There was a time when baseball and softball were spring sports, with opening day in March or April — depending on local climates — and everything wrapping up a couple of months later. During that time, many fields saw a handful of practices during the week and maybe a couple of games on Saturday morning.
These days, with youth and adult leagues and tournaments, school and travel teams, fall ball and offseason training, baseball and softball fields see heavy use nearly year-round. And nobody knows this better than those managing ballfields at the local level, trying to keep up with all this play at parks and recreation facilities, as well as municipal and school complexes. These sports turf managers need to have their fields ready for early-season play and then keep everything looking and playing well as months follow.
Keeping up with Illinois weather
“I would say that from May through October, it’s pretty much seven days a week,” says Noel Brusius, CSFM, head sports turf manager for the Waukegan, Illinois Park District. Brusius and his crew maintain many fields around town, but at the heart of the operation is a four-field softball complex that was honored as the 2014 Sports Turf Managers Association Field of the Year in the school and park category. These highly maintained fields see adult play every day throughout the week and then host youth baseball and softball tournaments on the weekends.
Brusius says one key to having the fields ready for early-season play is to do the bulk of the prep work in the fall. “Our goal is to put the fields together properly in the fall so that they’re ready in the spring,” he explains.
It’s impossible to tell when there will be a wet spring or late snow, etc., he says, so it’s better to have the major work already complete. “We do all of our edging in the fall; we add clay and do a laser grade in the fall; we add clay bricks on the pitcher’s mound and batter’s box areas; we try to do any structural repairs to fences and batting cages and nets in the fall, so that in the spring all we have to do is concentrate on getting the field playable,” Brusius explains.
Aeration is done in the fall and silt fencing is also installed to prevent erosion of the skinned surfaces during the windy winter months.
In the Chicagoland area, spring play waits for the frost to get out of the ground. Once that happens, and the silt fences have been removed, Brusius likes to roll the clay areas of the fields, “just to firm them up.” He also rolls the lips, because the freeze-thaw cycle during the winter can sometimes pop them up a bit. Timing is important with this task, he cautions: you don’t want to do it when the ground is still frozen, but you don’t want to wait too long and let all the moisture get out of the ground.
The story in Minnesota
Paul Graham, superintendent of parks for the city of Eagan, Minnesota, says the biggest early-season challenge (and key for season-long success) in his locale is keeping play off the ballfields until the fields are truly ready for it. “We’ve got very enthusiastic players and teams that want to play. Our biggest challenge is to educate them that, if we let them go out and play their one game, it may ruin that field for the rest of the season,” he says. “This is because there won’t be enough time between games to go into turf recovery mode – seeding, sodding, whatever…the field just won’t have time to recover,” Graham explains. “Once the play starts, it just never stops.”
Getting that message across isn’t always easy. “In our climate, there’s a relatively short season,” Graham notes, so there’s plenty of demand for fields. The goal is to try to keep players off the fields until May 1. Delaying the start of play also gives Graham’s crew time to get on a field to regrade skinned areas that may have settled during the winter and otherwise get the maintenance program up and running for the season. “And, mostly, it lets the sunshine and wind do their thing,” adds Graham.
Tackling wear and tear
In South Carolina, high school teams begin practicing at the end of January and the first games are in February. “Our busiest time of the year is February, March and April,” says Will Rogers, CSFM, sports turf manager for the Clover, South Carolina School District (winner of STMA Field of the Year honors for softball in 2015 and baseball in 2016). Fortunately, other groups are kept off the high school fields during the high school season, which Rogers says from a maintenance perspective “has really helped us.” It’s a different story on the middle school ballfields, which other teams and groups in the community have access to. A new middle school baseball/softball field was just opened this year and it’s common to have three or four teams using it back to back. “The level of activity on it is unreal,” marvels Rogers.
He says it’s the practices that really take a toll on a field. “I would rather have three games on the field than one practice…it’s just hard to maintain at a high level when you have that much practice,” explains Rogers. The wear is especially bad in in the batter’s boxes; in a game, a batter might be standing in the box for three or four pitches, but in practice they might take 20 swings. “Well, if you do that for 18 players, you’ve had 360 swings in that one batter’s box that we just repaired the day before and now it’s torn up again,” Rogers says. “So, we’ll have to fix it up tomorrow. There are always repairs that need to be done, but there’s a difference between repairing and rebuilding,” he emphasizes. “We’re having to rebuild the batter’s boxes almost daily to keep up with the use.” One trick Rogers has found is to use a rubber mat for batters to hit off in practice. (Even so, as a testament to the wear the field is normally taking, the batters wore a hole in the rubber mat within a couple of weeks, he adds.)
