Effort to improve city's fields takes rough out of diamonds

On High Schools

High Schools

May 05, 2006|By MILTON KENT

Ahigh school baseball or softball coach has more than enough to worry about in the course of a season, from keeping his pitchers sharp to making sure the aluminum bats ping, without having to be concerned about the condition of the field.

And last year, many of the city's public school baseball and softball fields had as many dandelions and trash wrappers on them as they had base hits scattering through them.

But, thanks to an infusion of cash and an effort by the school system to make things right, softball and baseball players in the city are playing on the best-conditioned fields they've ever played on.

"It's the first year in a long time that we've gotten every game, or that almost every program has gotten in a majority of its games," said Digital Harbor baseball coach Chris Vaccaro. "In other years, it's always been, `We've got to reschedule because the fields have been this or that.' This year, they've done a good job."

Though Digital Harbor plays its home games on a field run by the city Parks and Recreation Department, Vaccaro, who chairs the city schools baseball committee, has seen a vast improvement in the diamonds the team travels to.

"Everyone has been getting their games in this year," Vaccaro said. "So that means that they've done what they needed to do to make sure that the infields, before the season, were leveled. We've got some rain, not a lot, but some. We've been able to play that day. If it rains in the morning, they come out and they fix them up and it's easy."

Field improvement is a pet project of Eric Letsinger, the city school system's chief operating officer. Letsinger has shepherded a $30,000 expenditure to spruce up the 16 fields the schools control.

The project entailed a lot more than just going through and pulling up crabgrass or spreading weed killer. The system's grounds crew did extensive work to the fields, starting with pulling up the infield grass in every field that had it and putting down a mix of dirt and clay similar to what is in the base paths at Camden Yards.

"Grass is hard to maintain on a baseball field and a lot of parks and recreation departments around the country have thrown in the towel and said `Let's get rid of the grass and get the right kind of dirt, rather than have pockets of grass interrupt the path of the ball when it's on the ground,' " Letsinger said.

The city also leveled all the fields and restored, and in some cases rebuilt, the pitcher's mounds. It also rebuilt fences, backstops, benches and dugouts, and dug up batter's boxes.

"We are about trying to improve the basics in the school system and this is a good example of what that means," Letsinger said. "It's not that we got it done. We got it done on time, which may not seem like such an enormous feat, but given where we were in terms of customer service in the public school system, which was fairly deplorable, these are good signs that things are moving in the right direction.'

Letsinger said the move was made largely to show the public that the system could do much better by its kids than what happened last winter, when the swimming season had to be delayed because there were no operable pools.

Letsinger admits that what happened with the pools was a "debacle," but the flap spurred the system to develop a schedule to get all its facilities ready in time - whether they be football fields in the fall, pools in the winter or baseball and softball fields in the spring.

"We learned some things the hard way with the pools not opening on time," Letsinger said. "That was a good wake-up call for us that we needed to create an annual schedule for every single sport and figure out what it takes to open the field of play or the facility or the pool on time. It turns out that there are a lot of moving parts for a lot of these sports that we have historically not gotten started on time.

"Now that we've got this annual schedule, we know exactly when to start in order to get our ball fields up and running and we know when to start to get the football fields going and when to start to get the pools open on time. It was a big effort to get these fields ready. That's sort of the first indication that we've actually taken our lumps with the pools, learned from our mistakes and put in a system that will allow us to be better in the future across the board."

Of course, a school system as cash-strapped as the city's could always use some help from, say, a certain American League baseball team. Perhaps that club could write a sizable check of five or six figures to help the city whose name is on its jerseys - oops - to keep baseball and softball operations going.

Who knows? Maybe a contribution to put the city's baseball and softball players in spiffy, new uniforms, as well as to help maintain the fields they play on, would go a long way toward improving that team's image. It certainly couldn't hurt.

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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