Constructing world class athletic fields is by nature very challenging. Your mission is to make a field that is safe and playable for some of the most talented athletes, while juggling elements that are sometimes beyond your control, such as weather, environmental conditions, availability of labor and equipment, and even foreign governments! Nowhere was this more evident than in my experience these past 2 years, in leading the teams that built and maintained the Wukesong Olympic Baseball complex in Beijing, China.
From Dream to Reality: Building China’s Field of Dreams
What the world saw during this past summer’s Olympic Games were great fields that matched the caliber of the Olympians who played there. But the games only went off without a hitch due to years of planning, the generous sharing of expertise, some gentle diplomacy, and the willingness of many team members and vendor partners to do whatever it took to get the job done.
Living in America, we take a lot of things for granted. For instance, we assume when we start a construction project that we will have the materials and equipment readily available to complete the project. During our initial meetings we reviewed the design of the playing field and made recommendations for numerous changes. We would soon learn that these recommendations would not be implemented easily as the protocol for approval in China was extremely slow.
One particular challenge was finding the right clay for the pitcher’s mound and home plate. That’s where the majority of the game is played, so it was critical that those areas were constructed with the proper materials. We searched the entire country of China to find a clay that would meet our specs, but everything failed. Finally, China agreed to bring in products from outside of the country. Through MLB and IBAF relationships we found a US contractor that was eager to help. David Dzwilewski atGail Materials, of San Diego, donated the clay we needed. Securing the donation was easy; getting it into the country was another story. China is so highly regulated that we had to have it packaged in unmarked bags simply designated “donation”, and it had to be shipped on pallets made of specific wood that would be acceptable to import.
Another challenge was equipment. Baseball not being a popular sport in the country, we had to make do without the usual modern equipment associated with field construction: no forklifts, no laser graders…but I found that in China, where equipment is lacking, manpower saves the day. The work crews lived on the field in tents – they worked 7 days a week, for about $5-10 a day.
All the gravel (over 3000 tons of pea gravel) was loaded by wheelbarrow and spread via rake and shovel onto the field. The 10” topsoil/sand mix on the fields was also installed and graded by hand, the old fashioned way: running strings and using big smoothing boards. And don’t forget weed control: when you grow bermudagrass from sprigs, as we did for two of the fields, there are always problems with weeds. From day one I highly recommended a Toro 1200 Spray Rig be purchased or borrowed to help spray out the weeds but to no avail. Their solution? Every day 10-15 women pulled weeds on the field all day long!
One of the other things we needed was soil conditioners for the infield. Our first order in 2007 was for the Beijing “Good Luck” Test Event–basically a practice run for the games. Beacon Athletics initially helped us out in providing the Diamond Pro products, but the decision to order the materials took so long that it needed to be flown over to China so the delivery cost ten times the price of the product itself! When it came time to order materials for the 2008 Summer Games, the Chinese contractor insisted they could get it cheaper somewhere else. By June it still hadn’t arrived. Without that material we would not have had successful Olympic Games. So a lot of last minute shuffling and negotiating resulted in the materials arriving the first day of workouts. Sixteen hundred bags had been delivered and thrown into one big pile in the parking lot. The pallets thrown on top of the bags! Thankfully, as I mentioned before, there is never a problem with labor in China. We had four 20-man crews working shifts to get it all laid that evening, not to the level we wanted, but at least to the level we could practice on.
Our friends at Toro helped us out by getting us a lot of the materials we needed early on: the seed for the rye grass, and equipment for maintenance. It was a job to convince the contractor they needed specific types of mowers, but again, it was a case of show and tell. The contractor’s idea of mowing was a 21-inch push mower, and their way of fertilizing was hand spreading 46-0-0 in random patterns over the field. Just before the Olympic Games we finally received our spray rig, which we used to put out liquid fertilizers. Toro really helped us educate the contractor and the owner that this equipment was required to maintain the field properly.
Still, we were limited in the equipment. Since the cost of importing was prohibitive we had to be creative in managing the resources we had: We had 2 Toro Sidewinder Reel mowers and two sand pros for 3 fields. When all 3 fields were working it was like conducting a symphony as we had to flip-flop equipment through crowds, volunteers and security gates throughout the day.
Aside from the air pollution in Beijing, and there was plenty of that, one of our biggest challenges was selecting the right type of grass for the harsh environment. In planning for Summer Olympic Games you normally think about grasses for warm climates. But Beijing’s climate is similar to New Jersey for example, cold winters and hot, steamy summers, so the challenge was finding a winter hearty grass that would also hold up under the humid summer.
