December 3, 2022

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Kiermaier bros. come together at Wrigley: 'Living the dream'

7 min read
Kevin's Rays head to Friendly Confines, where Dan is head groundskeeper
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CHICAGO — There is a bit of Wrigley Field’s famous Boston ivy, planted by the Clavey family some 85 years ago at the base of the old ballpark’s brick outfield wall, growing in a garden in Fort Wayne., Ind. It is tended to by an aunt of the Kiermaier brothers.

“Not many people can say that,” said Dan Kiermaier, who is the head groundskeeper at Wrigley Field.

A few years ago, Kiermaier gathered some seeds from the Friendly Confines’ ivy, froze them over a winter and gave them to her as a gift. The Cubs are her favorite team, just like her nephews, who include Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier.

This week, Kevin will be roaming center field, which will have been prepped by his older brother and his team of workers, as the Rays begin a three-game series against the Cubs on Monday night. And when Kevin looks around the stadium, he will surely be able to spot places they sat as kids, watching Sammy Sosa launch home runs with that same green ivy in full bloom.

“It’s going to be an awesome, awesome three days,” Kevin said. “It’s three days that no one can ever take away from me and my brother. When we’re old and later on in life, we can look back like, ‘I played on Uncle Dan’s field,’ or whatever, back in the day. We’re always going to have a story behind it with this series coming up, and I’m going to cherish it forever.”

The brothers feel they’ve been waiting for it forever, too. Kevin played three games at Wrigley Field as a Rays rookie in 2014, before Dan joined the Cubs’ grounds crew. He was making plans for Tampa Bay’s series on Chicago’s North Side in 2017, only to miss the trip after fracturing his right hip about a month before. And the Rays were slated for another appearance at Wrigley Field in 2020, but the pandemic wiped that off the schedule.

Now, the moment’s finally here.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Dan said. “But it’s going to be really cool to kind of have our career paths cross in this moment. We’ve been looking forward to it for a long time. It’ll just be a really cool, unique moment for us.”

Growing up, Dan and Kevin had a relationship like any pair of brothers. They played basketball in their driveway. They were baseball teammates in Little League and high school. And, of course, they competed and disagreed a lot.

“We got in fights every single day,” Dan said with a laugh. “I remember rooting against him in the dugout, and him vice versa. We both wanted to outdo each other all the time.”

One thing they could agree on? Baseball.

Dan was a pitcher and an outfielder, admittedly better on the mound than at the plate. While preparing for their seasons at a local college, they’d get in the cages and square off with Dan pitching to Kevin.

“We both had our moments where we’d get to outduel one another,” Dan said.

Dan recognized late in high school, however, that his younger brother had surpassed him athletically. Kevin became an all-state baseball and football player, played at Parkland College, then grew into arguably the Majors’ best defensive outfielder.

“I was good, but nothing like how he was. I could see him kind of elevating every single year,” Dan said. “Me being the older brother, I could kind of feel him a little bit in the wings. … He’s always been a phenomenal athlete.

“Once I quit playing and kind of lost a little bit of that competitive fire, and just had a good rooting interest, I definitely cheer for him now. But I couldn’t say the same 20 years ago.”

Both have always been fans of the sport they now make a living in — specifically of the Cubs. Dan recalls anticipating the three-hour drive they’d make from Fort Wayne every summer and “being in awe” of Wrigley Field, one of baseball’s cathedrals. There are still photos of them, tucked away in their parents’ house, standing in front of the marquee at the Friendly Confines.

“A lot of good memories there. A lot of fun times,” Dan said. “It’s just been a special place to us for a long time.”

In the summer of 1998, the Kiermaiers went to their first game at Wrigley Field and sat down the third-base line. Kevin was 8 years old and Dan was 10, and they were enthralled watching Sosa slug his way into the pursuit of MLB’s single-season home run record. On that particular day, Dan believes, Sosa hit his 42nd homer of the season.

“We were just ecstatic,” Dan said. “It was the coolest thing in the world in our eyes.”

“We definitely had some memories there,” Kevin added. “Sammy Sosa was our guy, so we’d always emulate him and watch him.”

