Long before the first kids take the field, long before the first parent shows up with a folding chair, and certainly long before the umpire yells “Play ball!,” baseball and softball facility managers should be several innings into their own game plan--getting the fields ready for a new season of batters, pitchers, catchers, fielders, shortstops and more.
Depending on the location, fields may see heavy use year-round, or they may host daily play for several months, then in winter have no use at all.
But whenever the weather is good and the game is on, the fields are expected to be ready. Whether they can be depends on how much time is put into them.
“Ball-field playability is directly related to the level of personal care and commitment of the infield area,” says Mark Wrona of URS Corporation in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“Keeping a safe, firm, playable surface through heavy use and varying weather conditions is the fundamental ball-field maintenance challenge.”
Another challenge, says Dan Wright of Sports Turf Company in Whitesburg, Ga., is trying to balance the needs of a field against a budget.
“Maintenance is always an issue for rec and parks departments,” Wright notes. “Typically, there's not enough money in the budget to adequately maintain the fields as required. Over time, the fields deteriorate to the point of needing a renovation, especially the infields.”
Both Wrona and Wright note that infield material can migrate throughout the season, and is particularly prone to build up in various places on the playing surface, such as the grass edge between the infield and outfield.
Periodic infield dragging--an important factor in restoring the surface after hard play--can cause excess material to become packed where the grass ends, and can impact play by causing improper ball bounce. It also can create a “lip” or dam that keeps water from draining properly, and can mean the infield stays wet longer than it should.
“To help prevent this infield/outfield mound, keep back from the grass edge when dragging the infield,” Wrona notes. “Never drag in the direction of the outfield, and after dragging, hand-rake this particular edge in a direction away from the fields. Also, rake base paths perpendicular to the direction of the base runner.”
Unfortunately, says Wright, one problem tends to perpetuate itself--purchasing cheap material. “If the baseball skinned area was installed using an infield material that is too sandy or has a large silt and clay content, the infield will never be right. If the buyer keeps getting the infield material from the same source, that problem will never be fixed.”
Give It A Rest
Natural turf fields--used by a majority of municipal facilities--have always required care in order to preserve the best possible playing conditions. After heavy rains, fields should be closed to all traffic (players and maintenance equipment, like mowers). It keeps players safe, and limits the possibility of compaction, depressions and damage that can be caused by equipment tires.
Note: If a field is irrigated, make sure to adjust periodically to allow for weather conditions in order to keep the grass from becoming too wet or too dry.
To safeguard fields even further, limit mowing when temperatures soar, since grass can scorch. Frequent mowing, adds Wrona, keeps the grass about 2 inches high, and is far better for the field than “scalping” the turf when more than one-third of the height of the grass blade is cut off all at once.
Those who work with fields agree that above all, proper field drainage is essential.
“If the fields were not graded with laser-technology equipment and not graded properly, there will always be a problem with standing water on the field,” notes Wright.
“The fields should be graded so that water drains away from the field the shortest distance. For example, the infield pitcher’s mound area should be the highest point in the infield and graded so water drains to the sidelines and to the outfield. The infield should have radial grading to ensure uniform grades for proper surface drainage of water.”
Preserving Some Traditions
Some cities have switched to synthetic-turf sports fields. Many chose this option to save money on mowing, fertilizing, etc., and to shorten the downtime caused by fields that are muddy or too wet to play on without damaging the surface.
If you're considering such a facility, you'll want to preserve some aspects of a traditional ball field.
“Even on synthetic-turf fields, the pitcher’s mound and batters’ boxes can (and in some cases should) remain infield material,” says Tony Wood of Beals Alliance Inc. in Sacramento, Calif.
“While the maintenance required to deal with the migration of infield material into the synthetic-turf infill may be cumbersome, it is minimal when compared to the maintenance needs of a natural-turf field.”
However, he notes, make sure to carefully check the manufacturer's recommendations before installation.
“Ensure that you are not doing anything that could place your warranty in danger. In most instances, the high-use areas of an all-synthetic ball field (the batter's box and pitching landing area) are susceptible to excessive wear long before the rest of the field is in need of repair or replacement. Often, these areas are called out specifically as 'non-warrantee' items, but are easily replaced by a qualified synthetic-turf contractor.”
A synthetic-turf field is more expensive than traditional grass, adds Wood, but the cost can be offset by its value to the municipality.
“In stadiums specifically, coaches ferociously protect their natural-turf fields in hopes of it surviving for the ‘big game.’ The life-cycle cost analysis on any synthetic-turf installation only shows an advantage to the client when they use it. The protection of a good warranty and regular maintenance suggests that the more you actually use your field, the better the value to the client. So rather than chasing the youth programs and marching band off of the field, put up lights and use it as much as possible, knowing that every time it is used, the ‘better deal’ you are getting.”
Besides, Woods points out the extra use can help keep vandals away from the facility. If there's one thing potential troublemakers hate, it's an audience.
And never underestimate the value of an involved and invested community member. It can make the biggest difference of all to any field, public or private, natural or man-made.
“Schreiber Field in LaPorte, Indiana, was voted Field of the Year by STMA (Sports Turf Manager Association) a few years ago,” Woods adds.
“The most important piece of maintenance equipment was the coach that lived directly across the street that walked the field with his dog every day. Any puddle, weed or piece of trash that existed on the field had less than a 24-hour lifespan.”
Note: The American Sports Builders Association (ASBA) is a non-profit organization helping designers, builders, owners, operators and users understand quality sports- facility construction. For more information, call (866) 501-ASBA (2722), or visit www.sportsbuilders.org .
Mary Helen Sprecher has been a technical writer for more than 20 years with the American Sports Builders Association. She has written on various topics relating to sports-facility design, construction and supply, as well as sports medicine, education, health and industrial issues. She is an avid racquetball and squash player, and a full-time newspaper reporter in Baltimore, Md.