July 2007

The Spirit of Olympic Baseball

Sydney_2000_rings Over the years I?ve had the unique privilege of traveling around the globe to help in the design, construction and maintenance of a wide variety of athletic fields that have hosted major events. Our Brickman sports turf team was an integral part of the design and construction of the baseball and softball fields for the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia in 2000 and again in Athens, Greece in 2004. Today, we are involved with the development of athletic fields in Beijing, China for the preparation of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Beyond the rich cultural experiences that these projects have delivered, each has also provided valuable insight about the nature of how people work together to accomplish a common goal. Whether these achievements are the result of Olympic spirit, or a desire to meet the aggressive construction deadlines required of a host city, the speed of execution and quality of work consistently amazes me.

Olympic baseball creates excitement

Greek_sdium_and_greenville_042 I recall the first Olympic baseball game in Athens 2004 attracted more than 10,000 fans brimming with anticipation. After the wind up and delivery of the first pitch, the umpire called a strike. The fans erupted. Then came the second pitch. After a similar wind up and delivery, the umpire called a ball. Again, the crowd erupted. For many of the fans in attendance that day, the game was their first exposure to the sport of baseball. Although they were not yet familiar with the rules, the energy at the ballpark highlighted the sheer excitement the game creates.

Although the 2008 Beijing Olympics are still many months away, the excitement is palpable. During my last trip to Beijing, I enjoyed speaking with Olympic organizers and members of the field construction crew who became visibly animated when describing the positive impact the Olympics will have on the community. It is fun to be involved with the Olympics and to play a role in sharing the game of baseball with new fans and people that are excited about the sports turf industry.

As I?ve observed from my experiences with other sports turf design projects, team collaboration is a critical element to success. Athletic turf construction projects involve a wide range of constituents beyond those directly performing the work. At the international Olympic level, constituents may include state and local policy-makers, competition committees, sponsors, and a host of others who are connected in some way. My work in Beijing and at previous Summer Games has made me realize that the Olympics influence people to become better international communicators by creating dialogue opportunities across cultural lines.Athens_baseball_field_aerial_1

Working with the people in China involves more than just the agreement we have regarding the fields, but it is also about developing friendships. Building these new friendships require a better understanding of the language and in my spare time I am enjoying my second class to learn Mandarin Chinese. Beyond the fact that I think it is a beautiful language, especially in the written form, I am looking forward to meaningful dialogues with the construction team and international stakeholders with whom I am working in preparation of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

With the abundance of specialized field equipment available to sports turf professionals today, I was surprised to learn that the field construction teams in Beijing didn?t have access to specialized turf equipment used in the West. Some equipment was obtained through American distributors operating in China; however, other types of equipment needed to help expedite the construction of the fields simply weren?t available.

When I spoke with officials about the equipment limitations, I learned that much of the construction was going to be completed by manual labor. As explained to me, China is able to overcome equipment shortages through the sheer scale of its labor force. The individual labor going into the production of the Olympic fields in Beijing is astounding. From this perspective, it is easy to understand the attractiveness of the Chinese labor market for international companies with heavy manufacturing requirements.Dscf1236 

Turf and clay selections
Beijing?s weather patterns are a lot like New York City?s. Given the similarities, we discussed a variety of grassing options for the fields that would simulate the high performance of New York?s professional ball fields. After our initial meeting, it was determined that we would need to seed the fields rather than sod them, since China does not have the appropriate equipment for harvesting sod and the type of sod they have is not conducive to baseball.

First we considered bluegrass but were advised by the local turf professionals that it was not suitable for a baseball field due to the extremely hot summers in China and because bluegrass varieties tend to succumb to fungus problems. Next, we considered using native zoysiagrasses but, after a lengthy discussion, determined that due to the turf?s variety its ability to respond quickly from game play damage would be low.

Next we considered Bermudagrass, but after talking it over with the local turf professionals, we decided against it after learning Bermudagrass doesn?t stand up well to China?s winter months. At that point I described some of the more winter hardy Bermudas that are being developed in the states, which led to the agreement that I would research more Bermudagrass options and propose a plan.

Upon returning to the states I spent some time with local sod farms in the Washington D.C./Virginia area and was impressed with the Riviera Bermuda. After giving Gene McVey, CEO of Johnston Seed a call, Riviera Bermuda seed was on its way to the Olympics.

For the infield clays, we wanted to use similar blends used at top U.S. ballparks; consisting of approximately 10% silt, 60% sand and 30% clay. The search for distributors was not easy; as with many other international field construction projects, we started by asking local golf courses and brick manufacturers for possible sources. After asking around, we were fortunate to connect with local pottery manufacturing companies who had many of the materials we needed to create the right composition. Testing of the materials is ongoing but we are close. As for the mound and plate clays they may have to come from the States.

Continuous learning
Dscf1286 Trends in sports turf construction and maintenance are constantly changing. Today, I am particularly amazed by the wide variety of materials that are being used to construct high quality athletic fields. From the development of new types of polymer based clays to synthetic topdressings, the technological innovation that is happening in the sports turf construction and maintenance industry is astounding! Even equipment is becoming better specialized to help serve specific sports.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has done an outstanding job insome sports of recognizing these types of innovations and incorporating these ideas into a ?playbook? that is passed from one host city to the next with instructions and timelines for when construction should begin on different types of projects. By sharing examples of what has and hasn?t worked, each new project can be executed with greater efficiency and make better use of new technologies. The Beijing team is attempting to embrace the best practices of spots field construction and is on track to developing outstanding fields for the 2008 Summer Games.

