The level of competition and the expectations of your field users dictate the kind of pregame maintenance routine you’ll have. The routine is a short version of your daily and weekly long-term care. It’s an integral part of the multitude of tasks that need to be done prior to a game. The following basic routine is what would take place in typical, sunny weather conditions. Obviously, rain, snow or other disruptive weather would require major adjustments.
The game day maintenance process actually begins the day before, with the focus on putting the field in its best playing condition for the next scheduled game time. The day starts with mowing. Generally, the foul lines are repainted and the coaches’ boxes marked once mowing is completed. Since time will be limited for the pregame prep, water the infield area heavily early in the morning and/or the night before to reach the best amount of moisture by pregame so only a light wet-down is needed prior to game time. You may need to add water throughout the day, depending on the type of infield surface you have. Smooth out the mound and home plate area and cover them again.
Whether the field serves recreational or pro-level play, make sure you have the right equipment and tools for the pregame routine in good operating order, staged and ready to go. Develop a checklist. Cover all the details in advance. Put gas in the utility vehicle or field rake; chalk in the chalk box, etc.
This is a highly orchestrated routine, and you are the conductor. Develop a plan; assign specific duties based on the time frame you normally have, and make it consistent. Review all the details, making sure every crew member understands how everything works and knows exactly what to do. Practice to ensure it flows smoothly, striving to make it a little better each time.
Pregame for rec-level baseball
This pregame routine for recreational-level baseball is plotted for a quick 15-minute fix with a two-person crew, designated here as “Jack” and “Jill.” Jack drags the infield, generally with a cocoa mat, but if the surface is chewed up from practice, using a screen mat. It’s an on-the-spot judgment call, so have both mats staged and ready. Jack pulls the practice bases and inserts the plugs prior to dragging.
Generally, the infield foul lines would already be in place, having been lined out and put down earlier with a chalk marker. If not, Jack will drag the larger infield area, and the lining and chalking will take place as soon as dragging is completed.
Jill starts doing the home plate and mound work. If there’s no hitting mat, Jill will need to do hole repair with packing clay. If a mat was used, Jill just smoothes the area, first using a rake and following with a screen mat or cocoa mat. Jill then sets the batter’s box frame and puts down the chalk.
By now, Jack has finished dragging. He moves on to fix the pitcher’s mound, paint the pitching rubber and home plate and do any needed touch up on the foul lines in the infield area. Jill starts watering the infield, taking care to avoid the foul lines and the grass. Jack comes in to hold the hose once the other tasks are completed.
Jill places a towel (or an old plate) to cover home plate, lightly waters that area and removes the towel. If there are any dirt issues, Jill sweeps it off with a towel and takes a handful of chalk from the chalk box, rubs it into home plate to help dry it and removes excess chalk.
Once the watering is complete, Jill marks the coaches’ boxes if they haven’t been marked previously. Jack sets the bases and does the final inventory to ensure all equipment is off the field and the setup is complete.
Assignments are adjusted for a three or four-person crew. For example, one person will pull the practice base and insert the plug at second and start dragging from second to third base. The third or fourth person will pull the practice bases at first and third, inserting the plugs. Crew members three and four will start the infield wet-down along the third base side, while person one moves on to drag along the first base side.
Pregame for pro-level baseball
At the pro level, in addition to basic pregame maintenance and setup, there’s an entire practice setup and take down. The question to keep asking is, “What else can I do to protect the field and make it better for the game?” The array of tools to accomplish that typically include: the pitching deck and the geotextile turf protector that goes under it, the batting cage, the turf protector for the back that fits around the batting cage and the extensions or separate pieces for the fungo circles, the trapezoid section that goes on the grass in front of home plate, the home plate mat, the protective screens for first and second bases, the ball shagging screen and two ball baskets on wheels.
Take a full inventory of the tools and equipment you have to make sure it’s all staged prior to use and picked up afterward. Each person is responsible for his or her assigned area and they provide the check, down to the tiny details. If they took 32 pins onto the field to anchor a protector, they need to be sure 32 pins came off.
For years, it was the custom in the major and minor leagues to take batting practice first and the infield practice afterward. When batting practice comes first, the setup usually takes about 20 minutes and starts when the team comes out to get loose. Over the past couple of years there’s been a trend for teams to take the infield practice before batting practice. If that’s their preference, you have to prepare to put the batting practice things out there the same way, but very quickly.
Another trend in the MLB is for the visiting team to take infield practice just once while in town and the home team just once during the home stand, generally prior to their first batting practice. For most low-level minor league play, everyone takes infield practice, with each team working for 10 minutes. Pregame practice is always a double cycle; the home team goes first, then the visiting team.
Communication between the head groundskeeper and coaches is key the night before the game to find out the plans for the next day. That may include an early practice, which means a few infielders or pitchers will do some drills prior to the typical batting practice. Some pitchers don’t want to throw off the pitching deck. Bottom line, whatever they want is what you do.
Communication with the front office is essential, too, so you know all the details for the first pitch and pregame ceremony, including the performance of the national anthem. You need to know who will be coming onto which area of the field and when it will take place so you can plug it into your setup schedule. Sometimes you’ll place a fake home plate for the ceremony. Your grounds crew will need to replace it because they know how to walk across home plate, approaching it from behind the catcher’s box to avoid tracking chalk around the batter’s box.
You need a lot of people to accomplish all this, typically five or six people for the minors and eight to 10 for MLB level. In Beijing, I had 14, which was necessary because some of the equipment was so heavy. With the increased numbers, activity and visibility, the orchestration becomes even more important.
On a typical practice day, batting practice (BP) comes before infield practice. You’ll have only 2 to 2.5 minutes to remove everything you’ve placed for BP. If your exit for the cage and screens is through the center field gate, you’ll need to take them all the way off before infield practice can begin. If the exit is on the first or third base side, you can stage them off the field in foul territory temporarily, and then complete the removal.
Once the practices are completed for both teams, the pregame maintenance and setup begin. The basics are similar to the rec-level pregame routine, with more detail work added. One crew member will be dragging; others will be sweeping up loose clay around the mound and home plate; some will be removing any clay from the grass edge; some will be clearing any debris from the grass off the clay; some will be smoothing the area around the warning track with a fan rake; and one person with a smoothing board, rake or small drag will be working along the edges of the infield. At least four or five people will be holding the hose, with the one at the nozzle being extremely careful to keep any water from falling on the grass. Wet grass, which could result in a wet ball or damp cleats that pick up clay, is unacceptable on a sunny day at this level of play. Some crew members put down fresh chalk on the foul lines.
At all levels, the game bases are set after the watering is completed so they’ll be dry and not slick. For the pros, there’s a specific way of placing them so the logos are set consistently at first and third.
The head groundskeeper makes one final field walk, checking to ensure the setup is complete and no small details have been missed. If there is an issue, it’s fixed immediately and addressed prior to the next pregame setup. The goal is perfection.
Once you establish the most efficient plan, make it so consistent that it becomes routine so you can do it fast enough, but not so routine that you become complacent. If your guard is down, sometimes you forget something.
Murray Cook is President of Brickman Sports Turf Services, a division of the Brickman Group. He’s a frequent overseas traveler on behalf of Major League Baseball and the International Baseball Federation.