Budgets, inventory and user group expectations can vary
By Mike Jiggens
Management of public baseball diamonds can vary from one municipality to another. Cultural practices and other maintenance regimes are generally consistent, but numbers of fields versus numbers of staff, budget constraints, inventory of equipment and relationships with user groups play a role in how ball diamonds are actually managed.
Sports turf supervisors from four Ontario municipalities shared their management strategies with an audience of their peers in November at the first annual Nutrite sports turf seminar in Milton.
Joe Breedon of Barrie, Brian Macklin of Brampton, Trevor Warner of Woodstock and Dwayne McAllister of Oakville talked about how they direct their staff to maintain baseball fields, the protocols for short-term field closures for scheduled maintenance, maintaining lines of communication with user groups and how budgets determine the things they can and can’t do.
Breedon said he has the luxury in Barrie to schedule field maintenance seven days a week with two shifts, delivering service from 6:30 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. From April to November, everyone in his department works one of two eight-hour shifts, performing every task necessary. No employee is dedicated to a specific job.
Thirty-five city diamonds, including the championship-level home field of the Intercounty Baseball League’s Barrie Baycats, and 10 diamonds that are part of a city sports complex, fall under his direction.
Breedon and his staff meet each year in November to reflect upon the season that has just ended, discussing important issues that arose from the playing season and looking ahead to the next spring. He said the meeting provides a better understanding of what will be going on during the winter allocation process. In February, the group will meet again to address the coming season, including any directives from city council and any new projects that might be taking place.
Lines of communication remain open throughout the entire year with Barrie’s user groups. Breedon said he has fostered stellar relations with his user groups during the 17 years he has been with the city.
“Sometimes you get caught with decisions they (user groups) don’t like,” he said. “The good thing, though, is they like the small improvements you do provide them. A lot of times they just assume. They don’t get it straight from the source.”
Breedon’s communications with his user groups include post-season queries into how the local rep programs fared and that of the teams’ Ontario Baseball Association programs. During off-season baseball shows, he’ll make an appearance “just to show my face and see how things are going.”
During the playing season, both city and complex diamonds are groomed daily.
“For each booking that we have, we groom that day.”
Diamonds that might be sitting vacant for a week will be groomed at least once during that time of inactivity.
Twenty of the city’s diamonds are irrigated which presents a challenge of its own, Breedon said.
“That’s a big challenge, too, especially with vandalism in the city itself.”
The sports complex is a fenced-in facility that serves to better protect the ball diamonds within from vandalism.
Monthly inspections are made of all irrigated diamonds to ensure no tampering has been done to sprinkler heads.
Fields are topdressed on a two to five-year rotation. Operator time, available money and product, and the need to work around user groups often present a challenge.
Irrigated fields are grown to Kentucky bluegrass while those that aren’t watered are a mix of Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass and fescue.
A total of 17 sports fields make up the city complex, including 10 baseball diamonds, all of which are lit for night play. Work assigned Breedon’s staff differs between the fields at the complex and the other diamonds throughout Barrie. At the complex, staff does everything, including building upkeep, tree pruning and mulching.
“We do all the lining, we do all the base setups, we do all the pitching boards. We do everything for anyone. That’s a nice thing for the user groups. They don’t have to worry about anything.”
When booking the city diamonds, however, user groups are responsible for that work themselves.
Poor weather can sometimes throw a wrench into the best-laid plans. Knowing out-of-town teams are scheduled to play in Barrie and will be investing money into local hotels and restaurants, Breedon said staff endeavours to dry out fields and make them playable. They will deal with conveners and “make sure we do the best we can to try to get the tournament in.”
He said three modes of thinking have been adopted for the spring, summer and fall. In the spring, staff is proactive. In the summer, crews sustain what was done in spring, and in the fall the mode reverts back to proactive, “meaning that once the season gets going, a lot of the maintenance practices you can’t do. You’re just reacting to problems and issues.”
Often, however, he said, a small window of opportunity will present itself during the summer to be proactive again.
He said that he has learned that when managing diamonds “not to eat too quickly or run super fast with improvements or providing things with the user groups because then they’ll expect more and more.”
In Brampton, where there are 107 baseball diamonds among a total of 337 city sports fields, distribution of maintenance work is divided into five geographical districts, each led by a foreperson with eight to 10 employees, six temporary staff and 25 students.
The district crews of 42 to 45 people work from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on weekdays. Field recreation staff provides after-hours customer service support by dragging diamonds before games. User groups can request to have pre-game dragging done on game night. The field staff also lines fields, opens and locks gates, cleans washrooms and turns lights on and off.
The level of maintenance provided to the ball fields is dependent upon their specific category, Macklin said. Category A fields are intended for game use only, and are irrigated, enclosed and lit. Category B fields are also irrigated, but not necessarily lit or enclosed, and can be used for both game play and practices. Category C fields are not irrigated.
Macklin said the city used to fertilize its fields four times annually with a pound of nitrogen on each occasion. Since working with Nutrite, however, two pounds are put down each time, but the number of applications has decreased, allowing staff to perform other functions. Brampton’s Category C fields had previously been fertilized once a year, but now receive a second application because of time saved fertilizing Category A fields.
