By Mike B. Sticha
Note: accompanying pictures can be found HERE (links to album on DRS Baseball Facebook page).
There is something special about a baseball field. Its mixture of grass and clays blend together to form a natural canvas for ballplayers to paint their stories. A perfectly formed pitching mound, freshly cut green grass, and laser-straight chalked (or painted) lines bring anticipation for the first pitch of the game.
In professional baseball, groundskeepers spend hours upon hours working the field to ensure it looks and plays at the highest level. Within amateur baseball, field maintenance and prep typically falls on the shoulders of a few dedicated people. In most cases, these people work full-time jobs and have family or other personal obligations they must balance in order to accomplish work at the ballpark. While the hours available to complete the work are fewer than professional groundskeepers, and with drastically smaller team budgets and resources, the results of their work is still tremendous. Many communities and teams take pride in their ballparks, and it all comes back to the hard work and commitment of field maintenance volunteers.
I met with a few dedicated people within the DRS League who are in charge of maintaining their respective ballparks to learn more about the time, energy, and devotion they pour into the ballparks they help maintain. We’ll hear from Eric Steinhoff (Veseli), Adam Gill (Union Hill), Phil Tisdel (Lonsdale), and Mike B. Sticha (St. Patrick).
Veseli – Veseli Ballpark - Eric Steinhoff (key helpers: Dave Novak, Chris Hertaus)
Eric got his start in field maintenance at an early age, following his dad to the ballpark in St. Benedict, a park Eric’s grandfather, Ray Steinhoff, helped build. “I think it just became a way of life. I keep doing it because it’s not something I have to do, it’s something I get to do,” Eric said. For Eric, he knows what he’s talking about, as he has a degree in turf and grounds management.
He estimates he, Chris, and Dave will spend an average of 10-15 hours per person, per week, at the field in the summer doing various tasks. Dave is generally in charge of the mowing and weed whipping. Chris does game-day prep, spraying, fertilization, and any construction help while Eric does game-day prep and other projects like edging, mound, plate, and baseline maintenance. Eric focuses on straight lines (mowing, edges, chalking, painting), “Fans notice when there are weeds or lines aren’t straight; it’s something that can be easily maintained throughout the season.”
Most of the work takes place in their free time, which pulls them away from family. “Simply put, people do not understand what needs to be done to keep a field maintained, so it’s hard to justify why I need to be down at the park, and the quantity of time I need to be there. There is very little ‘outside of baseball life’; it’s called winter!” In Eric’s case, he has a young son, Easton, who is now old enough to tag along with him to the ballpark. “The time he and I will share together at the ballpark will be priceless. It’s where I learned and gained my passion and hopefully he will too.”
Devoting so much personal time leads to frustration when players take actions on the field that add even more work. Actions Eric doesn’t like include digging holes in the batter’s boxes, cleaning off cleats in the grass, and playing “flip” in the grass when it’s wet or extremely dry. Also, while help is always appreciated, sometimes inexperienced helpers will lead to more detriment than good, and cause re-work to fix their mistakes. Veseli also alters their field for youth games, as a temporary pitching rubber is added and temporary bases are staked down. This adds even more maintenance, as it creates a cut out at first base and a slide spot at second base. Mats are used at first base and at the pitching rubber to reduce impacts on the grass.
One maintenance asset Eric wishes Veseli had is irrigation, “A lot of minor problems disappear with adequate water.” Without irrigation, it leads to even more work when the warm, dry summer months are in full force. Eric, Chris, and Dave have been known to split overnight shifts, where they will each set an alarm to ensure someone gets to the ballpark every 2 hours during the middle of the night to move sprinklers. Chris will also bring in his 1,200 gallon water tank and spread water on the infield when conditions get dire.
Eric likes to take a week off from his day job before the 4th of July holiday to prep the ballpark and make it look extra nice. It’s a theme often echoed amongst other field maintenance volunteers: giving of their own time for the betterment of the ballpark.
Union Hill – Don Giesen Field - Adam Gill (key helpers: Mark Gill, Don Giesen, Jim Weiers, Kevin Giesen, Paul Berg, Adam Giesen)
Union Hill’s Don Giesen Field has long been heralded as one of the better ballparks in the area. There are many people involved to ensure that sentiment remains true. Adam focuses on edging, rolling the field, and working on the mound. Don Giesen and Jim Weiers will mow the field and help get it ready for games. Mark Gill concentrates on the mound, edges, and infield grass. Paul Berg is the mound and batter’s box expert, and works on the ag-lime and clay throughout the field. Kevin Giesen helps with post-game clean up, and Adam Giesen does a lot of work on the field perimeter and mows when needed. The majority of the work gets done during the weekdays. Mark Gill is at the field 6 or 7 days a week, as are Jim Weiers and Don Giesen. Paul Berg will be there a few times per week working on the mound and batter’s boxes. Adam Gill adds, “I don’t think the wives or girlfriends will ever understand, but they are so used to us working on the field so much that they put up with it. It’s always toughest at the beginning of the year when there is a lot to clean up. Sometimes you are at the field for 7-8 hours on 3 consecutive Saturdays to make sure the field is good to go.”
On a typical game day, there is a process in place and those involved know their roles. Don Giesen typically drags the field and paints the lines. After the game is over, position players are in charge of grabbing their bases and putting in the base plugs. All of the players walk up and down the baselines to pick out dirt that made its way into the grass. But Adam adds, “other than that, players don’t have to do much work at all on the field. A few guys are picky about the mound, so we just cover it when we are done and Paul Berg or Mark Gill will get it looking perfect.”
