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Field Maintenance 101 by Jeff McGaw, with Dan Douglas Fall/Holiday 2009 Lips and puddles and dust oh my. That is the stuff of nightmares for baseball groundskeepers everywhere. While professional baseball teams usually have the funding and are better equipped to deal with these problems, there are things that local leagues and teams can do to keep better care of the fields they use. A few basic tools, along with some tips from the pros, can go a long way to mitigating common problems on baseball fields, according to Dan Douglas, Director of Stadium Grounds for the Reading Phillies Baseball Club, the Eastern League AA affiliate for the Philadelphia Phillies and winner of the 2009 Eastern League Sports Field Manager of the Year Award. There is more than to taking care of a baseball field than meets the eye, Douglas said. “Baseball fields are like their own little animal,” he said. “You can’t treat them like somebody’s front yard. There are somewhat special skills involved with maintaining good fields.” Sometimes well-intentioned people armed with rakes, tractors and drags can do long-term harm to their fields. It’s not uncommon to see, on wet days, well-intentioned helpers pushing saturated infield mix off into the grass. That’s a short term solution that can create a long-term problem – the loss of dirt. For most community and amateur fields Douglas prefers skin infields because they are easier to maintain. There is something you can do to help your field before you even grab a rake or fire up the drag Douglas said. “One of the best things you can do for your field is to join a local chapter of the Sports Turf Managers’ Association,” he said. Douglas presides over the Pennsylvania chapter of that organization – Keystone Area Field Managers’ Organization (KAFMO.) That organization offers lectures, seminars and hands-on field days focused on turf management and field maintenance for baseball, football, soccer or multiple-use facilities, among others. There are problems that are common to most baseball fields. Hardball Magazine consulted Douglas to comment on sensible ways to deal with these common problems. LIPS Nature itself, without any other help, can create infield lips. Douglas estimates his professional baseball field in Reading loses eight to ten tons of dirt a year. “It washes away or blows away – and that’s with us wetting the field and using a tarp. We still lose that much material,” Douglas said. Other factors, however, can exacerbate the problem. “A lot of guys doing some sort of maintenance can make lips worse,” he said. Pulling drags – especially with tractors – right along the edge of the grass is problematic because of the resulting dirt spray. Douglas recommends keeping drags a foot to a foot-and-a-half away from the edge of the infield while dragging with the tractor. “Hand rake that area along the edge,” he said. Always rake parallel with the edge of the grass. The same care should be used when raking base paths from home to first and third base. If, for example, the drag you are pulling around is as wide as the base paths you should cease and desist. “It’s a one-size fits all mentality,” Douglas said, “but one size doesn’t fit all.” When hand-raking the base paths, it is vital to rake parallel to the foul line. Raking perpendicular to the line creates a gulley and is, Douglas said, an absolute no-no. Sometimes local leagues will add more dirt in an effort to elevate the field to the level of the high lip, but that may not always be the best solution. “If I walk out onto that field, we’re going to cut those lips out of there and then grade the field to match up with the lips,” Douglas said. “For the really bad ones you want to use a sod cutter,” he said. You can also use a lawn edging tool, he said. BROOMS Another good strategy to counter the formation of infield lips is steady, preventative maintenance via the good old fashioned straw broom. “Use a straw broom to sweep dirt back onto the infield after each game,” Douglas said. “Over time it’ll save you from having a big problem,” he added. Naturally, Douglas added, caring for a field the right way is more than a one-person job. When he was head groundskeeper at George Mason University, Douglas said it was easy to find help. “We had the team do a lot of this stuff,” he said. “Pitchers would work on the mound, and hitters would work around the plate. We’d train the guys on what needed to be done after the game and with enough help you could pound it all out.” When it comes to field drags, “wider is better,” Douglas said. “It’s better for leveling areas. Use a six or seven-foot-wide drag rather than a four-foot wide drag. The same principal applies for field rakes, Douglas said. MOUND AND PLATE The two most critical areas of the diamond are the mound and home plate. Though costly, hard- packed clay is the answer. Most professional stadiums, including the Reading Phillies stadium, take this approach. “We pack 100 percent clay (clay bricks) into the wear areas of the mound and batters boxes instead of a sandy, infield mix,” Douglas said. Clay “doesn’t blow apart like an infield mix will,” he said. Four to six inches of clay is a good amount, Douglas said. Keeping the clay moist is a must. Most pro fields are better because they add a little water.” Douglas admitted that the clay and water approach is a high level approach that might be difficult for some field operators or leagues, but still prefers that option. “I’ve seen guys drag loose, dry dirt back in thinking it’s going to stay. They’ll tamp it, but dry dirt doesn’t stick to dry dirt.” LANDING STRIPS Though it’s not as much of a problem with adult leagues, where outfielders tend to move on every pitch, MSBL players who coach their sons might be familiar with the sight of, for lack of a better term, landing strips in the outfield – one each in right, center and left. The holes are caused by prolonged periods of standing around without much action. They are exacerbated by young players who dig holes with their cleats as a way to pass the time. There is a right way and a wrong way to attack the problem. “You can’t just throw some seed on and make it better,” Douglas said. “You need seed to soil contact.” Start by tilling and aggressively raking the area, then mix in the new top soil. Next, add the seed and rake it into the soil a little. The last step is to cover the area with any type of mulch, hay or burlap. Some purchase germination blankets that are good for encouraging new growth. RAINY DAYS Sometimes, for the long term health of the field, you should just say no. “It’s a fine line between getting the game in and destroying the field,” Douglas said. There are times when you have to say, ‘we can’t go today. It’s too wet.’” The worst solution, Douglas said, is pushing the puddles off with brooms and the flat edge of field rakes. This may be useful in removing standing water the first time, but it deepens depressions that led to the problem in the first place. One of the best solutions on the market are Puddle Pillows – highly absorbent, sponge-like pillows that can soak up 3.5 liter of water each and be used over and over. “By using these you’re not digging the hole any deeper,” he said. Another familiar product is calcined clay which comes in 40 or 50 pound bags and is a familiar site on most diamonds. Larger gradations of these products will keep working as it breaks down, Douglas said. Other products are made from ground up corn cobs and are used as a top dressing sometimes on fields. TARPS Use with caution, Douglas said. Tarps will kill grass if they lay around on it for too long. The big myth about tarps is that they are used only to keep the moisture out. While that is true during rainy times, tarps can – and should – be used on dry days. “It’s important to keep the moisture in there,” Douglas said. After raking, tamping, and wetting the mound, tarp it. “When you uncover it there’s a pretty good chance it will be just the way you left it,” he said. Above: how the field should look, with lips removed Above: Where drags are concerned, the wider the better. Hand-rake the dirt that meets the grass with a field rake ABOVE: sweep dirt from the grass back into the base path after each game to help keep lips from forming. Tarps can help keep moisture in when it’s hot and dry outside. About Dan Douglas Dan Douglas is the Director of Stadium Grounds for the Reading Phillies Baseball Club, the Eastern League AA affiliate for the Philadelphia Phillies. He earned a Bachelors of Science degree in agronomy from Penn State University in 1986, worked as the Sports Turf Manager at George Mason University from 1986 to 1990, and now works with the Phillies. Douglas has presided over the Keystone Area Field Managers Organization – KAFMO – since its inception in 1993. He was named the Eastern League Sports Field Manager of the Year in 2009. It is the fourth time he has received that honor. In 2001 he was awarded the coveted Harry C. Gill Memorial Award – the highest honor awarded by the Sports Turf Managers’ Association.
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