For sports turf maintenance, there’s a lot of handy information for those in the field
By Stacy St. Clair
The high-school turf managers felt a tad unworthy. Here they were at an annual conference, standing within mere feet of field maintenance royalty. Within arm's reach were managers from Qualcomm Park in San Diego, Miller Park in Milwaukee and Seattle's Safeco Field. There was even a representative from Chicago's Wrigley Field, where the ivy-covered walls serve as the sport's greatest testimonial to the importance of a good groundskeeping crew.
These were the people who oversaw some of the most visible and cherished baseball diamonds in the world. The knowledge they possess would be invaluable to a small-town high-school groundskeeper.
But no one dare ask the kings to impart words of wisdom. In fact, most were too afraid to even approach the Big League guys with questions about field aesthetics, mowing tips and weed control. They figured their problems and questions would be of little concern to the industry elite.
They were wrong. At the urging of the Suz Trusty of the Sports Turf Managers Association, the high-school groundskeepers introduced themselves to their professional sports counterparts.
The MLB crew greeted them warmly and answered countless questions. There would be no caste system in place during the association's annual conference. A field maintenance headache at a Major League ballpark was given the same importance as a problem on a Pop Warner gridiron.
"It's not unusual to see a high-school turf manager talking with some of the [Major League] baseball people," Trusty says. "The baseball guys take a problem on the high-school field as seriously as they would a professional one. They want to help."
Once they overcame their initial shyness, the high-school groundskeepers learned the greatest—and refreshingly unique—thing about turf managers: Turf managers, in general, are one of the most helpful and generous groups in the recreation industry.
These professionals go out of their way to help each other achieve the perfect playing fields. They're always willing to lend advice on improving safety, beating tight budgets, enhancing aesthetics and enriching the environment.
"They kind of have to be because of the very nature of their job," says Eric Grammer, communications manager for the Professional Grounds Management Society. "There's a whole lot more to the profession than mowing grass."
Turf managers have myriad responsibilities. One minute they'll be handling fleet management, the next they'll be tracking a nasty storm as it moves toward their facilities.
They have to be amateur botanists who understand why certain weeds pop up where and when they do. They also have to be armchair chemists, who know how to find a pesticide that will do its job without hurting the environment.
And, darn it, that field better look beautiful come game time.
Turf managers, in short, are expected to know it all. That's why they turn to each other when they have trouble finding the answers.
"It has been that way since I entered the field," says Doug Karcher, an assistant horticulture professor at the University of Arkansas, who has been working in the field as both an instructor and a consultant for 15 years. "Most of these guys don't view themselves as competitors."
As such, it's not unusual for a golf-course groundskeeper to telephone a friend at a nearby club and ask how he's battling a troublesome weed. An increasing number of groundskeepers also are turning to professional organizations and the Internet to seek advice from a national network of experts.
The National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, for example, created a task force dedicated solely to turf management issues. The committee—which consists of both administrators and maintenance industry representatives—aims to provide information on new products and improving field safety.
"There's a whole lot more to the profession than mowing grass."
The information is critical to athletic directors, the majority of whom have education and coaching backgrounds but find themselves with field maintenance responsibilities. The association helps make the job easier with committee recommendations and an Internet site with an "Ask the Experts" section. Most importantly, the panel offers advice on how to maintain an attractive, safe field without breaking the bank.
"The people on the committee are aware of the tight budgets that most school districts face," says Bruce Whitehead, a former athletic director who now works for the NIAAA. "They're always trying to show them what they can do."
Other turf managers share their expertise through associations and professional societies. The national organizations' local chapters offer an opportunity to meet other groundskeepers and swap advice. There also are annual conferences where managers can discuss their problems and share their concerns with colleagues from across the country.
The recent Sports Turf Managers Association conference, for example, had a variety of seminars, ranging from weeds to cold weather care to dealing with the media. Attendees also tackled subjects such as working smarter, using reclaimed water and managing native soil.
"The activity that takes place on the playing field is so abusive, it takes a great deal of knowledge and expertise to take care of fields," Trusty says. "That's why our members are always willing to help each other out."
More and more, they're helping each other out on the Internet on a daily basis. Most associations—including STMA and NIAAA—have Web site forums where turf managers can post questions and make recommendations. There are also weed databases and other field maintenance studies available online.
The vast electronic resources have made life much easier for the professionals. There's no more waiting until the morning to research a newly sprouted weed at the local library or calling for a reference on the latest mowing equipment.
"The new generation of turf managers rely on it a lot more than the veterans," Karcher says. "It helps me keep abreast of what's going on in the field."
While some have criticized the Internet for the erosion of personal relationships, industry experts say it has only strengthened the already tight bond among turf managers.
"There's still a lot of phone calls back and forth," Trusty says. "The Internet isn't lessening the relationships. It's making them stronger."
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