Training fields

Ohio weather makes a strong case for grass fields

Even today’s generation of athletes would rather play than watch.

This is precisely what the children did this spring. Specifically, they spent too much time watching the rain.

Two other high school baseball and softball programs were axed Friday and Saturday, along with the track invites of Wayne Clark and Jerry Neal. The latter has already been postponed once. It continues a theme that continues to haunt local teams as they try to maintain some consistency.

We are now a week into May and the unpredictability usually associated with March and April has not left us yet as the calendar turns another page. There were far too many rainy days, even more so with temperatures and windy conditions more suited to playoff football than spring baseball.

Sam Blackburn

Coaches spent much of April in thermal clothing and gloves. Players spent it watching their hard-hit balls cross the sky like doves fluttering in the welcoming gloves of waiting outfielders. Tracksters spent it huddled in tents and infields to stay warm between races. God willing, they could even train.

A local coach told me it was the worst weather he had seen in a baseball season in his 10-plus years. It was a month ago.

Another said it was the worst time he had ever faced – as a coach or a player. It’s one thing to have rain a few days a week, which is what everyone in Ohio expects in early spring. It’s another thing to combine it with the cold and the wind. This is the kind of trifecta reserved for the dog track.

Needless to say, Mother Nature’s stubborn ways have been a collective headache for coaches, players and athletic directors who don’t know what to expect overnight.

Want to set a pitch rotation? Good luck. Eager to get into a groove at the plate? Maybe next week. Want to ride it during sprint workouts? Your soft tissues suggest otherwise. Try again later.

It’s frustrating for all parties, including those planning a sports section. There’s nothing quite like tweaking a schedule and making plans, only to have them change with every email alert.

Anyone who has played a sport, even at the lowest level, will tell you that they would rather play than practice. This is especially the case in baseball and softball, where there’s no substitute for rehearsing against live pitching and executing in game situations. There’s not much you can do in the batting cage.

All of this made Philo’s decision to install FieldTurf on their infields – just like the stuff the Electrics and many other schools play football on – a stroke of genius.

It was a $400,000 investment, an investment that makes Franklin Local’s brass instruments look better every day. At least four times this spring, the Electrics’ baseball and softball teams have played games while other schools have been forced to cancel due to on-field conditions.

It was undoubtedly a huge investment for two non-paying sports, but the benefits are undeniable. Barring outfield flooding, drain clogs, or torrential downpours during play, turf is tailor-made for Ohio weather. Anyone who made a bad jump on Philo’s old baseball diamond turf (let me count the ways) would probably offer full support.

Philo’s baseball coach Hunter Smith said his team was able to change venues for league games if the weather didn’t cooperate, while in another case they chose a non-league game on a whim when his original match was called off.

“As long as it’s warm enough and there’s no storm during the game, we can play,” Smith said. “I hope we start a trend in the (Muskingum Valley League) because it has benefited us a lot (this spring).

He is not the only one.

Sheridan coach Doug Fisher, the dean of MVL baseball coaches, thinks most schools will have grass pitches in some form within the next decade. He had similar sentiments in the late 2000s, when Muskingum University and New Lexington began a domino effect of sod fields in the area.

“Now who doesn’t have it?” Fisher asked. “A few teams will have (baseball) turf and that’s what’s happening now. (Eventually) everyone will have it.”

Of course, there is a question of commitment. Philo’s passion for his athletics runs deeper than the nearby Muskingum River, and the district and community have always stood ready to support athletic endeavors. A look at the football and athletics complex and the refurbished Sam Hatfield Stadium and its adjacent indoor facilities a few meters away, for proof.

Will other districts support such an idea? I’d say it’s uncertain at best.

The late Bob Wolfe, longtime leader of the Muskingum Valley Old-Timers Association, told me a few years ago during a rain delay that it would have taken $1.2 million to grass and renovate the Gant municipal stadium.

Zanesville would certainly have benefited, as the turf would have opened up the possibilities for travel tournaments and one-day baseball extravaganzas for area teams. More people in town equals more money for hotels and local businesses, especially restaurants.

But that’s a lot of jack for Muskingum County, especially in the midst of the worst inflation in many of our lifetimes. Collecting so many scratches in these times would be asking a lot, even with a long list of kind donors who always seem to step in to help with facility improvements.

Still, Philo’s plan – to simply grass inland fields, leaving grass elsewhere – seems feasible if communities and districts want it. It pays off over time.

That makes too much sense – if you can flip the bill. But anyone who sees either sport as a financial priority at any school in our predominantly rural and extremely conservative area is out of touch with reality.

For the sake of players, coaches, and administrators across Ohio, it would be refreshing to be wrong.

sblackbu@gannett.com

740-450-6723

Twitter: @SamBlackburn


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