How many parks and recreation agencies do you know that invest in a synthetic-turf baseball field? Not many. But it made sense in Arlington County, Va.
The county’s Barcroft Field 6 has been home to the George Washington University (GW) Colonials baseball team since 1993. A Division I team in the Atlantic 10, the team shared the field with Arlington’s recreation leagues, and in return, was responsible for routine maintenance, upkeep, and improvements. In 2011, the university’s Board of Trustees Athletics Committee wanted to raise the university’s athletic-performance profile nationally, and reached out to Arlington as part of that effort. The county and GW worked together to develop a field that meets the needs of both the larger community and the university.
Why Synthetic Turf?
Located just outside Washington, D.C., the county had nine rectangular synthetic-turf fields at the time but didn’t have plans to build a synthetic-turf diamond field. GW wanted this type of field for several reasons. First, in Arlington, natural-turf fields are usually in a frozen or dormant state when the collegiate baseball season starts in February. Freezing weather—including snow—routinely occurs through March. This makes practicing difficult, and it is unhealthy for natural turf. Synthetic turf eliminates these issues: it plays well in cold temperatures, can be swept clean of snow, and isn’t damaged by cold-weather use.
What’s more, synthetic-turf fields drain much more quickly and uniformly than do natural-turf fields. Therefore, they are more playable during light rains and have much shorter delays after heavy rains. This is particularly important when hosting out-of-state teams. It also minimizes cancellations of practices caused by frequent spring showers. And, finally, the field is shared with various recreation leagues and baseball camps, which makes for an unusually high amount of wear and tear on a collegiate field. Synthetic turf stands up better to this intensity of use and requires less overall maintenance for top playing conditions.
“Usually, the biggest initial challenge with using synthetic turf for a baseball field is the coaching staff and players being worried that it will not have the ‘feel’ of a traditional natural-turf field with skinned zones, especially at the pitcher’s mound, home plate, and the bases,” says Richard Salopek, AIA, architect of record and team leader, of Bowie Gridley Architects in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, there are now enough examples of good synthetic fields that skeptics can try them out firsthand. Also, the best turf manufacturers have developed ways to integrate traditional elements, such as clay mounds, home plate halos, and base paths, into the turf system. After weighing all of the options, GW chose to build the entire field in synthetic turf and use a traditional clay pitcher’s mound. This has worked exceptionally well for the university.
The result is a field that was recently ranked as the top stadium facility in the Atlantic 10 Conference and number 68 in the U.S. by Stadium Journey Magazine. Barcroft Field 6, now called Tucker Field, earned a 3.40 rating out of 5 in the review of the top 211 collegiate baseball facilities in the nation.
Differences In Design
While the basic technical considerations are similar for diamond and rectangular fields, there are several areas that require extra care and consideration with a diamond field. First, baseball has unique playability factors that must be carefully considered when selecting a turf system. For instance: how a hit ball reacts when it strikes the turf; the traction characteristics related to rapid lateral fielder movement; how the surface reacts to players sliding into bases; and how home plate and bases are anchored. All of these factors must be weighed when selecting the turf system and the sand/rubber proportions for the infill material.
For this field, GW chose to use a clay mound to keep the traditional “feel” and performance found on a natural field. Careful detailing is required to make a smooth transition between natural clay and synthetic turf. The areas surrounding the bases and home plate also need to be considered. Making provisions for maintaining and replacing turf at these areas is critical to long-term playability, as these areas tend to wear down at a more rapid rate due to sliding. Arlington is also planning on renovating the infield prior to any other turf renovations. At the warning track, it also is important to have a different consistency of infill mix so fielders will have a different feel under their feet as they approach the fence.
Choosing The Product
There are many critical steps for choosing the appropriate product for your installation:
- Experience matters. Evaluate products from manufacturers that have a proven track record with baseball fields. Rectangular-field experience should not be a relevant factor.
- Fully understand playability characteristics and durability features. Decision-makers as well as coaches and athletic program staff should visit other synthetic-turf fields and talk with other owners and coaches to gain a firsthand understanding of the pros and cons of various systems. Coaches and players should play on some of these fields to fully appreciate the feel and how they might different from natural turf.
- Pay attention to details. The designer should provide details of all transition areas between the field and adjacent surfaces to ensure that these areas will function properly and be long-lasting.
- Select an installer who has a track record of successful installation, and equally important, a commitment to providing follow-up service if something must be repaired or adjusted.
Susan Kalish is the Public Relations Director for the Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation in Virginia. Reach her at Skalish@arlingtonva.us.
Sidebar: Rectangle Or Diamond?
Is it a soccer or football field? Is it for baseball, kickball, or softball? Where is the field for rugby, ultimate Frisbee, or lacrosse? Is there a cricket pitch?
Sports fields reflect the diversity that has made America's culture so rich. They also reflect the competition for scheduling and budget allocations. Arlington County only has two types of fields: rectangular and diamond. True, most of the rectangular fields have soccer games and diamond fields are used for baseball, but by not labeling them for a specific sport, the county is trying to promote sports inclusion in Arlington.
“People do seem to think twice when we ask them what type of field they want to schedule, rectangular or diamond,” says Robin Leonard, Deputy Division Chief, and Facilities Operations. “But we think it reminds people that no one sport owns our fields.”
But the naming isn’t seamless. When going to the county’s website, you can search on football or soccer or lacrosse fields, all of which will send you to a rectangular field. “Change doesn’t happen overnight. And we don’t want people to think we don’t recognize that we have fields to play baseball. We just want them to realize we have lots of options to play,” Leonard says.
Sidebar: Good Partnership, Great Results
In 2012, the Arlington County Board approved a 20-year agreement with George Washington University under which the university provided close to $5 million to substantially upgrade and improve the baseball field at Barcroft Park. The community will use the field about 75 percent of the time, and given that the field is synthetic turf, usage will exceed that currently enjoyed by the community. Most of GW’s use of the field will be on weekday mornings or afternoons—before most community recreational players will need it. “GWU made the best baseball field in Arlington, and gave the community even more field time than before,” says Board Chairman Jay Fisette. “This is a great example of how local government can leverage public-private partnerships to bring real benefits to the community.”
How was it possible to make this a win-win? The county approved the design and construction documents. GW contributes money annually for maintenance, operations, and utilities based on its pro-rated share of field use. The proposed improvements are expected to increase the county’s annual maintenance costs for the field in FY 2013 by $25,000, to $40,000.
Does a partnership work for you? Elements of a sound partnership include:
- Consistency with county vision and laws.
- No loss of county authority.
- No private use of public land exclusively for private gain.
- No displacement of existing county programs, unless the agreement supports or enhances county mission.
- Clear and measurable guidelines.
- Public value added to the park experience.
- No adverse impact or restriction of public access.
Sidebar: Design Team
Architect of record and team leader: Bowie Gridley Architects (Washington, D.C.)
Baseball facility specialist architect: DLR Group (Overland Park, Kan.)
Civil engineer: VIKA, Inc. (McLean, Va.)
Field manufacturer: FieldTurf
General contractor: Whiting Turner Contracting Co. (Chantilly, Va.)