Turf & Rec

Features Sports turf
Metamorphosis of field helped save MLB alliance

Vancouver’s minor league field had safety, playability issues

March 18, 2020
By Mike Jiggens

Not as much attention needs to be given to a baseball park’s outfield as the infield requires. Only three players at a time roam the area, contributing to comparatively less compaction and wear.

For the past three seasons, Ross Baron has been named sports turf manager of the year for the Northwest Baseball League. Last season, he earned the additional honour of Minor League Baseball’s sports field manager of the year in the class A, short season/rookie category.

Interestingly, Baron began his current career as head groundskeeper for the Vancouver Canadians the same year as his first Northwest League honour. Speaking in February at the Ontario Turfgrass Symposium at the University of Guelph, he said that before taking on his position at Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium, he wanted to know of the status between the Single A level Canadians and its parent team, the Toronto Blue Jays of Major League Baseball’s American League. He understood the Blue Jays weren’t happy with the field conditions at Scotiabank Field.

“The conditions had got to a point where it became a safety issue and a playability issue,” he said. “We were at risk of losing our affiliation. It was something that definitely had to improve.”

The organization didn’t want to risk losing the Toronto-Vancouver connection and provided Baron with the tools he needed to improve the field and return it into a top-level ballpark.

“The field was in terrible shape which meant that it could only improve. There was really nothing I could do to make it any worse. Management needed drastic change which ensured their support.”

Baron has an operating budget of about $100,000, which doesn’t include labour. He has three other seasonal grounds staff with him from April to October, working a short season of 38 home games. The season itself spans the period from June to mid-September.

Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium is an older ballpark, constructed at its current site in 1951. With an average attendance of 6,210 people, the park is a higher drawing venue than all other professional baseball clubs from Double A down.

“We sell out about 98.7 per cent of our games throughout the season.”

There are seven classifications of minor league baseball, and Single A short season ranks about third from the bottom.

Being an older stadium, inventory for equipment is small, Baron said.

“When they built it, it wasn’t designed to hold a lot of equipment.”

Consequently, such tasks as aeration, verticutting and other cultural practices are contracted out because the ball club doesn’t have the storage capacity to own much of the necessary equipment.

In his first year on the job in 2017, following three years working for the City of Kelowna, he said the turf condition at the Vancouver ballpark was “horrendous.” Grass cover was thin, and a lack of cultural practices had been performed the previous five years.

“It wasn’t always like this. It was nice in the ‘70s, ‘80s and even the ‘90s. But the turf began to be neglected. It was in such a drastic condition that I felt something needed to be done.”

Contaminated infield
The skinned infield was contaminated upon his arrival, with weeds and grass growing from within the material. Much of the problem was attributed to Canada geese, which ate poa and weed seed at nearby Queen Elizabeth Park and then defecated on the infield. The conditions were ideal for germination because the clay remained wet throughout the winter months.

As a former baseball player himself, Baron took a hard look at the field conditions from both an athlete’s perspective as well as that of a sports field manager. One of the first things he wanted to do was address turf health, maintenance and cultural practices on the field with plans to introduce aggressive aeration and verticutting programs.

Lips and transition areas needed attention as well.

“They need to be level to keep the field safe, to eliminate bad hops and things, and that’s something we needed to look at as well.”

Baron said he wasn’t at all pleased with the lack of colour contrast on the field when he was hired.

“By picking good infield material and warning track material and having good colour and fertilizing your grass, you can create a field that pops a lot more.”

The warning track he inherited had been constructed with a road-based material that was “grey, extremely hard and ugly.” Additionally, some areas of the track were eight feet wide while others were 16 feet.

“The first thing I wanted to do was standardize that at 16 feet.”

Improving the ballpark’s esthetics was at the top of Baron’s to-do list.

“The first thing they see is the esthetics. They don’t see playability, so if you want to get support from your management or staff, you need to make the people who aren’t educated on the small technical things to give you support by seeing that you know how you’re doing your job, and the easiest way to achieve that is by focusing on the esthetics first.”

Baron said his next priority was to address the infield and foul territories, both of which were in “dire” condition. His strategy was to strip both areas and lay down new Kentucky bluegrass sod.

“Because I couldn’t strip the entire outfield, I decided to instill an aggressive overseeding program of 60 per cent Kentucky bluegrass and 40 per cent ryegrass.”

Standardizing league specifications was necessary to ensure the bullpen mounds were identical to the field mound and that distances from the mound to home plate and the distances between bases were spot on.

The sand, silt and clay ratios were off the charts, Baron said, noting a high performing infield material was needed. The finishing conditioner product spread atop the skinned infield ensures consistency on the infield’s top layer and absorbs 30-to-one its weight in water.

Additional sprinkler heads were added in the outfield to increase the efficiency of the ballpark’s irrigation system. The older hydraulic system still works, Baron said, but needs improvement.

