Photo Courtesy of istockphoto.
And ... play ball! Or don't. At least not until you've made sure your field is in good shape. By field I mean all parts of the field, not just the green parts.
The skinned infield of a baseball or softball facility can become an afterthought, since it doesn't require watering, fertilizing and similar care. It needs to be raked and groomed, but unless the facility is seeing serious professional action even that might be left until the last minute.
So, what needs to be done to keep that great expanse of reddish-brown looking great? A few chores that, when performed regularly, add up to a great-looking field.
Baseball: Professional, College, High School
Make it a point to do a walk-through of your facility. You don't necessarily have to do it every day, but you should be doing it at a minimum of once a week. This will allow you to spot problems while they're still minor and before they interfere with play on the field.
What's the dirt?
While many schools, recreational facilities and others are looking to synthetic turf for baseball and softball fields (and corresponding synthetic surfaces for their infields), we'll assume for the sake of this article that the field we're dealing with is natural grass, with a loose granular surface for the skinned section.
The type of surface is the first thing to understand. Some fields have skinned areas that are plain dirt, meaning whatever is under the grass normally is what you'll find in the infield. Others are a brand-name, premixed blend of sand, silt, clay, binder and other ingredients. The choice of which to use will depend on the natural soil (if any) present at the site, the facility's budget, the resources available to dedicate to maintenance, as well as the level of play and the frequency of use. Additionally, an infield blend may be mixed to stand up to the weather normally experienced in that area. A professional field builder familiar with the conditions can be consulted for recommendations.
Softball: Professional, College, High School
Smoothing out the rough spots
Grooming the infield, whether the surface is native soil or a professional blend, should be a regular part of the maintenance plan. Smoothing out high and low areas, removing rocks or stones, and creating an even playing surface creates a more consistent athletic experience. It also enhances the safety of players and on-field officials. Any large, visible objects should be removed. After that the field should be moistened slightly with a hose, sprinkler or irrigation system, and then combed carefully with a metal drag mat.
Use caution when dragging the field so as not to create a lip of infield material at the edges of the grass. This is a two-step problem in that it can trip players who are running, and when there is rain, or when the ground is wet from irrigation, the lip can trap water on the field and not allow it to drain properly. Use an infield rake to comb away any material that is packed near the edge of the grass or anywhere else on the field.
With as much as 70 percent of the average baseball game taking place on the infield, proper maintenance is critical.
Photo courtesy of Stantec Sport, Boston, Mass.
While you're at it, take time to walk your running track and make sure it's maintained and there's no grass encroaching into it. After all, if players can't feel its texture, it's no safety feature whatsoever. Consult the appropriate governing body regarding the width of the warning track and any other considerations. Get recommendations from a professional field builder concerning an appropriate surface for the warning track.
Pitcher's mound care
Like every other part of your field, the pitcher's mound is not self-maintaining. What's more, it is notoriously difficult to maintain according to a specific guideline, and the higher the level of play, the more exacting the tolerances are. Check with the applicable governing body to find out what the dimensions are for the level of play in your facility, and check with a field builder if specific construction assistance is needed. Check in advance: Remember that some jobs may take longer to accomplish than you anticipate because of scheduling, weather and more.
Admittedly it's not a sexy topic, but it's essential. The right slope will allow your field to shed water more efficiently. The next time there is a rainout, or the next time you water the field, check the surface. Look for puddles, areas of standing water, or areas that simply fail to dry completely when the rest of the field has done so. These can be a sign of incorrect slope, or they can signify soil that doesn't drain well. A field builder will know for sure.
Because play often takes place immediately after a rain has stopped, the surface can become rutted. This damages the grass, damages the infield, and it creates dangerous conditions. Unfortunately, most players aren't aware of the latter until it's too late.
Playing the field
While the field manager has to keep a close eye on the facility, it's also essential to use another sense: hearing. Listen to what players and coaches are saying. Are they commenting about field conditions? Are they mentioning slippery areas? Do they simply love the facility? No matter what, they're the ones on the field, and they're most impacted by conditions, so it's essential to get their input and to give it the attention it deserves.
Mary Helen Sprecher is a technical writer with The American Sports Builders Association (ASBA), a nonprofit association helping designers, builders, owners, operators and users understand quality sports facility construction.