Bob Christofferson always would say that opening day of the baseball season was like his wedding day, a time to show off to the world.
Oh, his wife didn’t much like that comparison — they celebrated their 40th anniversary Sunday, the first time in decades he was able to do so at home — but the Mariners’ longtime head groundskeeper felt it was apt. The anticipation, the excitement, the chance to put your best face forward … it couldn’t be beat.
“Goose bumps,” he said of his emotions at the outset of each new year. “You get the fans coming in to see the ballpark for the first time. That’s important. It’s rewarding. A lot of people go to work every day, and no one says how good a job you do. Every day I was in that ballpark, someone was saying something nice.”
However, there will be no more opening days for Christofferson, the man who transformed Safeco Field and T-Mobile Park into a green cathedral for the past 20 years. And for 20 years before that, he and his crew did the same at Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium — a lifetime of painstaking, often backbreaking work designed to make the ball field just a little more vibrant.
While Major League Baseball sits in a tense limbo, Christofferson, 66, announced his retirement on Sunday via a Twitter post.
“40 years I went to “work” in the playground of my dreams, with the game I love. It was the pleasure of my life,” he tweeted.
Turns out, however, that Christofferson, who over time came to be known as “The Sodfather,” wasn’t quite ready to hang up his rake. He figures he had another two years, at least, in him.
“It wasn’t when I wanted to go, or how I wanted to go,” Christofferson said in a phone interview this week.
But after some give and take with the Mariners over his future in recent weeks, Christofferson said he decided to retire. The fact that he hasn’t been able to go to the ballpark since March because of coronavirus concerns related to his age played in the decision as well.
“It wasn’t my plan,” he said. “I think they were taking this opportunity to make some changes. I’m a pretty strong-willed guy, and I ran the field. Maybe not everybody liked that.”
But even though he terms the circumstances of his departure “bittersweet,” Christofferson is far from bitter. He is taking the high road back to his home in Puyallup, where he figures he won’t be able to stop manicuring fields, even if it’s at the local park or high school. This is a guy, mind you, who makes it a point during vacations to walk onto the Little League field wherever he happens to be.
“I’m not done,” he said. “It won’t be high profile, but I don’t care.”
He joked that he might buy the plot of land behind his home and turn it into a youth field. He’ll rake the infield, and his wife will sell popcorn. But a part of his heart will be at T-Mobile Park when Tim Wilson, a member of Christofferson’s crew who was named his interim replacement, presents the ballpark to fans whenever the next opening day happens. Christofferson says proudly that the field is shaping up to be the best its ever been.
“Listening to all the accolades, I’m kind of blown away by it,” Christofferson said of the outpouring since the news became public. “But I’d have rather gone out after Game 7 of the World Series. On my terms.”
Alvin Davis sent Christofferson a heartfelt note upon hearing the news, and Edgar Martinez reached out as well. Grounds-crew colleagues from around the league sent well wishes. Former major-league pitcher C.J. Nitkowski tweeted:
“I never knew your name Bob but I knew your work. In my 19 years playing the game all over the world when people ask me who had the best mound in the game my answer is always the same, Seattle. Congratulations on retirement and a job well done.”
You might say Christofferson was born into the job. Growing up in Tacoma, his dad was a member of the original grounds crew at Cheney Stadium, and young Bob would help out.
“I can remember taking bases off the infield when the bases were probably bigger than me,” he said.
He went to Central Washington University to pitch (he was a left-handed junkballer, just like one of his favorite Mariners, Jamie Moyer) and learn to be a teacher. But after a stint substitute-teaching and coaching baseball at Stadium and Foss high schools in Tacoma, all the while moonlighting on the Cheney grounds crew, Christofferson eventually became the head man in Tacoma.
In 1998, the Mariners’ head-grounds-crew job opened up, and Christofferson was one of two finalists. The other applicant, Steve Peeler, got the job. When the Mariners called with the news, Christofferson told them, with characteristic bluntness, “You picked the wrong guy.”
Just two years later, the Mariners parted ways with Peeler and hired Christofferson, who indeed was the right guy. Keeping a field in tiptop shape in the Pacific Northwest is a challenge like no other, but Christofferson became the master. He’d get to the yard at 8 each day and not leave until around midnight after home games, often sleeping in his office in the early years.
“I think it’s a matter of, roll up your sleeves and go to work and you’d better stay on top of it,’’ he said. “Which I have done for 365 days a year. There’s not a day that goes by I don’t think about the ballpark.”
A good groundskeeper knows all the technical tricks to keep grass green and dirt pliable. A great groundskeeper develops the innate, intuitive touches that aren’t taught in school or books.
“You read a lot with your feet and your eyes,” he said.
These days, it’s nearly impossible to get hired in the field-maintenance business without a scientific degree. Says Christofferson, “They can tell you agronomics until they’re blue in the face. They know it better than I do. But I know feel.”
And he knew that the grounds crew could be the extra man. He would try to tailor the field to the strengths of Mariners players. Pitcher Felix Hernandez, for instance, liked wet dirt in front of home plate to help out his patented sinker. Moyer liked to start his delivery slightly in front of the rubber, “so we always put extra dirt on the mound when he was there so we could hide the rubber.”
Once, Mike Cameron told Christofferson that the checkerboard pattern mowed into the outfield grass was causing ground balls to “snake.” So Christofferson innovated a new mowing pattern of straight lines that has been widely copied around baseball.
Oh, yeah — Christofferson danced, too, part of the hugely popular (if not always technically impeccable) midgame routines — until the time commitment for rehearsing became too daunting a few years ago.
“We’d practice — it might not look like it — for 20 hours,” he said. “I told my crew that you’ll never dance without me. If we’re going to make you do it, I’ll do it, too.”
They’d dance at charity events as well. Christofferson is especially proud of the more than $1.1 million the grounds crew raised for charity through various fundraising forums over the years.
Christofferson had some of his crew over to the house last weekend to reminisce and commiserate.
“We shed some tears,” he said. “But a lot more joy than tears.”