CARING FOR GRASS = CLASS: Caring for Your Baseball/Softball Field with Limited Resources

“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,”

-Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

            One time during late August, I was sitting in a conference room at the IHSA office in Bloomington, Illinois. This is where the state advisory committee meets once a year.  It was an eclectic group of coaches from every corner of the state.  Sitting immediately to my right was a coach from a more affluent Chicago suburb.  He reminded me of Tony Soprano in stature and attitude, likeable but one that made me leery to approach. The previous spring, his team had won the 2A state title, when Illinois was only two classes, not four, as it is currently.  I knew this because, he was talking about it with some of the other suburban coaches that were congratulating him. Also, he was wearing a ring the size of a Volkswagen. It was really cool.  I sat back to listen to him speak.  Maybe I could pick up a pointer or some secret to get my team to that level.  I didn’t hear any secret strategies.  What I did hear was the difference in resources amongst schools his size and a school our size.  Our schools were in the same class despite his school having about 1,700 more students.   He was discussing their booster club that had a budget of $80,000 and that was strictly for baseball!  He discussed the 11 coaches on his staff.  In between my intermittent drooling episodes, I began to hear him discuss their field.  It sounded like a college field with the sprinkler system, stadium seating, new lighting, prescription dirt, and two other diamonds for the freshman and sophomore teams.   Then he mentioned the team of field maintenance men that kept the fields in tip-top shape.   We were competing in the same state class, but our worlds couldn’t have been further apart.  Now I don’t fault this coach for any of these differences.  He has a great job and does a great job utilizing the resources at his disposal.  He has the hardware to prove it.  My focus is on how the “have-nots”, which are more common than the program I just described, can do great things with very little capital.

            It is very easy for someone who comes from a program that has barrels of money to look at someone else’s diamond and say it’s “bush”.  Chances are that guy hasn’t picked up a rake since he’s been there.  His team of maintenance people who keep the field up are proof of that. The average coach must get his hands a little dirty in order to stay out of the bush category.  I’ll be the first to admit that 20 years ago our diamond was in that category.  For example, there were so many rocks in the infield we would occasionally walk around with buckets and collect them in order to get them off.  Also, for the first 90 years of our program’s existence we didn’t have dugouts.  We just put two wooden benches about 40 feet away from home plate to sit on.  Do you think that might have been a hair on the dangerous side? Hmmm, I wonder?  There’s nothing like dodging foul balls all afternoon. One season while playing as a freshman at my high school, I can remember a 4 foot mound of dirt that sat in the middle of right field.  I’m surprised other coaches didn’t just pack it up when they saw what a mess it was. 

            99% of all junior high and high school baseball fields leave something to be desired.  It’s really just like buying a house.  There’s always something to improve.  It’s just a matter of taking on the battles one at a time.  Improvement on our field began with a new prescription dirt surface.  The coaches that preceded me had seen it on other diamonds.  They lined up the equipment for excavation of the old dirt and spreading of the new.  Many times, jobs that require big equipment like trenchers or a backhoe require seeking volunteer time from local contractors.  More often than not they’re glad to do it.  Chances are they have a son or nephew that plays baseball. When everything was all done that diamond took rain better and was flatter than any in our conference.  Over the next 10 years, different improvements such as, a donated scoreboard, fenced in dugouts, a new backstop, and others were added. Some jobs are little, and some are huge. Here are some tips for getting them done:

1)   Find money from different avenues.   A school’s budget, fundraising, and seeking corporate donations, are all sources.  The first place to start is with your school or affiliated booster organization.  But don’t be surprised if you run into a brick wall when money is concerned.  The best way to approach them is with an organized proposal. Let them know that you’ve researched the most cost-effective way to get your pet project done.  Next, have a fundraiser.  There are a myriad of ideas out there for raising dollars. I’ve heard of everything from magazines sales to playing a 100 inning game.  Lastly, many corporations set money aside for donations.  Writing a few letters is never a bad idea.  Always address it to their “Community Relations Department”.  I have a friend who works for a nationally recognized insurance company.  He helped us received up to $250 every year.

2)   Do many of the cosmetic things yourself.  If you have a vision for the way your field should look, then get up and do it.  Cleaning up trash, weed trimming, straightening out edging, and painting are all economically miniscule projects that really require someone who is willing to work.

3)   Ask for help.  Parents, players, and school custodians are all your friends.  Some parents are dying to help you.  It gives them the same feeling of accomplishment that you get when a job is finished.  I had one parent that after a conversation with me fundraised over $2000 dollars on his own for an outdoor batting cage.  The players help put it up and take it down each season.   Ultimately, my favorite group of guys at our school is our custodians.  I don’t know what it is, but they love baseball.  They would much rather be working on a baseball field than be all kooked up in the school cleaning a chalkboard. In fact, one of our custodians coached a state champion summer league team.