PHOTOS COURTESY OF BEN VANHOUTEN, SEATTLE MARINERS, UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.
No matter what curves Mother Nature throws, the players and the fans in the stands expect a perfect field for baseball action.

It seems that “normal” no longer applies when it comes to weather. In Iowa, summers are typically hot and humid, which is great for corn, tough for bluegrass. In July this year, only one day broke into the 90s, and several nights dropped into the low 50s. Though August brought higher temperatures, most sports fields around the state were in better shape than the players when two-a-day football practices kicked in. Other regions didn’t fare as well, bringing a different set of challenges to “normal” field management programs.

Bob Christofferson was watering to top off the skinned area up to five times before games due to the unusually high temperatures.

Hot and dry

A U.S. Department of Agriculture July report noted that 77 of the 254 counties in Texas were in extreme or exceptional drought, the most severe categories. Temperatures were blazing, too. By August 8, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data report for College Station, Texas, had recorded 11 100-degree days in June, 23 in July and seven in August.

Craig Potts, assistant manager of grounds maintenance for Texas A&M University in College Station, says, “We’ve been getting up to 104 degrees some days. Typically, we’d be getting the tropical rains coming as midafternoon thunderstorms in June and July. The first measurable rainfall [above a trace] for those two months came on July 20, with a good 2-inch rain. We’re about 8 inches below normal here, but that’s good compared to the Austin area. What little rain we have received has come at a good time.”

The season started off a little warmer than normal beginning in early January and continuing into March, then turned colder than normal. “We had a much better transition back to bermudagrass because of the heat,” notes Potts. “The warmer conditions gave us a pretty good stand of bermuda that only browned a bit during the cold snap. It really took off when the heat kicked back in, crowding out the ryegrass.”

PHOTO BY GLEN JOHNSON, JOHNSON PHOTOGRAPHY.
Spring transition was helped by early-season warm temperatures.

All the fields are sand-based with the perched water table. The football game and practice fields are standard USGA construction. “Our soccer, baseball and softball fields are AirField Systems,” says Potts. “Soccer is our best performing field. The fabric beneath the sand makes the difference, creating a barrier there that seems to me to work better than the pea gravel. It’s a great system in the drought area, but you have to have the right sand and the field built right. There’s not a lot of room for error.”

The soccer field was completed in 2003; softball and baseball followed in 2005. Potts says, “Since we had some history we knew what we wanted to use, but we couldn’t get the same sand. It’s a little coarser on the newer fields. It does provide drainage through to the fabric layer as long as we can aerify and avoid compaction.”

Unlike many areas of the state, College Station is not under water restrictions. Potts says, “We have well-designed, highly efficient inground irrigation systems for all our fields. We consider having sufficient water a luxury, and we’re pretty judicious about how we use it, only irrigating when we have to. In a perfect world, with field condition and use factors ideal, we could work with irrigation on a six-day cycle for the softball and baseball fields, compared to an eight-day cycle for our soccer field.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF BEN VANHOUTEN, SEATTLE MARINERS.
Keeping the infield dirt just right despite the weather is another demonstration of the art and science of sports field management.

In the real world, maintenance practices are geared to the use of the fields. Summers at Texas A&M are filled with camps, an essential part of the revenue stream for the athletic department, so all the fields are in nearly constant use throughout the summer.

The heat that played a positive role in the spring transition became a negative factor coupled with the lack of rainfall during the camps since pH management is so important to maintaining turf quality. “We try to keep the pH in the neutral range, continually monitoring it for alkalinity,” says Potts. “We’ll use the irrigation for a heavy watering to help flush out the sodium when necessary, but a good, natural rainfall does a better job of changing the pH. If the pH is 8 or above, we’ll apply gypsum [calcium sulfate] at the rate of 1 pound of sulfur per 1,000 square feet to help bring it down.”

Potts plans to irrigate before each camp. “We don’t want those young athletes running around on a dewy field, so, we’re limited in how long we can water if they’re going to be on the fields early the next morning. A deep irrigation takes one hour for our half-circle heads and two hours for our full-circle heads. With multiple zones, we may only have time for a half-cycle for each station which doesn’t help the pH levels,” he says.

There’s just a short window between the camps and the start of the fall sports season. “With all the activity, we’re constantly juggling maintenance practices to meet the needs of the turf. We’ll need to fertilize to help the heavy-wear areas recover. Generally, we’ll irrigate for about 20 minutes following fertilization, putting down between .25 and .5 inch of water to keep the nutrients within the rootzone. We’ll also need to balance that with some deep watering later to force those roots down. If we can keep the pH within the neutral range through all this, we should be able to avoid disease problems without preventive applications. The heat and drought in combination add another aspect to consider at each step of the process.”

PHOTO BY GLEN JOHNSON, JOHNSON PHOTOGRAPHY
The Texas A & M soccer field, constructed with the AirFields Systems in 2003, performed well despite a drought and unusually high temperatures.

Cold to hot

In Seattle, it’s been a season of weather extremes, starting with March temperatures running 10 degrees or more below normal. Bob Christofferson, head groundskeeper for the Seattle Mariners, says, “Along with record-breaking lows, we had frequent forecasts of rain, with a chance of snow. We turned on our inground heating coils on a consistent basis for the first time ever, using them for four weeks to raise the soil temperature into the 50s and keep it at about 55. The turf got a little thicker a little earlier, and we didn’t have to push it as much. We were seeing more growth. Usually in March and April, when the team is out of town, we’ll mow every four days. This year, it was every other day some of the time, and consistently every three days.”

Shade is always a factor for Safeco Field. The open roof blocks the sun from right field in the early spring. Christofferson says, “The cold conditions continued until May 17 and then temperatures shot up bringing record-breaking highs into early August. Some days were sunny most of the time, totally different than Seattle’s more typical cool, cloudy conditions. The grass was already thicker and doing well, and the combination of sun and heat kept it going.”

Great field conditions allow the players to totally focus on their game.

The roof always goes on when there are a couple days in the 90s. Christofferson says, “We’re right at the edge of the foothills where rains can move in quickly, so the closed roof makes life easier, allowing us to better control our water needs. This year, we had high humidity along with the heat and temperatures up to 100 during the day and only dropping into the 70s at night. We got a little summer patch. We generally use a preventive disease program, with monthly applications alternating Daconil and Chipco Triton to avoid resistance. We used a combination of Heritage and Trinity for one of the hotter weather applications.”

Despite the disease attack, the consistently hot, sunny weather was an overall plus for Christofferson and his staff. “During our normal cloudy days, we never know when that cloud cover will clear. It may be 10, or noon, or 2 or 4. But, we have to give the turf a little water when the team is in town and work our mowing around it. With this year’s conditions, we could water and still be able to mow when we wanted to without dealing with wet grass. I think this was our best year ever for turf health and vigor.”

As more typical conditions returned in mid-August, Christofferson continued to fine-tune the maintenance program to fit field needs. “It’s been an interesting year, but we’re not complaining. We enjoyed that stretch of more consistency. We’ll definitely monitor soil temperature next spring and use the heating coils if necessary to keep it at 55. We’d never used it that way, but saw good results we’ll want to replicate. Normal or not, weather is always on your mind. You’re monitoring it continually from the moment you wake up until you go to bed,” he says.

The author is a contributing editor for SportsField Management.