While Union Hill has had an infield irrigation system for the past 10+ years, they recently added outfield irrigation about 2 years ago. “It’s been a nice addition to keep the outfield soft and green. The outfield can become very hard if not taken care of properly,” Adam mentioned. Given an unlimited budget, one thing Adam would like to address is the outfield. “If you ever look at our field, left field isn’t level. If we had more money I would like to regrade it and make it level. Our field was built on a pasture, so I don’t think it will ever be 100% flat, which is tough for bumps in the outfield if we don’t roll it a few times per year.”
At this time, the field is used only for teams using the standard dimensions. “We used to have a Pee Wee team, but we decided to scratch that idea. Moving the bases in took a toll on the grass quite a bit, and just getting the field ready for Pee Wee games was a process itself.”
Adam summed it up nicely, “People take a lot of pride in working on ‘The Hill’, it has been in a lot of people’s opinions, one of the top fields in the league for quite a while now. When we all hear the compliments we get on the field, it makes all of the work worth it.”
Lonsdale – Trenda Memorial Field - Phil Tisdel (key helpers: Darrell Vosejpka, Justin Scheffler)
Phil started playing in Lonsdale 9 years ago and gradually got more involved with field maintenance. He currently is in charge of mowing the field and general field maintenance. Darrell focuses on game-day prep and special projects, while Justin focuses on any irrigation needs and fixes, and is one of the best baseline chalkers. Phil estimates that each of them will spend between 4-8 hours at the ballpark per week during the summer months.
One of the more stressful components for Phil is adjusting his schedule to ensure he can mow the field, which is his most enjoyable component of field maintenance, but also takes up the most time. There are some days where he has to work late, or there are games taking place at the park, so he’ll have to alter his plans. He’s also been known to mow at night, under the glow of the ballpark lights. With a young family, Phil will also coordinate his mowing plans with his wife Julie, who understands Phil’s devotion.
Key focuses for Phil include mowing straight lines and ensuring the stripes made match up from the infield to the outfield. He also likes the baselines raked correctly, noting a stressor, “some of my pet peeves are people not raking the baselines the right way. If they rake incorrectly, the rock will always end up in the grass, which we have to broom out and rake the baselines again.” Mound maintenance is also important as he adds, “another [pet peeve] is when other teams use the field and they have to replace the clay on the mound. They will not replace with new packed clay, or they will just rake the dust back into the holes. This means we have to redo it right before the game.”
Given an unlimited budget, one maintenance practice Phil wishes he could incorporate would be to aerate the entire field and over-seed it. He would also like to lay new sod around baselines, and to touch up a few other areas with new sod.
Phil takes pride in the ballpark, “I like to have a park that people want to come back to see. We love to do the work and to have our field look great.”
St. Patrick – Bonin Field - Mike B. Sticha (key helpers: John Johnson, Kevin Hart, Mike L. Sticha)
Mike always enjoyed cutting grass and trying to stripe lines in his parent’s yard growing up. A love for both golf and baseball led to a general interest in grounds management. In 2005, he became more deeply involved with St. Patrick baseball and soon took on the role of coordinating field maintenance at Bonin Field. For most of the past decade he’s worked to transform the playability of the field. “When I first got involved, the field in general was ok, but small details weren’t being taken care of. Paying attention to the details became a focus. 2008 was a big year as we got infield irrigation and I led efforts to get our mound and home plate circles, as well as baselines, within specified dimensions. I wanted the playing field to be one of the better fields in the League.”
Currently, Mike oversees general maintenance practices and focuses mainly on edging and plate and mound repair. John mows the field multiple times per week (a mowing service also comes in one time per week) and John does game-day prep, while Kevin focuses on special projects and does game-day prep. The St. Patrick adult and youth teams using Bonin Field are also tasked with general pre and post-game prep. Mike’s dad, Mike L. Sticha, is a “Mr. Fixit”, “My dad can fix almost anything, and he’s done so much for St. Patrick baseball over the years, usually without anyone knowing. If I call him in summer, he knows 50% of the time it’s for him to fix something at Bonin Field, and he always comes through.”
Family additions have lessened the time available for Mike, “I now have two young children, so I’ve morphed into more of a Manager, with less time for hands-on work. My wife bears the burden when I’m away, and I need to balance that better. Having John, Kevin, and my dad available to help has been great.”
Field playability and maintenance are paramount to Mike. “Baseball field maintenance is my absolute passion, hands down. I read all I can about the subject and try to incorporate as much as I can within our limited budget and time available. I missed my calling to be honest, I wish I would have pursued this as a full-time career. But in the end, it’s a great escape from the stress of the real world. I also take tons of pictures and use Social Media to share and learn.”
Key focuses for Mike include: straight edges, mound and plate clays and conditioners, smooth grass transitions, and keeping clay out of the grass. “My biggest pet peeve is seeing any clay or ag-lime in the grass or along grass edges. I also hate seeing deep holes in batter’s boxes, so teams are instructed on how to add and compact clay after games.” St. Patrick also has Youth teams using the field, which requires altered dimensions. “We put a turf mat down for our Midget and Pee Wee games. It helps the grass to a degree, but it has to be monitored with over-seeding. It pains me to see the extra wear and tear, but our youth teams drive so much within our Association. It’s just part of the process.”
Given an unlimited budget, the one maintenance practice Mike would like to incorporate would be more aeration and top-dressing. “While we core-aerate two times per year, I would like to deep-tine aerate and top-dress with sand. It would greatly improve compaction issues and would help with drainage. But it’s expensive! There are many things we could be doing, but it’s simply a matter of prioritizing our time and money on vital practices.”
Summarizing why he continues to volunteer his time, Mike states, “Many people have sacrificed and worked hard to make Bonin Field what it is today. I want to ensure we never lose sight of that and continue to maintain it as best as possible.”
Next time you’re at the ballpark, think of the dedicated volunteers who gave their time to prepare the ballpark to the best of their ability.