those days the district included the Tri-Cities, Yakima, Wenatchee and Moses Lake, and we had 23 teams come to Walla Walla,” he said. “We had four fields going and we played 110 games in 10 days.
“Thankfully, we had lights on field one by then.”
Scott lost his soul mate and groundskeeping partner in December of 2012 when Marilynn died of cancer. In the years since Scott has found companionship in Sylvia Wolters, the widow of Ken Wolters, who died in May of 2008.
“Sylvia was the league secretary back when Ken was the president,” Scott said. “She loves all the sports, and now she’s helping me with the fields.”
Richard and Headley retired from Bur-Bee in 2001, Scott after 31 years with the wholesale candy company and Dwayne even longer. And one of the first things they did was buy motorhomes, presumably to see the USA.
When the 2001 state Little League tourney concluded in Walla Walla, the Richards and the Headleys gassed up their motorhomes and set out in convoy to San Bernardino, Calif., for the Little League West Regional tournament. And when it ended they headed east and crisscrossed the country, destination Williamsport, Pa., and the Little League World Series.
“We were gone 23 days,” Richard recalled. “We went through Las Vegas and Denver, across the Rocky Mountains.
“And the Eisenhower Tunnel, I’ll never forget that,” he added of the highest vehicular tunnel in the world, which cuts through Colorado’s Continental Divide at more than 11,000 feet elevation.
“But we saw a lot of nice people along the way, and they all waved at us,” he said.
It proved to be the beginning and close to the end of the Richards’ motorhome excursions.
“We put right around 8,000 miles on that trip to Williamsport,” Scott said. “When I sold the motorhome a couple of years back, it had 16,000.”
That’s probably what happens when you are in charge of maintaining five Little League baseball fields year around.
“The grass doesn’t quit growing when the season is over,” Richard said. “And now we have Fall Ball as well.”
But as far as Richard is concerned, it’s a labor of love. And it’s not only the satisfaction of a job well done, it’s also the gratification of watching generation after generation of young ball players journey through their Little League years.
“Just getting to see the kids,” Richard said when asked what motivated him the most. “To see how far they can go in baseball.”
And he’s not ready to turn in his rake and mower quite yet.
“I’ll probably do this for another five years,” he said. “Of course, it will all depend on my health.”
That’s probably what the Sod God thought 10 years ago when he turned 80.