Every summer we see the media pieces – baseball groundskeepers struggling to get the tarp on the infield during a torrential storm. This issue needs attention, and it should be addressed this off-season.
If you have ever been on the edge of a tarp during heavy rain and/or wind, you know how difficult it can be. Tarps often weigh more than 1,000 pounds when dry. Once rolled out and unfolded, they typically have to be slid into position to pull out wrinkles. However, when it’s raining hard, you have only a minute or two before that tarp becomes too heavy to slide.If it’s raining at a rate of 2 inches an hour and your tarp is 100 by 100 feet, in just two minutes 1,733 pounds of rainwater will fall on that tarp. That’s nearly a ton of water. Add that to the adhesion-cohesion forces of the wet grass underneath, and the friction of the now sticky-wet, high-clay skinned areas and you’re done.
Then there is the wind. When the strong winds that often accompany these summer storms gets under the field cover it’s no longer a tarp, it’s a sail. High wind makes putting out a tarp perilous. If that big tarp blows over the top of you, prepare to get rolled around and beat to heck. Compounding the difficulty, stadium winds tend to quickly change direction.
To reduce costs, many parks rely on non-grounds crew staff to help. Unskilled at the task, and with little or no training, announcers, scoreboard operators, ticket office personnel, and anyone else available, sprint into action. Players have even jumped in to help.The problem is not exclusive to baseball. These same conditions often occur in football stadiums as the field covers are removed pregame for player warm-ups and kickoff. You can feel the media cameras following you; some cameramen actually hoping the tarp overtakes the crew – automatic inclusion in the highlight reel, and unless someone gets hurt, you are just some bumbling fool being made fun of for entertainment.
There has to be a better and safer way to accomplish this task. The methods have not changed much in the last 40 or 50 years, best I can tell. We’re not much further along than the first time they covered a baseball field; in 1906, they used pickup trucks to pull a circus tent over Pittsburgh’s Exposition Park. Maybe the 1985 National League Championship Series incident in which the St. Louis Cardinals’ soon-to-be-named NL rookie of the year, Vince Coleman, was injured while stretching pregame by a tarp rolling machine scared everyone regarding mechanization of the process.
Smarter minds than mine could come up with a better and safer technology. It will be costly, but how many millions in revenue are lost if we don’t cover the fields and they become unplayable? I know that you can never put your staff in unsafe working conditions, but I also know that we sometimes feel forced into such a position because no one recognizes the risks involved.
Ultimately, we have to get everyone on the same page with delays, postponements and missed calls on the rain hitting. Put the covers out earlier if rain is approaching and quit waiting until it’s torrential before making the call. Dealing with little if any rain and much lighter winds will greatly improve the safety aspect. Fans, the media, players and coaches will be miffed the first few times, especially if the rain doesn’t come. However, once educated about the safety aspects, they will get over it.
PHOTO BY CRAYMONDR/THINKSTOCK.
Maybe we should start tracking wind speeds and gusts at our ballparks and stadiums and determine a wind-speed threshold for safely pulling these covers. In my experiences, above 10 mph is a pain, above 15 mph it gets very difficult, above 20 mph it’s scary, and above 25 mph it’s outright dangerous. Shouldn’t we use the same lightning-safety protocols for the turf teams and grounds crews that are in place for the players, coaches and referees on the same field?
Ross Kurcab is a certified sports field manager, consultant and owner of Championship Sports Turf Systems. He was the head turf manager for the NFL’s Denver Broncos for 30 years and holds a bachelor’s degree in landscape horticulture/turfgrass management from Colorado State University. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.