Beijing is a wonderful city that will undoubtedly host a vibrant and memorable Olympic Games in 2008. It is exciting to be involved with the construction of fields that will expose a new segment of fans to the game of baseball and I cannot say enough about the hospitality and character of those involved with the planning and construction process.

That being said, I want to express how lucky I feel to be able to live in the U.S. Our country has vast resources, modernized equipment, and limitless possibilities. A baseball game on a warm summer evening enjoyed by friends and family provides an opportunity to relax and reflect on the simple pleasures of friendly competition against the backdrop of a well-manicured field.

I strongly believe that my friends in China will embrace this game if not for the sport, but for the same reasons we as Americans do. Those in the sports turf industry make a valuable contribution to the quality of life we enjoy in the U.S. and I am proud to count myself among the professionals who have dedicated a career to this pursuit.

Back to the Basics in Beijing

Hand_edging_in_china_2 Although there are much more efficient ways to build baseball fields in the world, the Olympic Baseball Fields here in Beijing,  I can assure you, have accumulated the most "Man Hours" EVER during there this phase of field development. Yes… the photo of the man edging has him using a "Stick" for removing the Bermuda grass that has grown in the baselines.   The hand type fertilization system is not what you would see in most countries where you are spreading material over a couple acres.  Its a long and patient process but with with 22 days before the test event you really wonder how itDscf1267  will all come together with so many loose ends.  Somehow it always does.   One minute there are a hand full of people helping you, the next minute there is a swarm.  In some situations when you are building a mound or home plate area, to many people can be a bad thing.  People are triping over string lines etc..

We started some equipment training with the field Contractor as a TORO Sand Pro and Sidewinder was delivered this past week. Dscf1292  The TORO Sidewinder is a triplex mower used for cutting Bermuda grass.  After mowing the field with push mowers ..lets just say there were some happy china-men ( and women) in the park today!  Immediately everyone became very excited about the field and the appearance the mower was making with the striping of the turf.   A local Chinese equipment company was located and provided photos of various types of baseball equipment. Dscf1274 Due to costs  of shipping, the company attempted to "copy" some of the different types of maintenance equipment using a picture instead of bringing them in from abroad.  Some items have been pretty close , but others… well they still need some work.  We will Dscf1284 evaluate these interesting creations during the test event.

One of my favorite is the Purple Tarp.  Can’t say I have ever seen a purple infield tarp before.  The Rockies might like it!

We also installed the first home plate into the main stadium.  Sometimes you have to stop and think that this home plate is where a team will score the winning run to capture the Gold Medal next year.  You also have to wonder how many people does it really take to install home plate!  In this photo about 25.  All in fun, the curiosity of this sport has everyone wondering what we are doing.  This trip I brought Erik Frey (one of our Project Directors) to help with the tasks of training the local crew on mowing skills and assist with the various installations. He will remain for anther week after I leave.  We return for the baseball test event in mid-august.Dscf1290 We have along way to go but again somehow we will make it.

By the way, they were quite proud of the home plate installation.    


Rain Delays and Tarp Stories

Panama_2_042_1Several people have sent me notes asking if I saw the Phillies team helping the Rockies groundcrew pull out the tarp after a gust of wind picked it up while they were trying to cover the field. My first question was anyone hurt?   Having been in this situation many times I can tell you…its not fun!  First there is a good chance someone could get seriously injured from pulling the tarp and if not that…then being struck by lightning has its chances at you as well.  Don’t get me wrong…that was great the Phillies came out to help Mark Razum’s ground crew…but at the same time its a dangerous job as people can easily get hurt.  The real hero’s are the guys and gals who put the cover out every day.  And lately for many ground crews it feels like it has been everyday! Lightning_1_fairway_1

The photo was sent to me from Cindy Unger.  Cindy lives in Florida and worked with me at Disney and West Palm. "THUNDERBOLTS AND LIGHTNING VERY VERY FRIGHTENING"  (Just glad no one got hurt at this event).  In Charlotte 1982 we were pulling the tarp for an O’s game and one of the guys fell and went under the tarp.  (Its like being under a big black plastic bag.)  Shortly after pulling him out from under the tarp he suffered a heart attack and died.  Another incident I remember took place in Salt Lake City in 1984.  We were pulling the tarp..again the lightning and wind was out of control and it picked up 2 guys on the end of the cover about 15 feet breaking one of the guys back.   Living in Florida we could set our clocks by the time the thunderstorms would roll in. Loosing these 170 x170 tarps into the wind is common.Helicopter_drying_field We actually lost one into the stands once. We learned quickly the best thing to do when the wind has it in the air and people are loosing grip…. to just let it go.  Its not worth getting someone injured and tarps are replaceable.  Some ideas we would do to dry the fields before the tarp era was to bring in helicopters.  I remember when we used to poor gas onto the field to dry it out.  (That’s kind of dating myself as that was 25 cents a gallon!). Couldnt afford that today plus now we know its not very good for the clay.

Its somewhat ironic that all of our youth parks and facilities have lightniPanama_3_005ng detection systems to warn everyone to get off the field as soon as you hear thunder.  At the professional level the groundscrew’s job is to go into the storm and save the game.  So the next time you are at a ballgame and you see the grounds guys out there tugging away at the cover….

Give them a round of applause..maybe 2 because they certainly deserve it.  Thanks to all of the Tarp Crews around the world that save the game! If you have a tarp story we would love to hear it.