Baseball gives you two strikes; one more and you’re out. Facing his own possible third strike, Andrew Joseph (A.J.) Taillacq hit a home run.
“I made a promise to myself that I’d make it to the majors one day,” he says. “There were three possible ways, and I ended up getting there. My choices were playing, being an umpire or working on the grounds crew.”
Any one of the three would be a dream come true for this avid fan from the Boston area, who’s been in and around the diamond practically since birth.
“I made the goal in 2005 coming out of high school: one day I’d work at Fenway Park,” Taillacq explains. “I really love baseball, and I grew up on a baseball field. I’ve played since I was 4 years old, in a Babe Ruth league and in high school.”
He pursued baseball through high school at Assabet Valley Regional Tech in Marlborough, Mass. His father, who’s now a Babe Ruth commissioner in central Massachusetts, is a certified umpire who was also his coach growing up. Yet the young man’s goal of playing in the majors didn’t quite work out. “I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be,” he says.
So, like his dad, he became an umpire.
“I’m actually a certified baseball umpire for high school, and I can do high school games, but I stick to Babe Ruth leagues,” Taillacq adds. “I’m still very much involved in baseball, but not like I used to be, because I’m now at school.”
The junior at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, studies turf grass management at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture. While at Assabet Valley, he took building and grounds management.
“I had to do a senior project to graduate,” Taillacq remembers. “Students must take something that’s related to their trade and give a presentation in front of a number of judges. I actually did my project on how they get the designs on the field at Fenway Park. That’s what got me interested in doing grounds crew work.”
By the time he was a senior, he was no stranger to SkillsUSA competitions.
“I tried three different competitions, and two didn’t work out the way I wanted,” he says. “I was part of the Small Engine Repair contest my sophomore year. I didn’t make it past districts.” Taillacq had taken small engine repair because it was the only available contest related to his trade and he wanted to be part of SkillsUSA. While he knows more about small engines and has no regrets, Taillacq says he was more successful when he moved on to a second contest.
“My junior year, I found out about the Team Build competition [now TeamWorks], and I was the first one in my school to develop a Team Build team.We didn’t have a masonry shop, so I took on the part of the mason and started the team. We did pretty good the first year, not having a real mason. We made it to states, but we didn’t do very well. It was a great experience. Then the final year, I entered into Job Skill Demo B.”
Taillacq turned the research for his senior project into a contest entry, which he titled “Turf Grass Designs on Baseball Fields,” complete with a scale model of Fenway Park.
The best resources for his project were books by David R. Mellor. “I actually met David Mellor, master groundskeeper of Fenway Park, at the Boston flower show, all by chance,” he says.
“My shop went to the Boston flower show; we go every year as an agriculture activity. Then I saw on TV that he was going to show up at the show the day after I went. So I got permission and took the day off from school. My mom took me into Boston just to meet him to get an interview with him. He was my main resource for the presentation.
“It was very interesting to talk to him,” Taillacq remembers, “because he had been an idol of mine since I first noticed the designs on the field were becoming more intricate. In 2001, when [Mellor] was hired, the field just kept getting better and better looking. I was really interested in how they actually got the patterns into the turf. That’s how I chose my senior project.
“My senior year for SkillsUSA, I competed and actually earned the gold medal for the state of Massachusetts in 2005, and I attended nationals and placed in the top 20.”
Turf grass management was now Taillacq’s career path; he was on his way to a home run. “I love anything that has to do with baseball. Baseball is one of my passions,” he points out.
In December 2006, Taillacq applied for an internship at Fenway Park but was disappointed when he didn’t get the job. Fortunately‚ Mellor remembered the young man who told him that turf grass was his passion. And, Taillacq was offered a position on the grounds crew for the next summer.
A home run! Taillacq was going to work at Fenway.
On the day he was issued his grounds crew jacket and cap, Taillacq went back to Assabet Valley Regional Tech. He was looking for his high-school baseball coach and SkillsUSA advisor, Steve Yurek, so he could give him a choice of tickets for a Red Sox game.
“Coach Yurek was a big part of my life at Assabet, and I wanted him to know that at least one of his players made it to Fenway,” Taillacq explains.
Home to the American League Red Sox, the park opened in 1912. All-time greats who played there include Cy Young, Babe Ruth, Jimmy Collins, Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski, to name a few.
“All the history of that park is exciting. Just being in the ballpark … It was, it still is America’s favorite ballpark.
“Walking out toward the stands coming out of one of the tunnels, you get a unique feeling about the place,” Taillacq adds. “It’s something I can’t describe. It’s history, it’s passion. Players have come and gone, like Ted Williams. You just get a feeling about the place.”
He struggles to put into words what it’s like to fulfill his dream of working at Fenway. Yet that dream became even more special when the Red Sox won the World Series in October, “during the same year that I worked on the grounds!” Taillacq exclaims.
“I’ve now raised that goal to becoming a head groundskeeper at any major league ballpark — except New York, because of the Yankees. I’m a Red Sox fan down deep inside.”
And, with the team winning another World Series, Taillacq has his opinion of the “Curse of the Bambino,” the notorious legend associated with Babe Ruth.
“There is no curse,” he laughs. “Not anymore. If there is one, I feel it’s been reversed on the Yankees. I now consider it the A-Rod curse. We started winning when he went to the Yankees.”