New series highlights  turf managers from  other green industry  segments.

Cooperstown Dreams Park features 22 fields, all with their own  agronomic challenges. Photo Courtesy of Cooperstown Dreams Park

Cooperstown Dreams Park features 22 fields, all with their own
agronomic challenges. Photo Courtesy of Cooperstown Dreams Park

 

The snow will soon fly like a hard-hit baseball over the 22 fields comprising Cooperstown Dreams Park in Milford, New York. The 2014 season, which featured more than 7,000 games, ended in late August. The crack of bats, the slap of leather mitts, and the roar of crowds on sultry summer nights have faded into the tree-laden hills of the surrounding landscape.

Other sounds are now emanating from the 80-acre park, such as the rumbling of an aerator, the hum of a mower, and the whirr of a topdresser.

While the season may be over, Emery Kane, Pete Monser and Matt Dropchinski, the park’s co-directors of facility management, are working as hard as ever to get the fields ready for next season.

“We work 365 days a year,” Kane notes. “We go just as hard now to get this facility ready for the kids who will come here next year.”

Cooperstown Dreams Park is located 5 miles from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in downtown Cooperstown, where lore has it that Abner Doubleday invented the game in 1839. The park is the vision of Lou Presutti, who wanted to create a “dream park” for youth baseball players throughout the country. His idea was to build a complex with numerous baseball diamonds where teams fielded by 12-year-olds could come every year and play in a week’s worth of tournament baseball games.

They’re coming all right. When it opened in 1996, Cooperstown Dreams Park attracted 59 teams in a four-week season. The next year there were 300 teams, and now there are 104 teams coming weekly in a 13-week season that spans from June through August.

“Cooperstown Dreams Park has been awesome for our community,” Kane says.

Kane, Monser and Dropchinski are in charge of everything at the facility, but taking care of the park’s 22 baseball fields is at the center of their responsibilities.

“We’re deep-tine aerating right now and topdressing with sand,” Kane said in early September.

He began working at the park in 1997 when he was 17. Kane was looking for work and met Presutti, who offered him a job. The 35-year-old started in his current role in 2003.

The 56-year-old Monser, who has worked at Cooperstown Dreams Park for 10 years, has a background in auto mechanics and is the park’s irrigation expert. The 30-year-old Dropchinski, also in his 10th year, started on the maintenance crew and raked infields.

All three are from the Cooperstown area and learned the value of hard work from working on local farms. They didn’t earn college degrees in agronomics, but maintain that they’ve learned the ins and outs of field maintenance from on-the-job training.

The fields are in good hands, literally, with Emery Kane, Matt Dropchinski and Peter Monser as co-directors of facility management.  Photo Courtesy of Cooperstown Dreams Park

The fields are in good hands, literally, with Emery Kane, Matt Dropchinski and Peter Monser as co-directors of facility management.
Photo Courtesy of Cooperstown Dreams Park

By the numbers

The 22 fields, including Little Majors Stadium where tournament championship games are held, each feature about 1 acre of turfgrass and average about 325 games a year.

The fields are small, only 200 feet down the foul lines, making it easy (and thrilling) for some kids to hit home runs. Alas, foot traffic is heavy and compaction poses a problem.

“They take a heck of a lot of pounding,” Kane says of the fields.

Still, the goal is simple: “We try to keep them as pristine as possible through the whole season,” Kane adds.

He describes the season as “a runaway train,” but he means that in a good way.

“It’s a nonstop party on those fields for three months,” Kane explains.

There are about 40 members on the facility management crew, taking on tasks such as overseeding, aerating and mowing. During the season they work on the fields in between games, early in the morning, and at night after games.

“When the lights go out we still have another three hours of work to put those fields to bed to make sure they’re ready to go for the next morning,” Monser says.

Kane, Monser and Dropchinski work about 80 hours a week and get about 10 days off each during the season.

“It’s not uncommon for us to work 100 hours a week,” Kane notes.

The park is closed on Friday, and the crew works feverishly to get the fields ready for the next round of games that begin on Saturday morning and last through the following Thursday.

“We never really have the opportunity to slow down,” Monser says.

With so many games and people coming and going the job can get a bit overwhelming, Dropchinski admits. But that’s OK — it’s the field maintenance team’s MO to challenge itself to provide the best product possible.

