Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of maintenance for the average local parks and recreation department is natural-turf sports-field preparation for the spring season.

As with so many other maintenance issues, there are no cookie-cutter solutions. Depending on the specific environment, the challenges are going to differ. Even departments whose jurisdictions border each other can have vastly different issues depending on politics, funding, public support, and a host of other variables.

Every climate across the country and around the world calls for a different approach. The type of turf that works in one climate might not thrive in an adjacent state. One type of pest might be able to devour a whole field in days in one place but not even be a threat in others. Wetter climates may have soil run-off problems while dryer climates face wind-erosion issues.

Communicate For Cooperation

In warmer climates these days, local youth and adult sports can be almost non-stop, year-round. Even in colder, wetter climates, there are always dedicated athletes who want to use ball fields, but use can quickly become abuse when it is constant, heavy, and unmitigated.

So one of the first things rec departments have to do is demand downtime for field maintenance. That’s not always easy with public fields, especially those that don’t have tall fences and gates with locks.

Communication with local sports-group leaders can streamline a department’s efforts to keep people off the fields. Explaining the reasons for downtime—safer fields, fewer injuries, and better-looking fields—lets users know that the work is in their best interests as taxpayers and for their children’s safety.

Communicating directly to the members can save time, and the message will be delivered by people closer and more familiar to individual users. An alternative is to speak to general member meetings of these groups. Either way, the personal touch can accomplish two goals—good public relations and fewer people on the fields.

To drive the point home, consider taking some digital pictures of areas of the fields that need maintenance, such as rutted soccer or football fields, “lips” of mounded dirt around infields of baseball fields or prairie dog holes in the outfield. Send the pictures out to sports-league members and indicate what will be done to make their fields safer.

 Ample, visible, and well-worded signage is sometimes overlooked as another means to deliver the message.

Instead of the “KEEP OFF FIELDS!” in-your-face approach, try a more subtle message. For example, “Your Parks Department At Work For You—Please Stay Off Fields During Maintenance” or “Help Us Care For Your Fields—Please Stay Off During Maintenance” might get the message across in a more meaningful way.

Professional-looking signs can be expensive, so have a set of signs that can be reused, with generic wording and a space where specific dates or functions can be attached.

The more signs the better, with at least one on each corner or side of a field, so no matter which way someone enters the field, he or she can see the sign. For those living in a demographically diverse area, signs in different languages might help, too.

Today most sports associations have websites, which is another effective place to promote the good work being done on the fields.

Where The Infield Meets The Outfield

When I first started in the parks and rec business in 1997, fresh from 20 years in the Marine Corps, I was fairly naïve about sports-field care and maintenance. I figured it was like taking care of a lawn—provide a little fertilizer and water, mow it, and move on.

I soon found that proper care of sports field is one of the constant issues facing most departments; it is a year-round business. And different fields have different needs—baseball is different from softball, and both are different from soccer, and if it’s the dreaded “multi-purpose” field, one has to be a real field wizard to make it attractive and safe.

Baseball and softball fields are probably the highest priority for most departments as spring looms and the “boys and girls of summer” start gearing up. The infields present probably one of the most maintenance-intensive set of challenges.

Dirt baselines surrounded by turf grass equals constant maintenance. Dirt is usually thrown outward by running feet and raking or dragging. It doesn’t take long before a “lip” forms along both sides of the baselines as well as the entire arc where the infield meets the outfield.

This lip can be dangerous, presenting a significant trip hazard for base runners and infielders. Even more dangerous is how a ground ball will react when it hits the lip, erratically and unpredictably. This poses a safety issue for infielders trying to scoop up hard-hit balls. A bad bounce can turn into a trip to the hospital.

 

In the reality of high-tempo recreational baseball, one game follows another with little or no field-grooming in between.

“Maybe you haven’t been able to prevent the lip by either raking or hosing. So, now you have a lip that is more like a speed bump,” writes Jim Reiner on the website “Better Fields for Better Play: The Ultimate Baseball Field Renovation Guide” (www.ultimate-baseball-field-renovation-guide.com).

The website offers many free tips for maintaining ball fields. Reiner, the former groundskeeper for the Texas Rangers AAA team, writes about using a sod cutter and core aerator and associated steps to getting the dangerous ball-field lips down. There is a wealth of other field maintenance info on the site.

So after a weekend of back-to-back games, recreation work crews (or more often today contract labor) are tasked with putting all the fields back in order for Monday morning. Generally there are too few staff, too little equipment and materials, and too little time to do the job patiently. This is normally true throughout the week. So drags pulled behind tractors are often used at high speed, slinging even more dirt into the lips. Within the first few weeks of seasonal play, the lips are beginning to be an issue.

Appropriate daily maintenance of recreational fields by users, parks maintenance staff or contract labor is another column for another day. A bottom-line suggestion here: when the fall season ends, these crews should begin as soon as possible to work on getting the lips down, one field at a time, if needed.

Again, depending on the climate, this approach may not be possible; it’s rather difficult to work fields when they lay under two feet of snow.