Postseason field upgrade

Like most minor league ballparks, Louisville Slugger field, home of the triple-A Louisville Bats, is the site of multiple events. The 2008 schedule included a Dave Matthews concert, the bicentennial of the Catholic archdiocese with a Sunday mass and a performance by the band America and the Minor League All-Star game, all sandwiched between home stands within a 10-week stretch.

I joined the Bats during the early part of the ballpark construction and had the opportunity to provide input on the field specifications and oversee the installation. We went with a 90 percent sand, 10 percent peat soil profile. We did debate between bermudagrass and bluegrass for the turf. Louisville is at the southern border of the transition zone. Despite warnings from Dr. A. J. Powell, the University of Kentucky’s turf guru, we opted for a blend of five Kentucky bluegrass varieties.

Yes, it struggled during the hottest days of the summer, and we had to baby it through, but the rest of the year it looked as great as it performed. Three years ago, it took a heavy hit from summer patch, and we overseeded with perennial ryegrass to mask the damage. Summer patch was back two years ago, and we again overseeded with rye. That brought on a Pythium attack and some other less serious disease problems, which required putting down more rye to grow through them.

With the turf stripped away, the underlying profile is exposed. The remaining sand-peat profile was tilled after the turf was removed.

Plotting the upgrade

Toward the end of the season in 2007, the decision was made to schedule a field upgrade for the 2008 post-season. We worked on the skinned areas of the infield during 2007, completing that work in-house. We plotted our strategy to get the most accomplished for the remainder of the field in 2008, working within the budget allocation.

We decided to go with a single variety, mono-stand bluegrass. After researching the varieties with the characteristics we were after—heat tolerance, disease resistance, density, dark color and tolerance to low mowing—we selected Barrister from Barenbrug USA.

Grass Masters Sod Farm in Patoka, Ind., had supplied our sod the first time. In September of 2007, we contracted with them to grow the Barrister sod for us on a soil profile closely matching ours. Ryan Gregoire, Agricultural Design, Inc. out of Seville, Ohio, had done the grading work on the initial field installation, and we decided to work with him this time, too.

Stripping the field

Gregoire and his crew started ripping out the field on October 6. We’d arranged to provide the stripped off organic material to the city for use in a soccer field construction project a few blocks from the ballpark. The city provided the dump trucks to transport the material.

Once it was cleared away, we started tilling using our Forigo G35-150 reverse-tine tiller. It has a 59-inch working width and runs with our 4300 John Deere tractor. We tilled all but the dirt sections of the field, doing the work by hand along the edges and around the irrigation heads. We actually removed the profile material, added five truckloads of sand, retilled and regraded.

The irrigation system was reworked, with newly installed sections tied into the existing system. The majority of the existing turf was stripped away using the Combinator.

We’re still at about a 90:10 sand to peat ratio. As we were doing the tilling and thoroughly mixing the new and old material, we could see the lighter peat rising to the freshly tilled surface and forming a light layer over the heavier sand. So, while we were trying to eliminate layering issues, we could see it automatically forming again. If we were starting over, I’d go with a straight sand profile, knowing that we’d get enough organic matter for stabilization from the breakdown of the grass roots over time.

We brought in four loads of warning track rock and made the track a couple inches wider to accommodate the contamination of the sand. We’ll probably add a couple more loads by the start of play this spring.

Upgrading the drainage

We cut a new drain line within the outer edge of the grass, 6 inches from the warning track. Collector piping extends to the field surface. The covers that fit over the openings are topped with FieldTurf to blend into the grass. We’ve drilled multiple holes through these covers, allowing the water to infiltrate while they are in place. During the reworking of the soil profile material, sloping was adjusted to make this section within the grass the lowest point on the field.

Our crew installed 10 additional drains bordering the outside edges of where we dump the tarp. We also installed drains behind the plate from foul pole to foul pole.

Laterals for the drains are spaced 20 feet apart and go all the way across the field to tie into the main drain line beneath the warning track. I can see where the new drain lines are on the field. That will help serve as a guide as we dump the tarp.

Sod was contracted for in September 2007, and grown to specs until the installation in October 2008. Sod work was finished on November 1.

Changing out the irrigation

We changed out the irrigation covering our skinned areas to get better water placement in windy conditions. We had used four I-40 heads. We installed 15 Toro Super 800s, placing them at the corners and strategically spaced around the infield. Previously, we’d had to tarp the plate to avoid overspray each time we irrigated. Now we won’t need to. That’s an extra 10 minutes eliminated each time we irrigate. We also installed four of the heads evenly spaced around the mound.

We added three zones with a total of 70 heads to cover the warning track. The heads are placed along the concrete wall of the stands. We went with Rain Bird 1800 pop-ups and changed out the nozzles for the little fan sprays. We wanted three zones for separate control on the left, center and right sections of the warning track to compensate for sun and shade issues.

Putting down the sod

I’d been monitoring the sod and knew it was not as mature as I’d wanted it to be. We decided to delay the installation until late October to give it a couple more weeks of growing time to get as much root development as we could. We went with a big-roll cut, 90 feet long by 21 inches wide. Gregoire and his crew came back on Monday, October 27, to get their equipment in place and ready to go. The installation started on Tuesday, October 28. For that first day’s work on the infield and the apron, the sod looked good and held together pretty well.

It didn’t hold up as well for the remainder of the installation, which extended through Friday. Some sections of every roll fell apart, requiring much more placing, pulling, cutting and piecing than we’d anticipated. My crew and I pitched in to handle the extra work. They tweaked the edges of the sod on Saturday and wrapped up the warning track work.

Sod was contracted for in September 2007, and grown to specs until the installation in October 2008. The surface was laser leveled.

Post-sodding work

With the sod installation completed, the field looked like a bomb had gone off. We topdressed with 1/16 inch of sand, overseeded with straight Barrister bluegrass and topdressed again with another 1/16 inch of sand. We used two truckloads of sand, between 48 and 50 tons. The topdressing helped fill in the seams and cover the seed.

We fertilized using Gro-Power 5-3-1. We also put down 35 percent manganese, 45 percent magnesium and 0-0-10 micro-balance, all granular products from Gro-Power. By November 12, the grass was looking pretty good. We made a later application of Lebanon Turf’s 14-14-14 with IBDU for slow release.

For 2009, minor league baseball has moved the season back a week from the traditional April 9 starting date, which will help a bit. I’ll be happy if we’re showing good root growth and increased top density by the end of April. We’ve also cut back on our other event scheduling for the year, with no big, on-field concerts in the lineup, to make it a little easier on the young field. We’ll have a lot of good growing time at the end of the season, as the playoffs end on September 21, even with the pushed-back scheduling. After the whirlwind of 2008, we’re looking forward to the challenges 2009 will bring.

Tom Nielsen is head groundskeeper for the Louisville Bats Baseball Club overseeing Louisville Slugger Field.