Spring of 2014 was a terrific challenge for many baseball and softball field managers. Old Man Winter hung around too long, as he sometimes does, and by the middle of March many ballpark groundskeepers were starting to wonder how they would remove this persistent winter snow and ice pack off the field and thaw things out by the time the season starts. It was even tougher in some minor league parks, which lack the resources of the Major League clubs.
As usual, we saw sports field managers at their best all across the country. Innovating and creating solutions on the fly, they tapped into colleague knowledge from their peers up north in places like Minneapolis and Detroit that deal with these things more years than not. Many lessons were learned, and you may want to dust them off.
Most ballparks are oriented to the north or northeast, but not all. This puts a lot of the challenge around home plate and first and third base foul areas because of the winter/spring shade line in ballparks. Last year we saw many teams borrowing from their professional football colleagues, blowing warmed air under the infield cover and even inflating or “doming” the tarp.
I don’t recommend working under a field tarp domed in such a way. There’s often a lot of exhaust in the air under a domed tarp from the heaters, and it’s a dark, shifty place that can get dangerous when winds are strong. Somebody has to monitor such a system constantly and have the appropriate safety measures in place.
Be ready to drop the cover down when any significant wind kicks up, and vent some air out opposite from the source, heated or not, to get the best results. You’ve got to vent, as this will make introducing warmed air under the cover easier and exhaust out some of the moisture.
Not only do you have to melt stubborn snow and ice, you’ve also got to get that ground frost out as deep as possible. Any ground frost in the upper part of the soil profile can affect the hardness of the surface.
Vented covers can help get frost out and wake up grass without blowing warm air underneath. Their effectiveness, in this application of thawing the ground, may be more limited in shady areas than blowing warm air under covers. I often wonder why we don’t blow warm air under vented covers also. They probably won’t dome up as well, but will allow light through for the grass.
Finding a way to get some darker material onto the snow will help with melting snowpack. A sprinkling of darker soil or organic material will absorb heat from sunlight and work to hasten snowmelt.
Use green colorant on dormant turf to hasten spring green-up. Be careful that the boom sprayer you use can handle such a product, plan two or more applications to blend color better, and get the mowers ready early this year.
New technologies will continue to develop, and there is already an inflatable, translucent, breathable, heated field cover available on the market that is specifically designed for inflation, unlike the way some are doing it now by pinning or weighting the perimeter of the cover and blowing air under the tarp through tubes/drums inserted under the tarp edge. Remote and automated controls are key, otherwise someone has to be there for the entire inflation period to babysit the system.
Get your club’s media relations involved and be a hero. They will love the original content, and fans love to see the commitment and effort it takes to get things so beautiful by summer. We’ll be craving stories about Old Man Winter finally loosening his grip and the return of the boys of summer.