Building Principles: Play Ball!

Richard “Rick” Stryker, PE

One amenity you’ll find on just about every camp, regardless of its overall focus or theme, is a ball field. Beyond baseball and softball, that open space lends itself to a dozen or more other activities. With just a little bit of planning and forethought, it can deliver even more bang for your capital buck. This month, we’re going to look at a couple of the most basic elements to make the most of the space.

Comiskey Park?

Above all, the level of play that you’re considering hosting for this field should determine the physical size of the field. Clearly a sports camp hosting baseball and softball clinics needs to develop the facility (or facilities) to accommodate the highest level of play possible. By itself, that stretches dimensions considerably, with baselines varying from sixty feet for high school softball players and the youngest baseball players to ninety feet for high school baseball competition. Moreover, baseball and softball differ in yet another aspect, with baseball using a pitcher’s mound and softball not. For a scholastic baseball pitcher, the mound is a necessity. For the group playing Ultimate Frisbee, the mound is a dangerous obstruction. So as with any other facility, the higher the level of intended use, the less amenable it becomes to other uses. For the purposes of this discussion, we’re going to talk about a field used for general purposes that makes no pretense of hosting regulation competition of any kind. Just a generic “ball field” like so many camps have had for a century or more.

Which Way Is Up?

Another element of field planning that doesn’t get enough early consideration is the orientation of the field. While available space certainly can affect how well things fit, there are good reasons to orient the field so that the catcher is facing north. The biggest reasons are safety and usable time. By situating the field with the catcher looking east-northeast, neither the catcher nor the batter will be looking into the sun. In addition, the fielders’ general eye line toward the batter won’t be going into the sun either. Setting the orientation of the field at the outset goes a long way toward ensuring that ball play is safe.

The Grass Is Always Greener

Most people are familiar with ball fields that are arranged, designed, installed, and maintained for competition. Sliding is an important technique for base runners playing full speed, and so the areas around the bases usually have no grass. Instead, a special mix of well-draining, coarse-grained material forms what’s known as the “skinned area.” While firm under foot, this material is intended to also move freely under the sliding player to prevent (or at least reduce) brush burns and other similar injuries. Where the material compacts too easily, it will not drain correctly. Probably more importantly, though, is that sliding here becomes more of a “skinning” area instead of a “skinned” area. On top of all of that, maintaining a skinned area (around the bases, pitcher’s area, and home plate) can be time consuming and maintenance intensive. Because the material drains well, grass will creep quickly into areas that you intend to remain clear. Also, because it’s intended to be somewhat loose and crumbly, it will tend to migrate into the grass. And because material is moving out of where it was put, a compacted groove will tend to develop as it receives more and more foot traffic.

Consider two alternatives instead:

One extreme involves skinning the whole infield. Ground balls behave much more predictably, skipping across a smooth and uniform surface, thereby cutting back on the number and severity of balls that “jump up” into a casual player’s face. This approach also makes using larger equipment for loosening and lightly compacting the skinning material much easier, and that cuts back on the amount of detailed, manual labor required to keep the skinned areas working well.

At the other end of the spectrum, why not grass the whole field, including the base paths and the infield? No special infield material required. No cutting base paths or chemicals to kill the grass there. No raking to even out worn spots. You can even shift bases and baselines slightly to accommodate wear of the base paths. Although this arrangement lacks the formality and eye appeal of a skinned infield, from a maintenance and function standpoint, it’s really hard to beat.

Rain, Rain, Go Away!

Like so many other aspects of my engineering practice, drainage is one of those elements that nobody thinks about until it doesn’t work right. Easily, three-quarters of getting this right involves proper grading of the field. Because it’s nearly impossible to gently adjust the grade of a field, the very best time to get this in line is when a field is being built or rebuilt. Although there are almost as many ways to “grade to drain” as there are different people, there are generally three approaches that have proven to work well.

The most common and simplest is to center the grading on the pitcher’s spot and grade to drain away from there. In this arrangement, a drop of rain landing on first base would run toward right field on about a 1 percent slope. A drop of rain landing on second would run toward center field, and landing on third, toward left field, both at 1 percent slope. For a large field (a 300-foot outfield, for example), the outfielders are standing as much as two to two-and-a-half feet below the elevation of the infielders. A better arrangement drains the field to each side of a line that runs between home plate and center field. Although the right and left fielders are still about one-and-a-half feet below the centerfielder and infielders, the difference is not as drastic. The most efficient drainage pattern combines these two approaches, using a geometry that defies description here. Suffice it to say that it’s more complex than the other two, and while that makes it more expensive to build, it provides a drier field that is ready for play sooner than the other two.

Once the water is off the field, it needs to continue on elsewhere. Ditches and buried pipes each have their own benefits and drawbacks. Properly designed, ditches can move plenty of water with very little maintenance. But play safety demands that they be broad and flat to reduce the likelihood of twists and falls when tracking a foul ball. Buried pipes are great because the grading on top of them doesn’t present any sort of trip hazard to players or spectators. However, the pipes can clog or overflow, and inlets for the water can be slippery. Those inlets are also easily broken by foot or lawn tractors. Clearly there is no single best answer to this problem, so each site must plan drainage around the intended uses and recognize the maintenance commitment required for each.

Midnight Sun?

While lighting can add hours to the usable play time on the field, many organizations are surprised by some of the unexpected hurdles that adding lights to a field can present. Hubbell is arguably the largest manufacturer of field lighting equipment in the industry, and it’s a frequent collaborator on design projects from our office. Their experience has shown that, even for a lightly used recreational field, safety demands mounting the lights at least sixty feet above the playing field. If they are mounted any lower, players stand the very real risk of losing fly balls in the glare and being struck. Aside from the obvious enhanced lightning risk, that’s much taller than many local ordinances permit. And finally, there’s the question of how the lights can be maintained without special lift equipment. Generally speaking, the expense and effort to light a recreational field puts it out of reach for most camps.

Mother, May I?

Finally, camps should be aware that there are two likely pieces to the permit process that they will encounter as they build, rebuild, or repair their ball field. The first is the local permit process by which township or county governments grant permission for the work to happen. Included in this process is often a requirement for temporary sedimentation and erosion control measures, which are intended to prevent muddy runoff from clogging water bodies and streams. Camps should expect to be able to explain whether the field will be open for use by local groups. Being a good neighbor will likely bring questions about parking, access, traffic control, and bathrooms, so think through the plan before you apply.

Also, even the smallest field will be more than an acre in total. The Federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit requires special review to account for managing the stormwater during construction and when the facility is complete. There are likely to be questions and concerns about runoff that contains fertilizer and other chemicals. Again, be prepared with the answers to those questions before you submit the application.

Like so many other things around camp, there’s a lot that goes into making a great facility. With just a little forethought, you can plan, install, operate, and maintain a ball field that serves a bunch of uses, stays playable much of the summer, and isn’t all that hard to care for. It just requires up-front planning to make it look easy.

Rick Stryker is a professional engineer with a particular passion for helping camps with infrastructure, planning, and regulatory issues. He can always be reached at campfc@ptd.net or 570.828.4004.

Originally published in the September/October 2012 Camping Magazine.  
 

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