Summer 2012

Working Life

Photo by Wolfgang Hoffmann BS'75 MS'79

You get your first inkling of the care Michael Boettcher gives the grass in Miller Park right before he steps onto it: He pauses to knock the soil off of his shoes. In the big leagues, details matter. An errant bit of soil could divert a grounder, extend an inning and maybe change the game. As grounds manager for the Milwaukee Brewers, Boettcher can’t let that happen.

And he wants the field to look as perfect as it plays. No other patch of turf in Wisconsin gets as many looks as these two acres, and Boettcher has exact standards for the landscapes under his care. That began when he was growing up on his family’s Jackson County farm, where taking care of the grounds was one of his favorite chores. Even though he now has a crew of 40 to maintain the 250-acre Miller Park campus, he still climbs on the mower when he gets a chance to cut those perfect crosshatched patterns. Mowing is soothing, he says, and he loves the smell of fresh-cut grass.

Boettcher got his start in pro sports through a summer internship with Gary VandenBerg, the Brewers’ head groundskeeper. He loved it, and he made a good impression. Two years after graduation, the club invited him to join its landscape team and later promoted him to become VandenBerg’s first assistant. When VandenBerg passed away last fall after a battle with cancer, Boettcher took over his responsibilities for the remainder of the season.

When you watch a game in Miller Park, what do you see that the fans don’t?

When the ball rolls across the infield, fans watch the players to see how they’ll field it. We’re watching the ball, to see how it reacts as it’s going from the grass surface onto the dirt on the infield to make sure there are no bumps, no irregular bounces. Players have the expectation that the ball’s going to come to them as naturally as possible. That’s what we try to do for them.

What was life like during the National League Championships?

I slept a lot of nights on the couch in my office. There was no opportunity to go home. We were painting logos from midnight to 4 a.m. You’re given a window to get stuff done, you get it done. But adrenaline keeps you going. That’s what every groundskeeper dreams of—having postseason played on their field, to be on a worldwide stage. It’s a great honor, a great thrill.

Did you come to CALS with this kind of career in mind?

No, I started out in animal science. I took a class in horticulture my freshman year that gave me a chance to work in the Allen Centennial Gardens with garden director Bill Hoyt. It just opened my eyes. We were supposed to put in 25 hours of volunteer work, but for me it went way past that—I helped out at the garden whenever I could. It was awesome. I couldn’t wait to get back to the gardens. The next fall I switched to horticulture.

Your internship with Gary VandenBerg was pivotal to you. Are you carrying on the tradition?

Definitely. The program Gary established has become a nationally sought-after internship. This year we’re bringing in interns from Kentucky, Michigan, California and Illinois as well as one from UW–River Falls and one from Madison. I love the teaching aspect of the job. That was something that Gary preached—teach the kids who are going to take care of our fields tomorrow.

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