In the fall of 2015, Tom Burns and Luke Yoder began discussions with a small group of seasoned Minor League Baseball (MiLB) groundskeepers to gauge their interest in an annual symposium that would provide them the opportunity to gather as a group. Burns attended the first Major League Baseball (MLB) Symposium in the year 2000 and every one after that until the year 2006, when he was with the Texas Rangers. Yoder attended his first MLB Symposium in 2001 representing the Pittsburgh Pirates and every one after that through 2015, ending while he was with the Padres. Burns and Paul Zwaska (formerly with the Orioles) helped coordinate that first symposium. Yoder eventually took the lead and coordinated successive symposiums for several years following Bob Christofferson’s (retired from Seattle Mariners) lead and then passing it on to Bill Deacon (New York Mets).
Attending those meetings provided valuable insights on many aspects of professional development and groundskeeping. It also provided the opportunity to strengthen existing relationships and develop new ones that would last a lifetime. Most years, there was a representative from MLB in attendance that would address the group and provide a glimpse of what was coming. They would answer questions on topics such as base jewels, base cameras, field inspections/compliance, and communicating with umpires on all topics related to the field. Some years the symposium would be on the front or back end of the SFMA conference and other years would meet at an MLB facility to provide the opportunity to tour their operation. One year, the MLB hosted it in their New York office during which everyone toured both the Mets and Yankees field operations.
Shortly after the SFMA (then STMA) conference in 2016, Burns and Yoder began planning the first MiLB Symposium. Except for 2021 (COVID), the MiLB Symposium has met each January. With their experience at the MLB Symposium, Burns and Yoder knew this would be a huge hit and provide value to the attendees. They were adamant about ensuring the integrity moving forward by not dictating or running the show across the board. This meant their job was simply to provide the platform for the group and to give them the power to approve sponsors and content.
The 2023 MiLB Symposium in Salt Lake City was sponsored by two tiers. The first tier was DuraEdge and Beacon Athletics. The second was AerFlo, MVS/MVG, QualiPro, Hunter, and 4Most Sport Group. Keith Winter (Fort Wayne Tincaps) was the point of contact throughout the planning process. Winter met on a regular basis with the MiLB committee to come up with the agenda and speakers, and served as a liaison to MLB for transparency and support.
Nick Riek from Rawlings, the new official provider of bases for MLB and MiLB, joined Kevin Ma, medical administration senior coordinator from MLB, to explain the new bases, location and layout, as well as to answer any questions. It seemed like the main reason they decided to enlarge the bases was related to safety and reducing close contact or collisions at the bag between fielders and runners.
Mike LaCassa, director of player development from MLB, followed their talk and discussed the PDL related to the field, communication protocol from clubs to the MLB related to the PDL, and some adjustments to the way fields are scored throughout the year to improve upon things. For example, umpires are no longer evaluating various things that were complained about, such as batting practice set up, bullpens, etc. There were also talks on technology in equipment such as field sensors, robotic mowers, etc.
There was a presentation about weather by Brad Jakubowski of Penn State University, who shared great insights. To date, there is no lighting policy at any ballpark. Keith Johnson, manager of the Salt Lake Bees, spoke with Bees Head Groundskeeper Brian Soukup in an open forum that led to some great discussions on communication between coaches, players and groundskeepers.
Winter had a discussion with the MLB regarding next season. One initiative proposed is to get the MLB to highly recommend to all 120 PDL teams to send their groundskeepers to the symposium. They seemed to be receptive to this and will revisit after the 2023 season. Lisa Goatley, a licensed professional counselor, presented on the topic of workplace mental health.
Current MLB head groundskeepers John Turnour (Washington Nationals) and Larry DiVito (Minnesota Twins) participated in an open forum for the group. There were some good questions and productive dialogue from the MiLB attendees. Since there are only requirements for PDL Field Guidelines in the MiLB, not the MLB, Turnour and DiVito were interested to hear from the MiLB group on the guidelines and what it takes to get their fields into compliance. Overall, there were a total of 65 attendees from MiLB teams at this year’s symposium.
“In terms of content and participation, it was the best symposium yet,” said Winter. “The continued support of our sponsors not only helps it grow, but has also helped us develop a reputation within the minor leagues and now major leagues, that this is an event to be at if you want to grow and develop in this industry.”