There was also the time they sat down the left-field line and Kevin inhaled an entire bag of peanuts on his own. They were sitting behind an intoxicated fan who took a Fred McGriff foul ball to the face, splitting open a wound just above his eye. Squeamish at the sight of blood, Kevin said he “turned pale like a ghost instantly.”

“I’ve never done well with blood, and I just puked these peanuts everywhere. Like, Exorcist. Projectile. Everywhere,” Kevin said, laughing. “And then we left that next half-inning, because my parents were like, ‘Let’s just get home. We’ve got a three-hour drive. Let’s get home.’”

The Rays selected Kevin in the 31st round of the 2010 Draft. By 2013, he was in the Majors. Two years later, he won the first of his three Gold Glove Awards. Five years ago, he received a long-term contract extension that has kept him with Tampa Bay for a decade. Now 31 years old, the former late-round pick has become one of the most productive players in Rays history and a key figure in their clubhouse culture.

In his opinion, his brother’s story is even better.

“For my brother to have the journey that he’s had and be the head groundskeeper for the Cubs at Wrigley Field, a historic ballpark — I mean, sometimes it doesn’t even seem real,” Kevin said. “My journey is incredible. His journey is just as incredible, if not more incredible than mine for how he worked his way up.

“Life’s all about taking advantage of opportunities. And the Kiermaier boys, we’ve done just that. We’re truly living the dream.”

Dan looked into playing baseball at smaller, Division III schools but decided against it and attended Purdue University instead. He just had no idea what he wanted to do for a living. He tried to pursue physical therapy for two semesters and didn’t like it. But one of his close friends was studying turf science, working to become a golf course superintendent, and explained to Dan there was a sports turf side of the business as well.

“That really kind of rung a bell for me, just because growing up playing baseball my whole life, and me and my brothers mowed lawns around the neighborhood during the summers,” Dan said. “I always enjoyed that, but never thought of it as a career. When he kind of told me that, I honestly took a chance and ended up loving everything about it.”

Dan, now 33, says he “lucked into” the path he’s taken. But like his brother, he’s worked to get where he is now. He started with an internship with the Staten Island Yankees out of college and said he “fell in love with everything about being a baseball groundskeeper.” He worked his way up the industry ladder — much like a Minor Leaguer — and became Wrigley Field’s head groundskeeper in 2020.

“With how special that place is,” he said, “for them to entrust me to take care of it, it’s just a dream come true.”

The job comes with some cool, only-in-baseball perks. Like last season, when Cubs bench coach Andy Green invited Dan and his crew to take batting practice on the field he maintains. Dan sent a home run clanking off the left-field bleacher seats — making him, technically, the only Kiermaier to homer at Wrigley.

And when the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, Dan got to celebrate. He received a championship ring the next year and let Kevin check it out and try it on.

“Obviously, his ultimate goal is to win a World Series,” Dan said. “I’m hoping one day that we’ll have one for him, too.”

This week will be a family affair for the Kiermaiers, and not just the brothers. Their parents, Jim and Chris, are coming into town to watch the series with Dan and Kevin’s wives and children plus a few more friends. Kevin secured a suite for them to take in all three games at Wrigley Field.

Kevin and Dan met up at the Rays’ team hotel after they flew into Chicago on Thursday night, the beginning of a week-long stay with Tampa Bay facing the White Sox and Cubs. Kevin says they are a “low-key type of family,” not prone to overexcitement or emotional reactions, but they couldn’t hide how much they were looking forward to this series.

“I was like, ‘Dude, it’ll be the coolest thing ever,’” Kevin said. “It’s going to be so special.”

Kevin just had one request for his older brother. The speedy center fielder jokingly asked if the head groundskeeper could possibly soak the area in front of Wrigley Field’s home plate a little more than usual, just to help him get a bunt down.

It’s a nice thought, but it’s not happening. For the next three days, the Kiermaier brothers are once again friendly rivals.

“As an opposing player, even though he is my brother, I’m not going to expect a whole lot,” Kevin said. “I’m just looking forward to being out there and playing on the field that him and his crew are upkeeping every day and making it look beautiful as can be. It’ll be an honor to stand out there in center field.”

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