Lessons learned on the Olympic fields

While each major overseas event is unique, each yields tips that help manage the fields and personnel for future events. Here are a few from the XXIX Olympics in Beijing.

With an all-Chinese local crew, one of the biggest challenges was communication. English was their second or third language. We had a core of about 20 that we had worked with during the construction and preparation of the three baseball fields or for the Major League Baseball (MLB) exhibition games between the Padres and Dodgers last March.

An additional 80 came in to help with the 32 games that would be held within nine days—all volunteers. Most knew little about baseball, and nothing about baseball fields. The language of baseball needed to be communicated from the basics of what a batting cage, screen or tarp is and how they fit into the game.

Photos by Murray Cook, Unless Otherwise Noted.
The main ball field conditions on a clear day.

The majority of volunteers were college students in their 20s. At times, the problem was too much labor, so organization was very important. Chad Olsen, Erik Frey and Budgie Clark formed the core of our experienced U.S. baseball field managers, with Darrell Lemmer joining us later in the process. It helped that the three fields were side by side. Two were competition fields and the third was the practice field.

We formed crews of 20 people. Once a crew was formed, they stayed together as a group. Each crew was assigned to one of the game fields, and they always worked that same field during the same shift. When we needed additional personnel for the third field we could draw on these crews, but they had the same assignments on the same field each day. We had two sand pros and two mowers for the fields, but the starting times for the games were staggered so, with the coordinated crew groups, it worked. That also made it pretty simple to schedule the crews.

Working with a crowd

With many of the materials and supplies taking a long time to go through customs, the last few days before events started were controlled chaos. Tom Burns from Diamond Pro coordinated delivery of about 35 pallets of soil amendments. Customs clearance issues and typhoons in the Pacific delayed the products for weeks. They arrived the morning of our first workout, and since they had no machinery to unload the bags, they were thrown to the ground at the venue parking lot and quickly applied to the field.

Photo Courtesy of Sportsturf Services.
President Bush’s visit to the Olympic baseballvenue helped promote the sport.

Working with so many volunteers, and especially those from a different culture, we soon found it worked best to be flexible. We started every project by clearly defining the problem and the desired outcome, rather than stating a specific action that needed to be taken. When we said that we’d need to apply an herbicide to eliminate the weeds that had come up in the turf, one of the Chinese crew leaders said he’d take care of it—he had 50 people come in to hand-pull the weeds overnight.

When I complained that the fungo mat they’d devised was so heavy it took five people to move it, I wasn’t surprised to learn the crew leader didn’t think it was a problem because they had lots of people. Instead, I noted that we didn’t want too many people on the grass. He then realized that people on the grass was the problem, so he stationed some of the crew around the field like human stanchions to keep people on the warning track and off the grass.

Show, rather than tell

Sometimes it’s best to show, rather than tell. We had a laser painter shipped over, but the crews were still using aerosol paint and applying it by hand. We staged a paint off, challenging the best of the painting crew to beat the machine. When the machine won, that’s all they wanted to use.

They were doing all of the tilling around the baselines and home plate by hand. The results were OK, but I knew they could be better. I brought over a Mantis tiller, and once they saw it work, they thought it was great.

The same method worked with hose fittings. On my previous trips, the crews had wrapped wire around a nozzle at the end of a hose to hold it in place instead of using a hose clamp or fitting. Of course it would blow off, and they’d just fix it the same way again. Paul Zwaska of Beacon Athletics rushed a shipment of assorted nozzles and fittings to me, and the crews quickly learned how to use them.

The Olympic baseball volunteers take the stands for their pregame pep rally.

Work within the system

We expected security to be an issue. Of the three Olympics I’ve been involved with, this was by far the hardest one to work because of the communications issues and the general laws of China. Some things were forbidden. The stadium and ball fields, and all other Olympic venues, were tightly controlled. No one could enter without the proper credentials.

Getting to the different locations was difficult at times. The way our venue was laid out, the gate we were to use was about a mile from where we would be working. There was a gate much closer, but we didn’t have the proper clearance to walk through it. We had to go through security checkpoints to enter the venue, and they always checked everything we were carrying. I had to negotiate to get my mosquito spray through, explaining what it was and that I’d be using it on myself.

The Olympic crew had two mowers to prepare the three baseball fields.

Dealing with the elements

Weather conditions were hot and humid, much like south Florida.

The pollution factor was much better than August a year ago. The Chinese had reduced traffic by about 2 million cars a day and, just prior to the start of the events, they shut down industries for a 30 percent reduction in industrial pollution. I also realized there were no dogs or cats and only a few birds, when there had been many the year before.

The lack of birds may have contributed to the abundance of insects. We did quite a bit of hand-watering of the infield grass, and each time we’d have 50 to 100 dragonflies flying around us. Once the lights came on in the evening, hundreds of moths would swarm in. They were quickly followed by hoards of grasshoppers that were so thick at times that the players were waving them away. Then the praying mantises would dive in.

We expected rainy weather, as Beijing usually averages about 9 inches of rainfall during the span of the Olympics. Tarp training was part of our work with the crews. It only rained a couple of times for a total of 2 inches, and only caused minor rain delays.

After monitoring the weather for over 30 years, I found their weather satellite systems pretty basic. We could see storm fronts, but we couldn’t track a storm as precisely as we can in the U.S. The night of the opening ceremonies we watched a huge storm front moving from the northwest toward Beijing. Then, about 30 miles out, it just fell apart as though something had blown it up, then reformed on the southeast side of Beijing, far beyond the site of the ceremonies. The head meteorologist reported to us later that they had launched rockets into the atmosphere 30 miles northwest of the city to stop it from raining on opening night. If that’s really what happened, it could be a huge tool for storm prevention. While we’ve operated on the premise that you can’t control the weather, perhaps we’ll learn from the Chinese how to manipulate it.

Murray Cook is president of SPORTSTurf Services, a division of the Brickman Group. He’s a frequent overseas traveler on behalf of Major League Baseball and the International Baseball Federation.


Will Baseball Be Back?

Beijing 2008 was the last Olympics for baseball. In 2005, both baseball and softball were eliminated as Olympic sports for 2012. During the 2008 Olympics, the baseball venues became a showplace, as the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) urged International Olympic Committee members to see the facilities and a game in preparation for reconsideration when the issue comes up for vote again next year. Harvey Schiller, president of IBAF, has developed an aggressive marketing and game development plan for reinstatement of the sport. There are now numerous leagues in action and more under development throughout Europe, and the next Baseball World Cup will be played in seven cities there next fall. MLB has also stepped up efforts in game development.