We all want the youth on our sports fields to reach their fullest potential. And we all want to get the most out of what we put into maintaining our ballparks. So, we need safe and playable ball fields. Safe and playable baseball fields mean firm footing and true, consistent ball bounces.
But there is a constant STRUGGLE we have to deal with in youth sports: the time and money constraints coupled with perhaps not knowing where to start or what to do. You can, however, create a ball field you can be proud of and perhaps be a hero to your community too.
The solution for a better field for better play is to:
· Evaluate your ballpark
· Create an action plan to follow
· Keep your ballpark in tip top shape
I am going to use three case studies to show how you can create a better baseball experience by focusing on a few lessons learned. I’ll summarize these lessons into the 7 best tips for maintaining youth baseball and softball fields.
Determine what improvements are needed
Use the 81 Point Checklist for Evaluating Your Ball Park. This checklist covers all areas of your ball park and lets you objectively identify problem areas. You can then prioritize your improvements.
For many people this assessment checklist is also an excellent tool to educate and communicate issues to board members or administration staff who are part of the budget decisions. That way you and your leaders make an informed decision about the safety and playability for your young athletes. It’s not just your pushing an agenda that decision makers don’t understand or appreciate.
Go through the checklist as you think about your ball park. Better yet, walk your field and really see what you have. Make notes about each topic. This checklist is a condensed version, but you can use it as a guide. For example, do your base paths look like a gully washed through with the sides higher than the middle? Write it down. This is a safety issue. Do you have a base anchor sticking up at third base? Write it down.
When we look at the Little League complex in our case studies, the assessment shows us that:
· The 4 ball fields are overused and overrun
· There are inconsistent maintenance practices by all field users
· There are a variety of drainage and puddle problems
The high school assessment indicates:
· Under maintained turf and infield dirt
· Drainage and water coverage problems, and
· Inconsistent practices year round, especially summer and fall
And the assessment for the college ball field at a Park and Rec facility shows:
· Weak turf with lip buildup
· Infield dirt that is either powder or hard as rock
· Inconsistent/poor maintenance practices by the users
In each of these situations, there are specific improvements to make. These range from using better equipment, to adding more dirt, to improving the turf, to being consistent with field maintenance practices.
You may already work hard on your fields; but sometimes working hard is not good enough. You have to be smart, too.
If you are like me you don’t have an unlimited amount of time and money to spend on your sports field maintenance and upgrades. So, how do we identify and prioritize our improvement efforts? What should we spend time and money on? And how do we know the projects we pick to work on really keep our sports field safe and playable for our players?
The answer is the assessment checklist.
I help manage the fields at a local Little League complex. There are five ball fields for ages 6 to adult. Each spring and fall I use the checklist to help identify new and ongoing needs. From that I put together a budget proposal for the board. That way they see exactly what I suggest and why. It makes the work visible and gets their support.
Now let’s look at some specifics from the assessments.
The best thing for improved dirt maintenance
Build and regularly use a nail drag. Go slow in varying patterns and stay away from the grass edge. This will turn a dry, hard infield into a reasonable playing surface. Nail drags can be home made from three 2x4s and two boxes of 16d nails. Pre-drill holes for the nails will make it go easier with all the pounding you’ll do.
The first time you use a nail drag, players and parents will think you added new dirt to the field. It will play just that much better. And if you can water down the field a bit first, the nail drag won’t kick up dust and it softens up the dirt for you.
Nails do eventually wear down. But even when they get pretty short the nail drag can still scarify the surface and the 2×4 can even help level the dirt as it goes.
The best thing for improving turf health
Periodically core aerate. After core aerating, drag the turf with a screen drag to break up the cores and smooth out the turf subsurface. This way you get and maintain level turf for ball bounces.
I also like to add in frequent but light fertilizing and overseeding. I have found that fertilizing the turf every 4 weeks at about half the recommended rate provides more consistent growth and color and is much easier for mowing. I mow the infields twice a week, Tuesday and Friday. Outfields are mowed on Thursdays.
Ideally you want to get at least 10 holes per square foot for the aerating to be effective. Therefore, it probably will take two passes of the aerator to do this.
The best efficiency improvement for a large complex
Use stubs for batter box corners, provide access to shared equipment, and really focus on not getting any dirt on the grass edges. These short stubs can be 6 inch pieces of rope or surveyor markers.
Here’s what you do to speed up making batter boxes game after game:
1. Mark the corners of the batter box.
2. Dig a hole down about 5 inches down. Narrow is better.
3. Insert a piece of stiff nylon rope about 6 inches long.
4. Fill in the hole around the rope and pack or tamp it down.
Now the 1-inch stub sticking up marks the corners. You can rake and drag over them usually no problem. Then just chalk or paint as needed. No more hassles with a template.
Some softball fields use pink rope and don’t even chalk or paint the actual batter box outline. They just use the pink stubs as a visual for the box. These rope stubs usually will last the spring season, but do wear down over time. If you have problems with them coming out, you can also anchor them down with a large washer and a knot or with a large nail. But I try to avoid doing that.
Best for tip for high school
Soak dirt before game time, manage the edge for a flat transition, and mow often.
A hand pulled broom drag helps keep the dirt off the corners. These are light weight and wide. And they are simpler than getting out the riding tractor and a screen drag. Using a plastic fan rake helps remove dirt from the grass edges. Variations for turf edge management include blowing the dirt off or vacuuming it up also. For many youth fields, the plastic rake is quick and easy.
Best suggestion for college and above
Use mound clay, laser grade the infield, and manage the field for player safety.
At the higher levels of competitions, firm footing and true bounces is a must for safety. Players will start and stop quickly. Ideally the field conditions should be consistent throughout a nine inning game. Therefore, you must use quality materials and techniques.
Your most important field maintenance tool of all
Water. A proper amount of water just makes everything better. Moisture management of the infield skin as well as the turf is just about the best thing you can do for your players.
We all have ideas what a good playing surface is like. But ask the players. Seriously. Ask them if they prefer dry and loose versus moist and firm. My experience is that most prefer even a hard surface rather than one that blows out from under them. Water is the answer. It can make just about any dirt mix so much more playable.
We can create a better baseball experience for our players, coaches, and fans. These lessons-learned and basic practices can do that for you. I believe sports programs can help our youth develop lifelong habits for success. And I sure don’t want their dream to slip away due to a poor sports field. And I want to help men and women like you transform their sports fields into a field of dreams where our youth reach their fullest potential and you have no regrets.
For the past 11 years I have refined my previous AAA baseball field maintenance skills by spending time with MLB and AAA groundskeepers, with sports turf managers, and with suppliers of field products for professional sports. During that period I also renovated 49 baseball and softball fields and had the privilege of consulting on hundreds of other new construction and renovation projects.
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