The fields are also aerated four times annually and overseeded three times. Height of cut has been adjusted to two inches from 2½ inches. Category C fields are cut at 2½ inches.
Clay diamonds are nail dragged daily by dedicated staff and mounds are repaired each day.
Macklin urged his peers to take the time to properly train staff to ensure a quality job, suggesting rushed work leads to lengthy repairs in the fall.
“It’s better to take your time.”
During rain days, workers are sent out to take photographs of baseball fields. The pictures help to identify faults where there may be standing water, and decisions can be made to see if more material is needed or if improved grading is required. Macklin said about 50 city diamonds are typically re-leveled each season, including clay diamonds that are leveled every year. The adjustments made in grading the diamonds helps to reduce the number of field closures due to rain and keeps user groups content.
Each of the city’s geographic districts endeavours to conduct five to seven lip maintenance repairs each year. The schedule allows lip repairs to be done on all diamonds within five years, and the cycle can repeat itself again.
Macklin said edging must be done periodically to prevent grass from creeping into the warning track, and weed growth needs to be regularly monitored.
Mar-Co Clay, which supplies the city with its infield products, provides training for staff, including techniques for the proper construction of a pitcher’s mound. New students are hired each year, necessitating ongoing training.
Planning establishes goals and creates efficient use of resources, Macklin said. It also creates team building. The sports field maintenance team meets every two weeks to discuss ideas, collaborate on field maintenance practices, review policies and procedures, and to decide upon field opening and closing dates and maintenance closures. The team includes all forepersons, the supervisor, the district manager, the field recreation foreperson and booking staff. The group will also talk about capital projects and other items of importance down the road.
Decisions regarding rainouts depend on the category of field. For Category A clay diamonds, rainouts are decided by the city. For all other field categories, the user groups make rainout decisions.
Macklin works with the city’s bookings group to decide on scheduled maintenance closures on clay diamonds before the baseball season gets underway. For example, a three-day closure may be scheduled for early July to tackle such maintenance items as sod repairs, mound repairs, edging, lip removal and an overall turf maintenance program. The diamonds are booked heavily throughout the week and staff is available at only that time.
Warner shared some of the practices he does for his diamonds in Woodstock as well as work he does in other municipalities where he is often contractually consulted.
One of his standard practices is to use turf mats on the mound and batter’s boxes on clay diamonds when not in game use, protecting them from unnecessary wear and helping the areas to retain moisture.
“I always stress to them (user groups) on this field (championship diamond), if it’s not a game situation, don’t touch my clay,” he said.
During pre-game batting practice and fielding sessions, players throw or hit from the mats.
Warner prefers the use of calcite clay most of the time for his mounds, but will sometimes use red crushed brick. Blue gumbo clay used in the batter’s boxes can become slick when wet, requiring an insulation bed of either calcite clay or crushed brick conditioner.
“You need that insulation barrier,” he said. “You need to let the water get through or get off instead of being right on top of that clay because it is slick.”
In situations where the diamonds are used for practice purposes only, he said he has had to “beat it into users groups’ heads” to use the turf mat covers instead of playing directly off the clay. Most of the time, the message sinks in, but there have been exceptions where user groups fail to listen to practical advice.
Warner recalled a situation this past season in which he had to repair the infield turf because of teams “messing around.” Instead of players standing on the clay edges or on the baseline or at the turf mat-covered home plate to take batting practice, they stood on the infield turf allowing their cleats to tear up the grass from their twisting motions.
Had they hit from clay, repairs would have been relatively easy, he said.
“If somebody tore up an area from hitting and twisting and turning (on clay), it’s not that difficult.”
In another instance, Warner noticed a pocket on his infield turf that was darker than the surrounding area because seedlings “got their asses handed to them.” He said a coach was smashing ground balls directly into the turf instead of just laying them out toward his fielders.
“You wish you could choke him.”
Warner said he uses a striping/contour mower to give his turf sharp, eye-catching patterns. Not only does the turf look good, it is healthy as well. He said his turf has nicely thickened up in combination of the city’s fertility program, its overseeding practices and its mowing regime.
McAllister talked about his management of category A and B diamonds, noting there are no longer any category C diamonds in Oakville. The A fields are irrigated and have proper drainage. Most are lit and don’t necessarily have to be fenced in.
He has 12 full-time staff working under him with six of them devoted to sports fields. In addition to overseeing all sports fields in the city, he recently inherited the responsibility of lighting, care of the outbuildings and water. Consequently, he can’t personally get out to inspect the ball diamonds as often as he’d like, “but I do have really good lead hands and people in those sports field operator positions.”
Four individuals mow both baseball and soccer fields at least twice a week, but efforts are made to achieve three weekly mowing sessions.
“We’re really on top of the cutting,” McAllister said. “Soccer groups really like that. Baseball groups love it, too.”
User groups seem to have a lot of money when pressed, he said, noting some organizations have made certain requests that weren’t represented in the city budget, yet will turn around and make some of those purchases themselves.
“You never really know what their budgets are.”
Tasks such as field lining are done on Fridays for weekend field use.
Oakville’s capital budgets have permitted such projects as paving around the outside of diamonds, allowing proper placement of bleachers. It makes maintenance of those areas more efficient, he said.