Construction started in February, 2007, and finished in July, 2008. We got through the winter with a lot of rye grass on the field for the MLB exhibition games, between the Padres and Dodgers, in March 2008. But the rye was too strong to let the bermuda come in. So the field was stripped in May and totally re-grown in 2 months.
In planning for the turf for the training field, we discovered a specialized Riviera Bermuda grass that was developed by the folks at the University of Oklahoma. In fact, one of the designers was originally from China, so he actually got to go home to see his grass growing. The main stadium field was sprigged with 419 from Shanghai, as was field #2, while the practice field was sodded with the Riviera Bermuda grass supplied through Johnson Seed Companies. The Riviera Bermuda grass is a very aggressive, hearty grower, and so it made it through the winter.
Irrigation was a daily challenge because the irrigation clocks never really operated. The Rain Bird system was a great product selection, but the pump design made it difficult to manage it normally. Instead, everything was manually run in the evening. They were always trying to conserve diesel, so they would turn the pump down to the lowest setting. Or the pressure was too high which caused ruptures in the lines. The lines were buried below the frost line which was 26 inches so repairs were quite the mess.
我听不懂 Woa budong (I don’t understand)
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges in Beijing was communication. I’m not just talking about the language barrier, but also a cultural gap. Here we were trying to construct a baseball field in a country that knows very little about the game. The success of this project depended not only on teaching our new friends about the game, but introducing them to a whole new vocabulary: “batting cage,” “dugout,” “L-screen” “batter’s box,” etc.; how to explain these very basic components of a field had to be established first. In trying to illustrate these foreign concepts, we discovered that the Chinese are actually very talented at pictograms. These pictures, along with a lot of meetings, travel, and photographs helped us illustrate the new concepts that our Chinese colleagues very eagerly learned.
In August of 2007, we conducted test games, which proved to be invaluable in making progress towards a truly professional facility. The volunteers and Chinese staff we worked with were of a very “scientific” nature, in that they didn’t readily adopt new technology, but needed you to demonstrate the concept before they would accept it. I learned quickly that this was a cultural issue and respected their methods before introducing new methods of design, construction and maintenance for the field. For example, they made three hitting mats for covering home plate. They made them durable and heavy; so heavy it took 8 people to move them! So we needed 24 people just to move the mats. We offered the suggestion to make the mat thinner, as the mats from North America can be lifted by one person. Remember, labor is not an issue so the initially rejected this suggestion. Having learned from experience that they take a “show and tell” approach to change, I scheduled multiple practices for setting up the field with the mats. Soon it became very evident that their heavy mats were slowing down the pregame maintenance, so the mats were changed out for lighter ones.
It was good to have the Good Luck Beijing Games. We went through a lot of re-design and re-work after these test games, but that was all OK, because they needed to learn from experience. That was all part of working with their culture. In some cases we were the ones who learned that some of their methods of sports field maintenance were quite successful. For example, they covered the bermuda grass for the winter with a black geoclothe and plastic with no holes. I thought surely the grass would die but it came back great in the spring. At times both sides were frustrated, but we learned from each other and enjoyed the fact that this is all part of the cultural exchange that you really can’t experience anywhere but in the Olympic Games!
Team collaboration was the most critical element to our success, and I would like to thank the many members of our team, and our partners for their help. The BOCOG Volunteers and staff, especially Susan Zhang and Walter Lee. Our team members from Brickman: Chad Olsen, Erik Frey, Darrell Lemmer and Budgie Clark. Our vendors were true partners and were an integral part of the success: Toro, Rain Bird, Gail Materials for clay, Diamond Pro for soil conditioners, Johnston Seed for Rivera Bermuda, World Class Athletics for field marking paint and Beacon Athletics for watering equipment and conditioners.
Our challenges in Beijing were many: language and cultural barriers, climate and availability of materials and equipment—any one of these could have presented an obstacle to our task. Instead, we turned our challenges into opportunities to think outside the box, work as a team to solve problems, and communicate our passion and knowledge of the game to a new culture, that will forever be changed by their experience. I would like to think, along the way, that we not only made many friends, but also made some new fans of the great American pastime of baseball!
Murray Cook is President of Brickman’s SportsTurf Services Division, which oversees multiple projects related to the design, construction and maintenance of athletic fields, both in the US and worldwide. Murray can be reached at email@example.com
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