Even more challenging than repairing the clay areas is when wear begins moving onto the turf, says Rogers: “That’s when we get into trouble, because there’s no quick fix when they’re on the grass daily and start to tear that up.” Again, it’s at practices where the damage to the grass is most likely to occur, he notes, particularly from players wanting to congregate around the back of the portable cage during batting practice. And sometimes from mats that are put down on the grass for coaches to pitch off. “It’s good that they’re putting the mats down to protect the turf, but after they’ve been down for four or five hours and there’s no sun getting to the grass, it can go the other way,” he explains. Once again, communication is key, says Rogers – it’s important to continually educate coaches about the importance of moving around and not focusing wear on specific areas during practice.
At the Waukegan Park District, Brusius says that it’s the cultural work that’s done throughout the year – aerating, slicing, deep-tining, etc., that helps his turfed areas stand up to heavy play. He also believes in a solid fertilization program; the ballfields there are fertilized about every 18 days during the season.
There’s still the matter of keeping up with wear on the clay areas, though; lips, the mound and the batter’s box areas are a constant source of maintenance work. “And if rains, those are the areas where there will be puddles, but we just work through it and add material, and then regrade everything in the fall,” says Brusius.
One trick Brusius has found to be helpful is the use of clay bricks twice per year on the batter’s box and pitcher’s areas. “At the Major League or collegiate level, they’ll repack the clay after each game. Well, we don’t have that option, so we do clay bricks just to keep those high-wear areas level,” he explains. The clay bricks act as sort of a reset button for those areas; the work is usually done in early July and then again at the end of the season.
It takes a team
Graham’s team is responsible not just for the park ballfields in Eagan, Minnesota, but also some school fields. It amounts to nearly 90 fields in all, spread out around town. And play is nearly nonstop for much of the year. “Spring and summer ball typically ends in early August, and we may have roughly one week or less to make the change over to all baseball and softball. So, fall now begins in early August,” Graham jokes. “We have daily weekday leagues, then youth leagues, and then on the weekends there are typically youth tournaments that begin Friday and run through Sunday evening.”
To keep up with all that play, the city of Eagan has a special evening/weekend crew that operates seven days a week. While the regular, full-time employees handle field maintenance work during the day, this specialized part-time staff handles field prep before and between games and ensures that fields aren’t damaged by play and/or well-meaning volunteers during games and tournaments. “We’ve put the investment into these fields, and we want to keep that investment with our own employees maintaining them,” says Graham.
Another key to keeping the fields playing well is regular regrading, which usually happens about once a month on each field during the season. “When we get those typical May and June rainstorms and we’ve been dragging the fields, material gets moved to areas where we don’t want it and we’ve got humps in some spots and we’re holding water in other spots. So, we try to get out and regrade the fields,” Graham explains. In midsummer, the fields are also scarified “to loosen things up because after all the rain things can turn rock-hard when they dry out,” he adds.
Graham has found that installing a drainage system on fields that tend to hold water or puddle in places is very helpful in helping fields stand up while reducing excessive maintenance work. Beyond that, he says that following a comprehensive turf maintenance program is also important. “We have really good fertilization and aeration programs. And our mowing program is top-notch,” he explains. “We don’t have to do a lot of spraying for weeds because our turf is in really good shape and basically chokes the weeds out.”
At Clover School District, Rogers has found that one way to minimize maintenance is to make sure that maintenance is being done correctly: “When we’re dragging, we need to make sure we’re not dragging over our edges and causing build-up on the lips. That helps a lot.” Which gets to what Rogers says is probably the most important factor in being able to maintain fields in the face of heavy play: a great team. “There are about five of us and we have to work as one. They do a great job and they deserve more credit than I do.”
He also emphasizes the benefits of taking advantage of resources available from the national and state STMA chapters, and of talking to peers. “There’s a lot of people that we lean on for help who are always willing to share their secrets,” says Rogers.