Coaches and volunteers, God love ’em. The games of baseball and softball usually can’t go on without these dedicated people who are there to either teach or just help out. Most are genuinely trying hard to do the right thing; others are just there to fill a void. It is no wonder that sports field managers cringe when they find out that the coaches and volunteers worked together to get a game in after a rain event. Instead of throwing caution to the wind and doing whatever it takes to get your game in, consider the consequences to the quality of the field surface, those who must fix it, and the other teams that are affected by your actions.
Let’s look at some of the most common groundskeeping mistakes committed by those with good intentions, but still create undesirable results:
Using a broom or squeegee to push standing water off your infield skin. Infield soil and topdressing are picked up along with the water and pushed off into the lip. This ends up building the lip higher, creating a natural dam, and also making the low spot, where the water collected, lower due to infield material being pushed out along with the water.
The correct action is to use a puddle pump or puddle sponges to suck up and remove excess freestanding water in the low spots.
Using excessive amounts of drying agent. The only thing this does is waste large dollar amounts of drying agent to get games played. Excess drying agent remains on the field afterward, which can increase the speed of the field drying, but it can also help store more water at the surface in a rain event as the calcined clay drying agent gorges itself with water. This may actually slow the drying process if too much is sitting on the surface. On a field without a water source, you can actually suffer from the field getting too dry and hard as the calcined clay sucks every bit of moisture out of the infield skin.
If you walk on an infield and it is soft enough that your feet sink, it is too soft to play on. Incredible amounts of damage can occur on a ballfield when it is played on when the infield skin is too soft. Let Mother Nature do her evaporative magic first. Once the field is stable enough to walk on, then you can work to dry the low spots by removing the freestanding water first. Only then should you use drying agent to finish the drying process and it will take much less material to do so.
Dragging an infield without removing bases, then pulling a drag right over the top of them. This causes infield soil to build up around the bases, slowly burying them and making them harder to remove. This also destroys the consistency of the surface grade across the infield. This is just plain lazy.
The correct action is to remove the bases and place in dugouts. Install base plugs in base anchors before dragging infield. Cut down any high areas under or around bases with an iron rake or aluminum field rake.
Dragging infield material into the turf edges. When dragging the infield, if the drag wanders onto the turf edges, it deposits infield soil and topdressing into the turf edges which is then glued in by rainfall and irrigation cycles, unless cleaned out fairly soon afterwards. As this material builds up in the turf, it creates a lip that becomes a natural dam impeding the free flow of rainfall off the playing surface.
Stay a minimum of 6 inches away from the edge of the infield skin where it meets the turf. This will help to reduce the incidence of lip build-up. Additionally, use a push broom, leaf rake, backpack blower, yard vacuum or power broom to pull loose material out of the turf edges after you drag the skin area.
Packing dry mound spoils back into the wear holes on the mound slope. This is basically wasted effort, pure and simple. Water and clay are the glue that binds a soil together. Without those, no binding will take place, no matter how hard you pulverize and pound the old clay that has been kicked out of the wear areas. Additionally, if you pull the old clay laying on the surface of the mound back into place, it undoubtedly has also been contaminated with other materials, like topdressing or infield soil, which drastically reduce the binding power of the used material.
The correct action, and the only way to patch a clay area that produces an effectively sturdy and stable patch, is by using fresh new clay and water. The process is as follows:
- Sweep all loose material away from the wear holes.
- Use water to adequately moisten the sides and bottom of the holes. Allow some time for the water to absorb into the established clay.
- Add fresh clean clay to the wear areas and tamp into place. Level as needed.
- Sprinkle some water over the entire surface of the patch.
- Pull old topdressing and other material back over patch and finish groom.
Not using tarps on the clay areas on the mound and home plate at the end of the day. The clay areas are left open to the atmosphere where evaporation will pull the moisture out of the mound and batter’s box clay. Without the moisture in the clay, it fractures and chunks out of those areas very easily, drastically reducing its effectiveness of providing proper footing for a pitcher or hitter.
If area tarps are available, place the mound and plate tarps on whenever you finish a game or practice and no one else is around to use the field. It is always important to minimize evaporation on the clay whenever possible. BONUS: If water is available, add some water to the clay areas on the mound and batter’s box to replace what Mother Nature evaporated during the time you were using the field. Just don’t overdo it.
Sports field managers have a tough and challenging job to do, especially at schools and park and recs where their time is limited at each field they manage. I’ve never met a sports field manager who didn’t have incredible pride in the work they do, no matter the situation that gets handed to them. The hope is that coaches and volunteers respect what these field managers do in order for the rest of us to play our games, both competitive and recreational.
To avoid these common groundskeeping mistakes, coaches and volunteers should only perform minimal work on a field—unless they have received some training. An excellent and free resource for basic game day groundskeeping skills is available through Beacon Athletics at GroundskeeperU.com, which offers eight modules covering the basics of ballfield maintenance. The training is geared toward coaches, volunteers, summer help or new grounds employees; users can signup for a free account and track their progress through the modules and lessons. In the end, you can take the final exam to gain “certification,” but you must be a logged in user to track your progress.
Paul Zwaska, a former head groundskeeper for the Baltimore Orioles, is director of education and strategic initiatives for Beacon Athletics since 2000. In 2012, Paul authored and oversaw the launch of “Groundskeeper University,” the first online ballfield maintenance-training venue.
Editor’s note: Beacon Athletics just announced they will be part of MLB’s London series next month; MLB’s field consultant for the games, Murray Cook, will have his crew using the Beacon SweetSpot tamp as well as various Beacon infield drags and nail drags and spikers.