Leaving a game, a man steps in a small rut and hurts his knee taking a shortcut to his car through a naturalized area outside the ballpark. Stadium management says a lot of people egress through this area and consider creating an inexpensive dirt path through the area for guests. Legal pA9787_1_full.jpgersonnel decree that if you build any kind of path or walkway, it needs to be safe and maintained adequately, not just a dirt path. A concrete walkway would ruin the natural look and be expensive to build and maintain. The area was left alone.

So, when is a turfed area an open park and when is it a playing field? I say, once you stripe it or otherwise formally mark a field for an organized game, it should no longer be used as a typical open park space. Maintenance is significantly increased and access should be controlled. It’s now a playing surface, with all the responsibilities that come with it. Its use should be responsibly scheduled.

It seems to be easier these days to procure capital improvement dollars, compared to maintenance dollars — so build a fence! Controlling open access to municipal playing fields would give the most bang for the easier-to-get buck in improving the quality and carrying capacity of our nation’s ballfields. We could significantly improve field quality and also provide for more games per field in a field-shortage era.

The typical multiplex fences its baseball/softball fields, sometimes its soccer fields, and rarely fences the football/lacrosse fields. Typically, field quality follows the fences, from what I see. Baseball/softball fields generally are the best, followed by soccer fields, with the football/lacrosse fields bringing up the rear. And I don’t think this can be entirely attributed to the nature of play for the different sports.

Controlling open access with a fence, and limiting the activities that come with open access, also makes a difference.

Once we have designated a field for organized play, we ought to include appropriate space in the out-of-bounds areas of that field. If you can’t fit adequate out-of-bounds areas in your field, it doesn’t fit.

A playing field requires an increased level of maintenance. The added stresses and user expectations compel it. I don’t think we have to maintain fields for 7-year-olds the same as for elite level adults, but we do have to maintain them to level-specific baselines, at least.

Non-sporting events must be evaluated differently. Reasonable game/practice cancellation policies should take into consideration the season-long and year-long health of the surface, along with the health and safety of the athletes.

Who pays for all this? Field users do — the athletes that use the field for organized games or practices. If they can afford shiny new uniforms, dazzling new cleats and all the accessories to look like a pro, they can afford higher field fees. Ballfield rental rates, even subsidized by tax dollars, are low when compared to other recreational playing field rentals. If you can’t afford a playing surface built and maintained to basic quality and safety guidelines, maybe your community can’t afford that sports field and maybe not some sports — a hard stance, but not unreasonable considering our American love of sports and the importance we give sports in the development of our children.

The money is there, we just don’t give playing surface quality its deserved slice of the pie and its due protection. When folks install a synthetic field where a grass field was, they often protect their sizeable investment with a fence and controlled access.

If you want to cone-off a field in a park to play informally with some friends, you should assume the risks, I believe. But once we designate a field for play, we assume a responsibility to build and manage it appropriately for its intended use.

Just like the natural area sidewalk outside the stadium.