Brian Rhodes is looking forward to working with a newly renovated canvas

Brian Rhodes, head groundskeeper at Leo A. Pinckney Field at Falcon Park, home of the Auburn Doubledays.

Sometimes all the maintenance work in the world can’t overcome structural deficiencies in a field. Until just a few months ago, that was the case at Leo A. Pinckney Field at Falcon Park, home of the Auburn (New York) Doubledays. Poor (nonexistent) drainage routinely left the field under standing water after heavy rains, and even lighter rain events were problematic. “Once we dumped the tarp, it was pretty much game over, because there was nowhere for that water to go,” says Brian Rhodes, who has served as head groundskeeper for the past three seasons. The constant threat of canceled games due to wet weather was a frustrating situation for Rhodes, and for the Doubledays, a Class A affiliate of the Washington Nationals that plays a short-season schedule in the New York-Penn League.

Fortunately, the outlook is a lot brighter, and drier, this season. A nearly $500,000 state grant to the city of Auburn, which operates Falcon Park, was used to completely renovate Leo A. Pinckney Field, turning it into a state-of-the-art baseball facility.

Rhodes came to Falcon Park after maintaining a cemetery for the city. “So I knew a little about grass, but not nearly as much as I know now,” he jokes. As much as he’s learned in several years on the job, no amount of sports field maintenance knowledge could have overcome the poor construction of the field itself.

Beginning last September, Leo A. Pinckney Field at Falcon Park, home of the Auburn (New York) Doubledays, was completely renovated to solve structural problems that were hampering the field’s performance.

With the tearing up of the old field, Rhodes discovered why the drainage problems were so bad. The field was built in 1995, but it turns out that a subsequent renovation project wasn’t done properly.

“They actually covered up the drainage with clay as backfill, instead of stone. So every time we got a storm it was just a pond. It was everywhere,” he explains. “And we had a loam problem. There was about 4 inches of it – just too much.”

Rhodes credits Landmark Enterprises, a local excavation firm based in Auburn, New York, for “doing an amazing job” in overseeing the project. “They stripped everything, and that’s when we found out about the clay backfill,” he recounts. A crew of workers from the city helped peel back that clay. Some drainage was replaced; the drainage that was still good was backfilled with stone. Instead of the deep loam, a sand-based rootzone mix was used. “It drains unbelievably now,” notes Rhodes of the rebuilt field.

A key part of the field’s drainage problems was due to the fact that the existing drainage system had been covered with clay backfill. During the renovation the clay was removed and proper backfill was added. “It drains unbelievably now,” says Head Groundskeeper Brian Rhodes.
Background Photo courtesy of Getty Images/iStockphoto.

The old field did have basic irrigation, but as part of the renovation project that system was reworked and improved by Lawn Sprinklers Unlimited. The new Rain Bird system was designed with a baseball field in mind, rather than just general turf. “I didn’t previously have irrigation in foul territory; I had to water that by hand,” says Rhodes. “We got sprinklers there and a water source behind the mound. We got new sprinklers that hit the infield skin. It’s an amazing setup now.”

The project was started in September 2013, and the plan was to have everything wrapped up by Thanksgiving. However, early season snow that never melted during a cold winter pushed the project into 2014, with the renovation completed in April. “Once the snow melted, the whole field had to be regraded [to within 0.25 inch], and we had to put a little more material down. We had to tweak some irrigation heads, and then we laid 100,000 square feet of sod,” says Rhodes. A low-mow bluegrass was chosen with the assistance of turfgrass consultant Norm Hummel. Previously, the field was a bluegrass/rye mix.

Some 100,000 square feet of bluegrass sod was installed on the new field.

A new material was also selected for the skinned surfaces, which are now covered with a DuraEdge infield mix. “It seems to have more clay content than what we had. I’ve found I need to pay a little more attention to it, work it a little more and keep it wet as much as possible,” Rhodes reports. “The benefit is that it is definitely better for the players.”

Rhodes is continuing his existing mowing program on the new turf. “When it gets into baseball season, I mow every day at 1.25 inches,” he notes. He uses a three-deck Toro rotary golf course mower, with regular blade sharpening, he emphasizes. “The new turf has a lot of seed heads coming up, and the stalks on them are really strong. That’s something I wasn’t used to on the other field,” he says. “I just sharpened the blades, and still the stalks are fraying. But those stalks are supposed to grow out soon.”

Previously, an outside contractor came in to fertilize the field, but Rhodes credits John Stewart, groundskeeper with the Syracuse Chiefs (another Washington National affiliate, playing at the AAA level), for helping him develop a fertilizer program with the necessary equipment so he can now do the job himself.

Opening day for the Auburn Doubledays for June 13, 2014. “We just finished edging the field, and everything looks great,” reported Brian Rhodes a week before the big day.

In addition, Rhodes credits Auburn Superintendent of Public Works Mike Talbot for ensuring there’s enough resources and labor to keep the field looking and performing great. Rhodes has one full-time worker assigned to the field, “and that really helps out,” he says. Three additional workers are added on game days. Having a four-man crew on game days is important not only for field prep, but also to set up and break down batting practice and, when needed, for tarp duties.

This year, when the tarp does need to be dumped, it won’t mean a flooded field and postponed game, as in past years. “Now, right where we dump the tarp, there are cutouts where I can lift the sod and the water just shoots right down into the main drain and out to freedom. It’s amazing,” Rhodes says.

While he won’t go so far as to say he’s looking forward to rain on game days, that threat is no longer as daunting. Gone are the days of struggling to get the field ready, only to see the fruits of their labor spoiled by a flooding rainstorm.

“It’s really rewarding looking at the field at the end of a day working on it – it’s just beautiful,” says Rhodes. “It’s going to be nice to have a nice fresh canvas to work on, and to be able to see the results of all the work that goes into it.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vermont, and is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories. You can contact him at pwhite@meadowridgemedia.com.