A labor of love: Suburban baseball and softball coaches and their players take special care of their fields

Cutting the grass as a kid was a rewarding experience for Brad Wendell.

But the help Wendell gave his dad, John, and the payoff was a bit atypical. Especially since the yard was the Buffalo Grove baseball field where John Wendell was the coach for 23 years.

“My dad used to bribe me, and he would put the mower in the back of the van when I was in middle school,” Brad Wendell, who played for his dad at Buffalo Grove and is in his eighth year as coach at Geneva, said with a laugh. “He would say, ‘If you help cut the grass, I’ll hit you groundballs or throw BP (batting practice).’”

It was Wendell’s early glimpse into one of the unique aspects of high school baseball and softball. One where the postgame ritual isn’t just a dissection of what happened on the field, but players and coaches using rakes, tractors and other tools to ensure their playing surface stays in top condition.

“It’s a labor of love,” said Troy Whalen, who has transformed Grayslake Central into one of the premier baseball fields around in his 20-plus years as baseball coach.

It can be a love-hate relationship with northern Illinois’ fickle spring weather. The challenge is a source of pride for coaches such as Julie Fonda of Glenbard South softball.

“You have to take care of where you are playing,” said Fonda, a 1996 graduate of the school. “It’s difficult, but that pride plays a big part in building a program.”

Literally from the ground up in baseball and softball.

A team effort

Attention to detail has been a trademark of Paul Belo’s run as the baseball coach at Fremd and Palatine that will end after 26 seasons this spring with his retirement. Just like working on cutoffs, there is instruction for players on working the field to prevent things like lips that produce bad hops.

“It starts with teaching kids how to move a rake,” said Belo, who has coached at Palatine since 2003. “Shockingly that sounds simple, but you’d be surprised.”

Fonda has played on Glenbard South’s field since she was 14 and saw the work put in by people like her coach, Bill Voves, her dad and others to build dugouts for Glenbard South softball and baseball 30 years ago. She put in a bullpen and in the past year got a permanent fence with a warning track that has to be rolled and kept level. Her players are taught how to rake and tamp down the home plate and pitcher’s circle areas.

“They do kind of feel like they own it, and that’s part of what we instill in them as well,” Fonda said. “Kids pass down the traditions and will say, ‘Next year I get to rake the mound or tamp down the mound or take care of the bullpen.’”

Willowbrook baseball coach Vic Wisner said he loves working on the field he played on as a 1985 graduate, “and if the kids are out there raking, I’m raking with them.” Everyone has a role, typically related to a player’s position.

“If we get good at it we put it on the clock and make a game of it,” Wisner said. “I’ve seen a clip of Tennessee getting it done in 5 to 6 minutes. We had one where it took 4½ minutes to get everything dragged and cleaned and the mounds clayed up and tamped.”

Whalen reminds his players’ parents not to make dinner plans just a few minutes after the final pitch.

“I get the credit but we’ve got 27 to 28 varsity guys and some have multiple field responsibilities after a game and practice,” Whalen said. “We’ve got a stopwatch and we need to get it done in 10 minutes or they run. It’s not like you’ve got four guys standing around and one guy tamping the mound like it’s a union job. Everybody has got something to do and it just becomes the norm that the kids know what to do.”

Cooperation is crucial

Brad Wendell played a big part in his dad, John, winning 400-plus games at Buffalo Grove. Opposing coaches and others in the baseball community knew one of the easiest ways to get John Wendell riled up was to bring up his oft-losing battles with the school on field maintenance.

“You can still get him going about it,” Brad Wendell said with a laugh.

Wendell is fortunate his predecessor, Matt Hahn, is Geneva’s athletic director. When Hahn was coach he started a preseason field day where parents would help players and coaches.

“If you don’t see eye-to-eye with the maintenance staff it can make things difficult,” Belo said. “I believe we’re helping our maintenance staff because all we ask them is to cut it, drag it and line it and we’ll do the rest.”

Wisner called it “more collaboration” with his Willowbrook grounds crew. That was evident a few years ago for a late-season Saturday doubleheader that couldn’t start until 2 p.m. because of weather.

“Our maintenance guy was out there putting 30 bags of turface on it,” Wisner said. “We won and got the No. 1 (sectional) seed.”

What coaches can do on their field varies. Glenbard South outsources its maintenance work, and Fonda is not permitted to use a tractor to drag the field. She makes sure the workers know what she needs and that they’re appreciated.

“I bring them coffee and do little things to make sure they’re happy,” Fonda said.

Whalen’s relationship with the Grayslake Central grounds crew has grown into “a great partnership.” He also has picked the brain of legendary White Sox groundskeeper Roger “The Sodfather” Bossard.

“He’s been to our field,” Whalen said, “and you can pick up the phone and he’ll call you back if you need his help.”

No days of rest

Whalen is not unlike many other baseball and softball coaches when he joked he doesn’t even take care of his own lawn.

“In season and even in the summer and fall I’m almost embarrassed to say a day doesn’t go by where I’m not at the field,” Whalen said. “Sometimes I’ll go to Starbucks and get a cup of coffee and sit there when the sprinklers are on.”

Wisner is out on Willowbrook’s field every Sunday and will hand cut the infield grass because he doesn’t want heavy-duty mowers on it that could cause bad hops. Fonda enjoys spending some down time at the field.

“I call it therapy,” she said, “I love my field, I love Glenbard South softball and I love Glenbard South. There’s a lot of pride for me in this school.”

Glenbard South High School softball players work on their home field. Courtesy of Julie Fonda/Glenbard South High School

Belo takes time on Sundays to do some physical maintenance work on the field. He also called it “cathartic” and a perfect place to review the past week and look ahead.

“There’s nothing more beautiful than a manicured baseball field,” Belo said. “They have their quirks and they’re pretty unique, but when it’s well-manicured it’s a beautiful sight to see. That’s why baseball coaches take great pride in that.”

Palatine High School baseball players work on their home field. Courtesy Paul Belo/Palatine High School
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