Improved mowing patterns
Another of his goals was to improve mowing patterns and rotating them around. Continuously mowing the same patterns leads to “snaking,” he said, which encourages the ball to follow the patterned grooves because the grass is trained to grow in those directions.

“From a turf health perspective, it’s always good to keep that grass guessing and keep it moving around.”

One of the biggest mistakes a sports turf manager can make in dealing with transition areas is matching the material level with the height of the grass.

“You’re not matching the material level with the height of the grass. You’re matching the material level with the soil level.”

To ensure the material and soil levels match up, Baron said he adopts the “look up” rule. If a player is following a fly ball and he crosses the transition, he shouldn’t feel any difference between the grass and the infield. There should be no lip, and if the fielder is running while looking up, he shouldn’t have to worry about tripping over the edge.

Prior to the stadium’s construction, the outfield area had been a 15-acre swamp and still had a variety of high and low spots when Baron was hired. When the outfield was topdressed, it was dragged using a T-bar that slowly filled in the lower spots. It was finally laser leveled to ensure consistency.

The field renovations began in April of 2017 and continued until June when the season was ready to get underway. A number of challenges were experienced along the way. Getting big equipment into the stadium was difficult because several new buildings had been constructed in the surrounding area since the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, which limited access to the park.

This forced the 600 tons of washed sand needed for the stripped infield to be brought in “bucket by bucket” on a skid steer from the parking lot. The job took about three weeks at eight hours a day.

“We got it in, got it level and got it ready for sod.”

The infield was dug to a one-foot depth to get rid of the organic subsoil. The washed sand was mixed with five per cent peat moss. Thick-cut Kentucky bluegrass sod was laid by hand, starting at the perimeter and working inward.

The supplier of the infield material devised a custom blend based on the field’s sand, silt and clay ratio. It was tilled and laser leveled. Baron said having consistent tilled material helps with water management during weather events. Players are provided with solid footing that feels like corkboard. Their cleats will go into the material and come out cleanly without any chunking from pushing off.

During the laser leveling process, Baron said he aimed for a .5 to one per cent slope toward the outfield.

“You want it as close to level as possible while still having some surface drainage capabilities when you have heavy rains.”

Material migration
When maintaining skinned infields, it is important to vary dragging directions to avoid material migration, he said. He likes to alternate among three directions, leaving the field each time in a different location. Material migration into the turf leads to lip formation because the lip is essentially being topdressed with infield material with grass growing through it, “and that’s how you build lips.” He said he’s seen it so bad that it resembles a ski jump.

Baron said a nail board is an essential tool for roughing up clay infields, getting rid of cleat marks and helping to level the infield throughout the season as long as dragging is done in three directions. Following a heavy rain event, a nail board helps to open up pores, allowing better airflow and helping the infield dry up that much faster.

Caution must be exercised when using drag mats, he said, because they flow with the profile and contribute to high spots while pulling material away from low spots. The best way to avoid that from happening, he said, is to use a nail board first and then switch to a rigid drag mat that allows material to be dragged into low spots while shaving off high spots.

Special attention needs to be given to such high-traffic areas as leadoff spots, sliding areas, the pitcher’s mound, home plate and the batter’s box. None of these areas can be allowed to compound and get worse, Baron said.

Managing moisture in the infield is a never-ending task, he added.

“If it gets too dry, the clay will have a tendency to get rock hard and crack. If it’s too wet, it gets mucky and gets a little bit slippery.”

Two types of conditioners are typically used on baseball infields – calcined clay and vitrified clay – but Baron said he prefers calcined clay. The field is flooded and rolled before every home stand, allowing moisture to be trapped deep in the profile. Flooding is done at night to avoid daytime evaporation. The next morning the field can be rolled out to seal in the surface and get water deep into the profile. By not flooding properly prior to a home stand, water reserves are lost in the infield after the first game, he said.

“If you lose those water reserves that quickly, there’s no way you’ll be able to get that moisture level in your infield where it needs to be in order to play safely and have good game play.”

Baron, who did his university internship with Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals, learned from the head groundskeeper there to aerate as often as possible.

“Especially in sports turf, it’s a big deal because the level of compaction is so high.”

He likes to both pull cores and use solid tines. Frequent aeration improves both drainage and air flow.

Due to the inefficiencies of his irrigation system, Baron has adopted the use of wetting agents to get the most out of the water he puts down. His fertility program includes a once monthly slow-release granular fertilizer to ensure the soil gets the nutrients it needs between applications and twice monthly liquid fertilizer applications that are high in both iron and potassium. The iron helps provide the field with its dark colour while the potassium helps address stress caused by the players.

“The players are always kicking the crap out of the field, and the potassium really helps resist that stress.”

Baron tried growth regulators for the first time in 2019.

“I found huge success using growth regulators in terms of the turf density and how it carpets up, and I can cut it at one inch and it’s really strong.”

He said research is being done to study the mixing of growth regulators with line paint. The theory is that painted lines on sports fields will realize a longer lifespan because they won’t have to be mowed as often.