By John Kmitta
In the game of baseball, it often takes a team effort to earn the win. Proper communication, buy-in by all parties, and team pride are key factors in that approach. That same philosophy has also led to success for those who manage Johnson Park in New Ulm, Minnesota.
Johnson Park is a professional-size baseball field that only accommodates high school and above levels of play. Constructed in 1938, the field is a blend of bluegrass, ryegrass and fescues; has never undergone a full renovation; and hosted 85 baseball games in 2022. But through a revised management approach that involves open communication and a substantial dose of volunteer effort, Johnson Park earned the Turfco/Minnesota Park and Sports Turf Managers Association (MPSTMA) Field of the Year Award in 2022.
According to Ryan Weier, facilities maintenance supervisor, City of New Ulm Park and Recreation department, that change in structure – as well as the resultant effort put forth by the city and Johnson Park user groups – can serve as an example for other municipalities and other sports field management professionals, as well as their user groups.
“Any turf manager understands the challenges with weather, schedules, customers and traffic. We have similar issues,” said Weier. “How we’ve dealt with it is through the partnership with local volunteer organizations – mainly the main baseball club in town.”
When the weather doesn’t allow the City of New Ulm Park and Rec staff to maintain Johnson Park, the off hours have been supplemented with volunteer hours.
“That is the difference between what our field was five to seven years ago compared to what it is today, which culminated in the field of the year award,” said Weier. “That group has been able to get trained and consistently on board to carry our operations to nights and weekends.”
But attaining the current volunteer structure, user buy-in, and high-quality results is an effort that has been years in the making.
According to Weier, when he took on the role of facilities maintenance supervisor approximately six years ago, he inherited a relationship between the city and its user groups that he feels is pretty typical of such relationships.
“It was, ‘The city is lazy…doesn’t care…wastes money…wastes time.’ And the city’s view was, ‘All the baseball club wants is everything for free,’” Weier said of the situation he inherited. “From day one, every time these discussions with the user groups came up, I would say, ‘You can’t undo the past, and that attitude doesn’t do anything for the future.’”
According to Weier, getting that message across took time; and the added component was if the city committed to doing something, it followed through with doing it.
“Those two components are key,” he said. “It was about moving forward together having the same goals, and when you say you are going to do something, doing it. Over time, we have won over some of the hardest of hearts in those long-term baseball association relationships.”
Another key to the reinvigorated relationship was that Weier limited his communication with the baseball club to just one contact person.
“The baseball organization could hold its meetings, they would come to a consensus, and that was communicated through one person,” he said. “Then it was just a matter of following through.”
As a result of the partnership between the city and the local baseball club, there are now six to seven consistent volunteers working at Johnson Park on a regular basis.
“They enjoy it. There is pride there,” said Weier. “We’re all going after the same goal. If you can find the right people who can share that pride, those are the people to partner with. It just takes training.”
Training the volunteers to be able to maintain the field to the desired level took time as well. Said Weier, “We worked with them the first few years. They would come during the day, and we would work together so they could see our staff work with our equipment. But now I trust those people to do it independently if I’m not standing there or our staff isn’t standing there.”
In terms of staff at Johnson Park, there is one full-time staff maintenance person dedicated to the complex (which also houses another baseball field and a football field). In addition, there are typically four staff members who put in 40 hours per week during the summer, but their tasks are also expanded to other New Ulm youth fields.
As facilities maintenance supervisor, Weier is in charge of all New Ulm Park and Recreation facilities, including a recreation center, a civic center, a community center and 42 park units (the baseball/football complex that is home to Johnson Park is just one of those 42 park units). There are 12 full-time staff members, and that number grows to approximately 20 with the addition of part-time/seasonal staff.
According to Weier, the workload at Johnson Park is cyclical, but between in-house staff and volunteers, there is someone working at Johnson Park every day. That includes edging, dethatching, aeration and other maintenance duties.
“Our aeration has lessened because our cores are so sand filled now that we can get them to drag out fairly quickly. We don’t have to pick them or collect them,” he said. “If we have a game that night or the next day, we will do some minor dragging or brooming to knock those cores down. That’s something the user group can help us with.”
Weier said he also trusts the volunteers to spray fence lines. “If it has been windy three or four days in a row, you can’t spray and get drift. So, if Saturday morning is a beautiful morning, I will call our local volunteer and get him set up and he will spend an hour spraying fence lines and killing weeds in off areas like bullpens. We have a local teacher who has worked for us for five straight summers, and he is as good as a full-time turf manager.”
In a typical week, volunteers put in 15 to 20 hours per week maintaining Johnson Park. And according to Weier, having a park that was built in 1938 and has never undergone a full renovation presents unique maintenance challenges. In 1938, when much of the park was constructed, the materials, designs, playing surface options, spectator experiences and code requirements were significantly different from what is typical today. Everything from the soil specifications and turf seed blends to the player’s equipment to the spectator’s safety and accessibility needs have evolved over the decades since the facility was designed and built.
“The technology over the course of 80 years has changed dramatically, and our knowledge base has changed dramatically,” said Weier. “There have been some minor attempts at improvements – working from the surface of the turf down – but there was no full turf removal. So, you have a lot of variation.”
Those variations change the dynamics of everything from treatments to irrigation.
“Everybody’s budgets are constrained,” said Weier. “The ability to just gut it and start over isn’t there, so we have to find creative ways to address some of these things. That’s where data collection comes in – compaction and moisture readings; we try to adjust chemical treatments, fertilizers, even down to different grass seeds in different locations. It is a moving target. So that’s where partnering up comes in. The more eyes you can get on it, the better. The team effort approach has produced different ideas that are still in play today.”
According to Weier, partnering and growing that mutually beneficial relationship helped earn Johnson Park the Turfco/MPSTMA Field of the Year award, which ultimately helps recruit more volunteers.
“There is pride and tradition,” he said. “This is just one more feather in the cap. If anybody wants to be a part of it, they can. It garners a bit more volunteer willingness. People want to be a part of that type of situation.”
Weier hopes other municipalities and other industry professionals can learn from the model that has worked so well for New Ulm.
“You have to get past the past,” he said. “You have to work and be patient, and be willing to say sorry when you maybe aren’t sorry. Develop a long-term relationship with the right people, and you can get there. It’s not always fun. But stick to it. Stay firm. And work on communication. Be willing to see their side, and hopefully they can come around to your side.”
As Weier told the MPSTMA when accepting the award, “This award isn’t all about the glitz and glamor. This isn’t about the party deck or the comfortable seats or the great concession stands. This is the playing surface. All the work that goes into this award is before anybody walks into the stadium – before the players get there and before the fans get there. All they see is a beautiful field…but the work is done. It makes all the early mornings, all the afternoons when it is stifling hot, feel better that it is recognized. That’s why this means the most to me and my staff, and definitely those volunteers.”
John Kmitta is associate publisher and editorial brand director of SportsField Management magazine.