While the pitcher is kicking at the dirt on the mound, wondering what to throw next, the batter stands in the box in the ready position.
And what about you? As a parks manager, if you've done all your work ahead of time, you're probably out dealing with another facility or field--at least for now.
The great American pastime--particularly on the rec level--became what it is because of the hard work of people like you. And without you to lay the groundwork … well, people probably would be trotting off to watch another sport entirely.
Admittedly, in some regions, ball fields are used all year long. In others, the spring tune-up is on the horizon.
But no matter where you are geographically, a thorough review of fields and facilities is always a good idea.
The Grass Is Always Greener
Natural-turf fields, found at a majority of municipal facilities, require special care in order to preserve the best playing conditions.
Walk each field looking for areas that need work; these might include dead grass, holes dug by dogs or other animals, signs of insect infestation, muddy areas, bare areas, and more. Address these problems so each field has a uniform surface.
Part of that surface renewal, say field builders, includes grading. The goal is to move water off the field entirely so the whole facility dries more quickly after a rain.
“One of the biggest problems I see on natural-grass facilities are fields not being graded to drain off the water efficiently,” says Dan Wright of SportsTurf Company Inc. in Whitesburg, Ga.
“Fields should be graded as to move water off the field the shortest distance. In many instances, I see fields graded from the outfield through home plate, meaning the water moves from the outfield across and through the infield.
"For baseball and softball infields, the highest point of the infield should be the pitcher's circle. The infield arc should be the start for grading the outfield with a slope of at least 1-percent to 1.75-percent sloping toward the outfield fence.”
For those fields that are currently not able to be mowed, they will be soon. To safeguard fields, limit mowing when temperatures soar, since grass can be burned.
Frequent mowing will keep the grass about 2 inches high, and that is far better for the field than “scalping” the turf, where more than one-third of the height of the grass blade is cut off. Cutting too short also leads to growth of undesirable vegetation, and can ruin the quality of the fields.
Remember the soil beneath the grass too, says Wright, and avoid excessive compaction.
“Fields can become too hard, and then grass struggles to grow, especially if fields are extensively used. Periodic deep-tine aeration and topdressing with a root-zone material is required.”
In a perfect world (which few, if any, of us inhabit), fields would be closed to all traffic (players and maintenance equipment) after rains, or between periods of heavy use in order to help the grass rest and the field come back to normal.
Unfortunately, with maintenance budgets taking a back seat to the need of municipalities to make money by renting out fields whenever possible, few park managers have the opportunity to give fields the rest they need.
Some cities have installed synthetic-turf sports fields, including those for baseball and softball facilities. Many cities have chosen this option to save money on mowing, fertilizing, etc., and to reduce the downtime caused by fields that were muddy or too wet to play on without damaging the surface.
No system--natural or synthetic--is maintenance-free, however. Synthetic-turf manufacturers provide recommendations for maintenance of their specific system; make sure to follow these instructions.
If problems occur, consult the contractor or the manufacturer. Don't undertake any work that might damage the turf or void any warranty.
In The Infield Areas
Foot traffic, maintenance, wind, and weather cause infield material to migrate throughout the season, and as managers know, it is particularly prone to building up in various places on the playing surface.
“Buildup of infield material along the infield arc is also a problem,” says Wright.
“This is created from dragging the infields and leaving a deposit of infield material at the arc. Routine maintenance is required to keep this buildup from occurring. This buildup of the arc does not allow water to drain off the infield, thus water stands on the skinned area.”
Take some time after dragging to hand-rake any built-up material, and move it away from the fields.
Be sure to rake base paths perpendicular to the direction base runners will take, and make sure those paths are smooth and straight, and free of anything that might trip an athlete.
With the fields well in hand, it's time to turn your attention to the other aspects of the facilities:
If your baseball or softball field is surrounded by fencing, walk the periphery--inside and outside. Look for areas where the fabric of the fence is rusting, sagging, or bulging. Check for loose or detached rails, crooked or fallen posts and, if necessary, call your maintenance personnel or a fence contractor.
If there are gates, check whether they can swing freely, or whether any equipment needs repair.
If your fence has some type of padded cap on the top so athletes running for a ball can attempt challenging plays, make sure the cap is securely fastened.
It takes only a few minutes to check these items, but much longer to regret not doing it.
Check the backstop too (looking for problems the same way you examined the fence), and make sure it is structurally sound.
Various types of bases are available on the market. Whichever type the facility has, make sure they are in good repair. Spending the money on a new piece of equipment that ensures player safety will pay dividends.
If there is a separate fenced area for players to store extra equipment, personal belongings, or street clothing while they are playing, check this area for security.
Dugouts, Player Benches, And Spectator Facilities
If any structures are made of wood, make sure they are kept sanded and either painted or stained to avoid splinters. Look for cracks in the wood.
Many seats are made of aluminum or another metal; check for burrs, sharp edges, exposed hardware, and more.
If the facility has lighting, be sure all fixtures are operating and have not burned out, or developed problems. Remember that good lighting will illuminate the field evenly and allow players to see what is happening, even from a distance.
Sufficient lighting will also keep players safe, not only by allowing them to see clearly what is on the field, but by keeping the facility brightly lit as a deterrent to vandals and other mischief-makers.
Promptly address small problems--weeds here, a burned-out light there, a sagging fence rail somewhere else--before they have the opportunity to turn into big problems. It makes a facility better overall, and keeps athletes happy.
And that's one in the win column for you.
Note: The American Sports Builders Association (ASBA) is a non-profit association helping designers, builders, owners, operators, and users understand quality sports-facility construction. The ASBA sponsors informative meetings and publishes newsletters, books, and technical construction guidelines for athletic facilities, including sports fields. It also offers voluntary certification programs in sports-facility construction and maintenance, including sports fields. Available at no charge is a listing of all publications offered by the Association, as well as the ASBA’s Membership Directory. Info: 866-501-ASBA (2722) or 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, and health and industrial issues. She is an avid racquetball and squash player, and a full-time newspaper reporter in Baltimore, Md.