Maintaining youth baseball and softball fields
By Gary Pastiva, NAYS Member
Youth baseball and softball leagues are in full swing at local recreation departments nationwide, and that means a lot of field maintenance work to keep fields safe and in good condition for play.
Most departments don’t have funding available for a full-time sports trainer or grounds crew so they rely on other city department personnel and their volunteers to do what they can to keep fields maintained and in good condition for today and years to come. Many of the problems departments encounter may seem to be cosmetic on the surface but pose a hazard for young athletes. By being aware of these problems, and understanding how to fix them, our players will have better – and safer – experiences.
The insight below is courtesy of baseball and softball facility managers, head groundskeepers from athletic departments of major universities, and other expert sources.
UNDEFINED GRASS LINES AROUND INFIELD BASELINES AND OUTFIELD GRASS AREAS
This problem can easily be repaired by using a sod cutter that will cut a nice line along your wanted grass line. Remove the debris and replace with new sod and water as recommended by your local sod supplier.
To maintain a clean grass edge along the infield’s base lines and around the outfield grass many professional groundskeepers use a power edger much like the ones found at a local home improvement store.
INFIELD DIRT MIXING WITH OUTFIELD GRASS
This is caused by how the field is dragged and raked. Our city uses an X Nail Rake to groom the field as well as metal hand rakes when needed. A city worker will use a power lawnmower and drag a nail rake across the field to smooth it out. Both facility managers and head groundskeepers recommend that after dragging the nail rake across the field the nail rake should be turned over on its back and done a second time. This second raking will fill out any low spots in the field and helps keep it flat. Or the city can use a drag rake that will smooth out the dirt and fill in any low spots that the X rake has missed.
USING ZERO TURN MOWERS
A word of warning when using a zero turn mower: it should not be used to make sharp tight “zero turns” on the infield. They make wide sweepping turns and never should be used next to the outfield grass line because this can create ruts in the infield and dirt can spill out into the outfield. This will than create a mound of dirt at the outfield grass line and this uneven dirt mound can be a trip hazard for players going for a ball.
When mowing the outfield grass make sure the grass clippings are captured or are blown toward the outfield. Make at least three passes with your mower, discharging clippings out to the outfield and away from the infield dirt edge. It’s suggested to gently rake the edges of the infield dirt line, along the outfield grass, back to the infield. By doing this it will help your outfield grass and will cut down on any contamination of the root zone in the outfield and baseline grassy areas.
Clay can also bind up in these root zones and cause a lack of growth, as well as root development and compaction issues. High traffic areas, if not the entire field, should be aerated once or twice a year. The spring (between mid-April and mid-May) or fall (mid-September to mid-October) is ideal for aeration. Some fields may need this done more than others depending on the time of year and region you are in.
UNEVEN DIRT AND RUTS ON PITCHER’S MOUND AND IN BATTERS’ BOXES
These ruts are caused by pitchers and batters digging into these areas to get a better stance. To repair these areas use a product called Field Brick.
These clay-based bricks come in a 40-pound bag (eight bricks per bag) and are placed in the rutted areas in need of repair. The size of your field and the age group of the kids playing will determine the amount of bricks to use.
Some bricks are ready to use right out of the bag and others may need to be rehydrated. To rehydrate a brick soak it in water for 1 to 2 hours, or as long as 2-3 days, depending on the age of the brick and time of year. They often rehydrate without much trouble. To dry the bricks cover with your desired field dirt that you’re using on the rest of your infields while keeping players off of them for a few days.
Field Bricks are designed to slowly break down and minor maintance will need to be a part of your pitching mounds and batters box areas. This can easly be repaired by using the packing clay made by Pro’s Choice Sports Field Products; this will easly fill in any divots within your uneven surface. Simply place a small amount of packing clay in the damaged area and tamp down using a hand tamper. To keep the clay from sticking to your tamper cover the end of the tamper with burlap or plastic. Wet the area with water to keep the packing clay soft while filling in any low spots. Cover with dirt and allow to dry. Depending on the use of the field these clay bricks should last about two to three years. The City of New Baltimore is currently testing these bricks on random softball fields.
RUTS AND LOW SPOTS ON THE BASES AND BASEPATHS
To repair this remove your playing field dirt and add field clay or just add more field dirt if field clay is not availiable. Some crews use a flat wooden box to smooth out the problem area. They than place a small amount of field clay (or dirt) in the area to be repaired and work the drag rake and move back and forth while adding dirt to smooth.
A good way to see if you have the right amount of dirt on your fields, or if you need more dirt, is to spray water over the area to test.
CARING FOR THE FIELD
Planning, analyzing and strategizing is a big part of a coach’s job. This also applies to field maintanence before, during and after the game. Recreation department leaders, grounds personnel and coaches should keep these things in mind as recommended in the MLB and Baseball Tomorrow Fund Field Maintenance Guide which can be found at www.baseballtomorrowfund.com
When I was coaching I had some of these questions in mind when taking the field:
What organization will be responsible for maintaining the field?
What experience, expertise and equipment are available?
What is the annual field maintenance budget?
What are the funding sources to sustain the annual budget?
Will the field be used for other sports or events?
How many games will be played per day, week, month and year?
Will the field be a site for tournaments?
Should the field have synthetic or natural turf?
As a coach you have a lot of things on your mind because you care so much about the kids. Adding field maintanance on your list is the last thing you need to deal with but it’s important to be aware of a few helpful items that may affect a player.
A common problem I see was when a field gets dragged is the bases often don’t get removed. It’s recommended to remove the bases and place a protective cap over the base spike. Fill in any uneven spots and rake the field. This will flatten the area around the bases and make a smother field.
Many recreation department league games end late in the evening hours and many do not have the personnel standing by to water or rake a field after games or practices. This creates problems when people, pets and bikes are on the fields after a game. In many cases a rain shower will pass by and makes this problem even worst. It almost becomes a losing battle for the recreation department to keep a playing field in peak condition as the season goes on. All the city can do is post warning signs and hope people will obey them.
One expert source advises recreation departments to create an action plan to repair one field in your system and use that as a special event field. City residents will see your hard work and will get on board with repairing all the fields within your system. It’s better to focus your efforts on one at a time than trying to do all at once.
The eight questions listed above also apply to when a recreation department decides to do a renovation to a ball field during the off season. This is obviously a great time to do a project (weather permitting) when everyone is likely to have more time and possible resources to devote to a project for the next season.
WHO TO CALL AND WHAT TO DO
When trying to repair a field it’s also not uncommon for a groundskeeper to run into a problem that they have never seen before. One of the best sources that a city can use is the Sports Turf Managers Association. This organization has a lot of information that will help just about anyone who is interested in turf management. Or you could reference The Field Maintenance, A Basic Guide for Baseball & Softball Fields of All Levels published by the Baseball Tomorrow Fund that is a joint initiative of Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association. Another great source of information for field condition problems is your local supplier for sports field dirt and supplies. You can generally find these products in many cities by simply doing a web search.
The information provided is intended to be used as a helpful aid, if you have a problem please consult an expert in your area that specializes in baseball and softball field maintenance.
Gary Pastiva is a mechanical contractor in New Baltimore, Mich., and is Facility Management Certified. He is a U.S. Army Youth Sports Coach for baseball and soccer, a supporter of the New Baltimore (Mich.) Parks and Recreation department, and a member of the National Alliance for Youth Sports.
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