An effective baseball coach wouldn't think about sending his team onto the field without a game plan--a strategy the players can use to outplay and outscore their opponents.
Why should you, as a manager, let anyone use a field without a maintenance plan?
It makes sense, doesn't it? And while you're not out there trying to pitch, hit, and run in a way your opponent isn't expecting, you are trying to vanquish weeds, annihilate pests, and create a superior playing environment, even when Mother Nature doesn't seem to want to cooperate.
A game plan for proper field-maintenance and management starts in the pre-season, not a few days before players are due to take the field.
Here's a quick primer from field builders on what to do and how to do it:
In a perfect world, sunshine and warm, drenching spring rains would result in an emerald-green field.
Do you live in a perfect world? Nobody does. As a result, there's fertilizer.
“If you are in a situation of very limited access-time for maintenance of grass fields, consider use of very slow-release fertilizer formulations and use of growth regulators,” says Chad Price of Carolina Green Corp. in Indian Trail, N.C.
“This will result in fewer trips across the field with equipment, without sacrificing grass quality.”
Keep a careful eye on all aspects of the field, Price adds.
“In performing field inspections, look at safety first. Obviously, irregular surfaces, trip hazards, and ankle twisters are a concern, but look also at organic threats, such as bees and other insects. Clover flowers are a big attractant for bees. The best time for weed control for clover is typically fall or spring, before flowering starts.
"Fire ants are also a big problem for southern locations. Some of the year-round controls are also applied in the winter/early spring. Look at the soil for glass, rocks, or debris that may surface once the turf gets worn or thin. Check for hazards on perimeter areas that kids may wander off into, such as woods, fences, and other hardscapes.”
Look for worn areas where players typically stand, and re-sod or re-seed these areas. Again, this is a much more effective strategy if it's launched in the fall so that new grass has time to establish. Sodding or seeding right before players take to the field means there's little chance for new growth.
Depending upon your geographic location, the big issue may not be waiting for grass to grow in following a hard winter, but waiting for the warm-weather grasses to re-establish.
“Most park-and-recreation fields in the southeast are Bermuda grass fields,” notes Dan Wright of Sports Turf Company in Whitesburg, Ga.
“Sometimes these fields are over-seeded with perennial ryegrass in the winter to maintain a green color for winter play while the Bermuda grass is dormant. It is an important process to transition out the ryegrass so as not to damage the Bermuda grass. The spring transition is the process of removing the perennial rye as soon as the dormant Bermuda begins to come out of dormancy (this process is known as ‘green-up’). The canopy of rye grass can kill Bermuda grass, so it is essential to be aware of what is happening.”
Wright notes that at the first sign the dormant Bermuda begins to green up, the following steps should be taken:
• There should be minimum or no mowing during January and February, but by late February, the process of mowing should be underway. Mow on a regular schedule during March and April. Mow with a reel mower.
• Mow the rye grass at a height of ¾ of an inch, and at a maximum of 1 inch.
• Mow to keep grass this height about three times a week, but not on consecutive days.
• Apply an appropriate product that will assist in the fast removal of the perennial rye during transition.
Ins And Outs Of The Infield
Because the grass fields demand statistically more time in mowing, weeding, and sodding, one may think the skinned areas of the facility don't need as much attention. But the pros say that’s a misconception.
“The most critical issue facing baseball and softball field managers is skinned infield maintenance--specifically lip build-up,” says Patrick Maguire of Activitas Inc., in Dedham, Mass.
“Often the skinned infield is considered ‘low maintenance’ by municipalities, leagues, and field managers--and by low maintenance, I mean no maintenance more often than not. In reality, it is the most maintenance-intense part of the field and the place where 99 percent of all play occurs.”
Maguire notes the correct infield surface-mix should be chosen (typical mixes use a combination of sand, silt, clay, binder, and more to achieve the right consistency for the level of play, the climate, and the amount of use).
“Once the right mix is chosen, keeping the right amount of moisture in the infield is paramount,” says Maguire.
“Also, keeping the mix in the infield and not dragging it into the infield or outfield grass is critical. When a lip begins to build up, it is a major safety issue and impedes proper drainage off of the infield. When this begins, it usually gets worse, as coaches, players, and umpires will often push puddles off of the field and into the outfield grass. This only exacerbates the issue.”
Effectively Equip Your Field
Just because equipment was ship-shape last year doesn't mean it can be ignored this year. Conduct an investigation and inspection early so that, if necessary, repairs can be made or replacements ordered.
“Look at the bases to see if any need replacing, and that includes home plates and pitching rubbers,” says Wright.
“Are the dugout benches in good condition or need replacing? What is the condition of the fence--does it need any repairs to include replacement of any polycap material on the outfield fence?”
Some other things to examine, Wright notes, are aspects at the periphery of the field.
“Check any banners or windscreens attached to the fences. You may find you have to either repair, replace, or take down any unserviceable banners or windscreens.”
In many cases, banners may be the responsibility of individual teams or programs, since they indicate a local business has sponsored a team. Teams should update banners as a sign of continued gratitude to the sponsors.
Many of the problems athletic fields suffer from are caused by incorrect drainage. On natural fields, the soil may hold the water too long, or an incorrect slope traps water in puddles on the surface.
“The most important issue to address is surface drainage,” says Price.
“Make sure the field has positive surface drainage. If the field has bird baths and pot holes, fix them first so the water gets off the field. This will result in less down time for play, and less damage to the field. It will also require less maintenance staff and inputs if you do not have to worry with standing water on the surface.”
As was mentioned earlier, having the correct surface mix for the conditions is essential. Correct grading and avoiding build-ups that can trap water will remain a factor in successful field performance.
In all aspects of your field, it's essential to begin planning months in advance. By the time the umpire yells “Play Ball!” your own game should be well underway.
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.