Obituary: Steve 'Dirt' DiNardo / He handled Three Rivers Stadium turf

Died Jan. 9

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One of John Madden's prized possessions is an old jacket presented to him by a cigar-champing, beefy Italian from Pittsburgh who would torment the Oakland Raiders as much as he could whenever they played in Three Rivers Stadium.

Yet somehow Mr. Madden, coach of the Raiders in the 1970s, took a liking to Steve "Dirt" DiNardo, head groundskeeper at Three Rivers Stadium, who would do anything to help the home team and often did.

The Hall of Fame football coach and the gregarious groundskeeper remained pals long after both of their retirements, and Mr. Madden would proudly mention that jacket Mr. DiNardo gave him, which made him an honorary member of the Three Rivers Stadium grounds crew.

Mr. DiNardo, 82, died of congestive heart failure Thursday night, 21 years after his retirement as head of the grounds crew for baseball and football games at the stadium. In a city full of sports characters in the past century such as Myron Cope, Bob Prince, Beano Cook and members of Franco's Italian Army, Mr. DiNardo belonged right up there.

"He was a national celebrity," said Mike Wagner, who earned four Super Bowl rings starting at free safety for the Steelers in the 1970s. "He sometimes got more attention than any of the players."

Mr. DiNardo was treated as one of the boys by the Pirates and Steelers, management and players alike, during his time working at Three Rivers Stadium and, before that, Forbes Field, where he started as a part-time groundskeeper in 1960. Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. and his son, Dan, who succeeded him, took Mr. DiNardo and members of his crew on their charter flights to away games, bought them lunches during the week and made sure they were well stocked with their favorite beverages. Current Steelers president Art Rooney II has a photo of Mr. DiNardo and Art Rooney Sr. together hanging in his office at Heinz Field.

Dan Rooney called him a "terrific man."

"He did much for the Steelers and Pirates organizations," Mr. Rooney said. "He had a unique personality, one our family grew to know and admire. Dirt was involved with everything that took place at Three Rivers Stadium. During some of our memorable games, Steve made things humorous, especially the many Steelers-Raiders battles -- one of the best rivalries in the NFL. Pittsburgh is truly the City of Champions, and Steve was in the middle of it all."

And Mr. DiNardo repaid the two teams that called Three Rivers Stadium home in kind, often bending the rules to help them.

"He was a homer all the way," said his son, Carmen DiNardo, who worked for his father's grounds crew and remains on the grounds crew at Heinz Field.

There were stories that Mr. DiNardo would order the gates behind the end zone facing the rivers to open when an opponent attempted a field goal in that direction, the wind swooping in to sometimes knock the ball down short of its mark. Former Reds manager Sparky Anderson once accused him of lowering Cincinnati's bullpen pitching mounds at Three Rivers, Carmen DiNardo said, so that Reds pitchers could not warm up at regulation height.

Mr. DiNardo took offense.

"I'm as good a groundskeeper as you are a manager," he told Anderson, who is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Mr. Madden said he was shocked to see Mr. DiNardo hosing down ice that had formed along the sidelines before the 1975 AFC championship game between the Raiders and Steelers at a frigid Three Rivers Stadium. The Oakland coach rushed over and asked Mr. DiNardo what he was doing. "Melting the ice," the groundskeeper said with a straight face.

And long before the famous snowplow game in New England, where a member of the grounds crew cleared a path to help the Patriots' John Smith deliver the winning field goal to defeat the Dolphins in 1982, Mr. DiNardo swept appropriate spots on snowy fields at Three Rivers Stadium in favor of the home team.

"He was accused sometimes of setting up the field for the advantage of the Steelers in bad weather, particularly against the Raiders," Mr. Wagner said. "It was good to know Dirt and his crew took great pride in doing those things."

But it wasn't all chicanery and fun and games. Mr. DiNardo, a Korean War veteran who also worked in the construction business, had a reputation as a strong taskmaster who made sure his crew had fields ready for baseball and football games, no matter what.

Jimmy Sacco, director of stadium management at Heinz Field and previously general manager at Three Rivers Stadium, was 16 years old when he first met Mr. DiNardo.

"He was the kind of guy who always gave you a hard time, pulled your leg, but you always knew whatever you needed to get done, he would get done -- snow, rain, sunshine, whatever," Mr. Sacco said. "He taught me some tricks of the trade. He was a craftsman and a good guy; everyone liked him."

Mr. DiNardo was particularly close to many players and coaches.

"He was just a treat every day on the practice field," Mr. Wagner said. "I've never seen such a happy-go-lucky guy day to day in what some of us would consider a mundane job. We loved seeing him on the field and off the field. He was just one of those characters, bigger than life. He'll be missed."

Mr. DiNardo lived in Scott and previously resided in Brookline and Oakland. He was preceded in death by his wife, Kathryn, and was the father of three: Cheryl Ann, Mary Kay and Carmine (Anne Marie) DiNardo, and grandfather of Kathryn Anne.

Services will be held at Frank F. DeBor Funeral Home and Cremation Services, 1065 Brookline Blvd., from 4 to 9 p.m. today and from 1 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Sunday. A Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Monday in the Church of Resurrection, Brookline.

Ed Bouchette: or on Twitter @edbouchette.

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