“We’re always striving to make things better,” Dropchinski says. “In our eyes, [conditions] are never good enough.”

Aeration is a constant cultural practice. With all of those cleats hitting the fields compaction is an issue. The crew tine aerates every week, sometimes several times a week.

“We’re constantly making sure that the fields are breathing,” Kane says.

To keep the fields from puddling after heavy rains, the crew rolls out a Verti-Drain aerator from Redexim North America to perform solid deep-tine aeration.

“To have the Verti-Drain be able to drop down 10 or more inches is really awesome,” Kane says. “We need to open up the fields and allow them to drain.”

Overseeding occurs before, during and after the season with a mixture of bluegrass and fescue. Only problem areas are overseeded during the season, but the entire fields are overseeded in the off-season. Poa annua poses a challenge and is another reason for frequent overseeding.

Despite the potential for heat and humidity, the crew is able to keep most turf diseases at bay.

“The fields get dollar spot and occasional snow mold, but by aerating, overseeding and good mowing practices we can combat a lot of diseases without using chemicals,” Kane explains. “Just like a golf course superintendent, we want a disease-free, healthy, thick, beautiful carpet of turf.”

The crew uses inorganic and organic fertilizers. The former is mostly used during the off-season, and the latter is used during the season for safety reasons.

Infield maintenance is also a constant. Every night after games the crew uses brooms and high-pressure hoses to remove dirt from the edge of the infield turf.

“If we don’t do that there will be large dead areas of turf near the baselines within a few weeks,” Monser notes.

The field maintenance team also contracts with a local consultant on agronomic issues and practices.

While the fields are seemingly identical, they all have distinct agronomic issues, Kane states.

“We’ve basically learned how to deal with anything that can go wrong in all our years of doing this,” Kane says.

Off-season projects involve drainage, laying sod, core aeration and topdressing. Pitcher’s mounds are rebuilt at this time, and infields are leveled. In addition, some of the plywood on the outfield walls is replaced.

One thing that isn’t managed is snow.

“It can snow every other day,” Kane says, noting that an 18- to 24-inch base is usually on the field throughout the winter. “There’s no fighting it.”

Kane explains that the crew’s day-to-day challenges are similar
to those of superintendents, with weather being his team’s No. 1
challenge.

The three men realize that it costs families and teams a lot of money for the players to come to Cooperstown Dreams Park, and it’s their job to make sure the fields are in top playing condition, despite Mother Nature.

“It doesn’t matter how hard it rains, our biggest focus is to play ball,” Kane says. “We want to give players every game that they’re able to play. If that means playing at 2 in the morning, we will play.”

Approximately 100,000 games have been played at Dreams Park since it opened. Only 1,000 have been canceled because of weather, a statistic the crew is very proud of.

It’s about providing excellent customer service as much as it’s about field maintenance, Kane says.

“Whatever we do behind the scenes and no matter what challenges we have, we don’t want to depict them to the public,” Kane says. “We just want to get the job done.”

Still, the law of averages states that the more fields there are to maintain, the more chances there are for hiccups to occur.

“You never know what you might walk into at Cooperstown Dreams Park,” Kane adds with
a laugh. “There’s never a dull moment.”

Making dreams  come true

Even with the long hours, the best part of the job is the baseball season, Kane says. That’s when Cooperstown Dreams Park is rocking like a Bruce Springsteen concert. About a half million people visit the park each year.

“There’s nothing in the world like watching the first game of the season,” Kane adds.

Before Dropchinski was promoted to co-director of facility management, he worked behind the scenes in other areas. Now that he’s out in front and in contact with players and their families, he realizes what coming to Dreams Park means to them.

“You feel this overwhelming goodness about what you do,” he says.

The kid that goes on to play baseball in college and maybe even the pros will always remember playing at Cooperstown Dreams Park, Kane says. So will the kid who never plays baseball again.

“That makes it worth what we do,” he adds.

Monser says employees at the park take pride in helping make memories that people will never forget.

“There’s a phrase we use in the park: ‘Live the dream,’ ” Monser says. “The people we have working for us … all of them eat, sleep and breathe the dream. If they didn’t, we couldn’t do our jobs and this place wouldn’t have the effect that it has on people.”

Says Kane, “Teamwork makes the dream work.” 

Proper Drainage Is Crucial

Cooperstown Dreams Park hosts about 7,000 games during the season.