Softball fields are getting clean sweep

Bob Schacter, of Belleview, loosens the dirt on the softball fields at Buffalo Glen Softball Complex.

Starting today, there will once again be a lot of traffic on the base paths in The Villages. When softball players return to the fields in the fall season, they’ll find the facilities in top shape as play opens. With up to about 3,000 people — depending on the time of year — playing on more than 200 softball teams, it can be tough to keep the facilities at the standard Villagers expect. But the Recreation and Parks Department of the Community Development Districts is up to the task — and then some. The division has about two weeks between each season to refurbish fields that have seen heavy use over the preceding 15 weeks. Sometimes that involves re-leveling the fields and heavy reseeding. Other times, a lighter refresh is all that’s needed to bring fields back to like-new conditions.

That’s been the case as the four Villages softball fields were officially closed beginning Aug. 19. Because of inclement weather, a tournament scheduled for Aug. 16-18 was canceled, so the break is a bit longer this time.

All that work pays off.

“The Villages fields are second to none in the country,” said Bill Johnson, of the Village of Springdale. Johnson is umpire in charge of Villages softball and has officiated at tournaments throughout Florida and around the United States.

“I’ve been all over the place and we are spoiled here,” he said. “The guys down here bust their tails.”

But one of the most important parts of keeping the fields in condition involves no work at all.

“Rest for the fields is huge,” said Danny Jacobs, sports coordinator for the Recreation Department. Just getting some time for grass to bounce back from a season of hard use is a big help, he said.

At Buffalo Glen Softball Complex, some of the more complicated work had been performed during previous season breaks. For instance, laser-leveling of the field was performed earlier this year.

Much of the focus over this break is on the condition of the grass. The outfields are aerated, which not only helps the grass to breathe and absorb nutrients, but breaks up the soil enough that players don’t feel as though they’re playing on concrete. The grass also is fertilized.

The maintenance crews also edge the infield. The warning tracks must be cleared of weeds and the dirt loosened up — but not too much. There’s a “Goldilocks” spot between being too hard for outfielders’ comfort and so soft that players trip on it.

The infields also are dragged to loosen up the dirt a bit. Low spots are filled in and high spots are leveled. This has to be done throughout the season as rain can cause the field to become uneven.

Before the fields are reopened, the batters’ boxes are pressure washed and painted, and the foul lines are painted on each field. Those will have to be repainted every couple of weeks during the season.

Other surfaces, such as sidewalks and snack bars/announcer booths, are cleaned or pressure washed. At Soaring Eagle Softball Complex, even the parking lot got a freshening. Crews were out during the break putting a new coat of sealant on the asphalt. In addition, restroom upgrades, including new partitions, were scheduled for Saddlebrook Softball Complex.

Jacobs is often complimented by players from elsewhere on the condition of Villages softball fields.

“We get a lot of positive remarks from the individuals who haven’t been to The Villages, and it’s funny because that’s our day-to-day operation,” Jacobs said.

“I think residents can be at ease knowing the recreation department supports the softball program and that we’re committed to providing the best atmosphere for players and spectators.”

Mike Knowles is chairman of the Florida Half-Century Amateur Softball Association, the largest senior softball organization in the nation. His organization has two tournaments a year in The Villages, trips that he says the players always appreciate.

“Everybody enjoys coming to The Villages,” he said. “They do a great job taking care of the fields.”

At least one player agreed that field condition is a draw to the area.

“I played a lot up north in New York, traveled around on travel teams,” said Steve Wilson, of the Village Hacienda, who moved to The Villages in 2008. “For a rec league, this is better than the fields we ever played on in tournament ball. It was a good seller.”

Senior writer Steve Straehley can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5228, or steve.straehley@thevillagesmedia.com.