Before opening day, ballparks rush to thaw fields
In all his years as a groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox, Roger Bossard has never faced anything quite like this.
The snow that piled up at U.S. Cellular Field could be dealt with easily enough. It's Chicago, after all. But the frost in the ground can be measured in feet, not inches. To ready the field for the first pitch, Bossard is overseeing an effort akin to blowing a gigantic hair dryer under a tarp to pump hot air onto the field and thaw it out. Crews have been chipping away at ice near the right field line with shovels.
And opening day is less than two weeks away.
"This has actually been the perfect storm for me," Bossard said. "I've been in this for 45 years and I've seen a lot of snow. Certainly, that's not hard to handle. ... My problem actually is the permafrost. I've actually never run into where I've got 30 inches of permafrost."
Groundskeepers all over baseball are scrambling to help their ballparks recover from months of snow and freezing temperatures that left fields looking more ready for cross-country skiers than bats and balls.
Like the White Sox, the Detroit Tigers are scheduled to play at home on March 31, when the regular season begins in earnest with 13 games. The Minnesota Twins -- who for so long played in the indoor confines of the Metrodome -- have been digging out from their own snowy surroundings at Target Field. They at least have until April 7 before they have to play a home game.
Points farther south have been affected, too.
"It's rare that we get snow as bad as we've had this winter," said Nicole McFadyen, head groundskeeper at Camden Yards in Baltimore. Luckily, McFadyen caught a break just in time: The snow is melting because the sun's reflection is heating the stadium.
Baltimore received 26 inches of snow from December through February, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That was almost a 50 percent increase from an average winter, but it was nothing compared to what Chicago (66.7 inches) and Detroit (78 inches) are dealing with. Boston had 56.4 inches over that three-month period, and Cleveland had 65.
The worst may be over in terms of cold weather, but the outlook for opening day isn't all that promising. From March 26 through April 1, there's a decent chance of below-normal temperatures all over the eastern half of the country, particularly near the Great Lakes.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.
"The back's against the wall a little bit," Bossard said.
Bossard estimated that his crew removed over 400 tons of snow last weekend. Snowblowers and plows can help, but it's a delicate operation: Plows can only do so much before there's a risk of damage to the field.
There's a certain charm to a football game played in the snow on a raggedy, chewed-up field -- but baseball is supposed to be about sunshine and soft grass. Nobody ever waxes poetic about the frozen tundra of Fenway Park.
Even in the warm summer months, baseball fields are meticulously manicured to prevent bad-hop grounders, crumbling mounds and any number of other potential problems. If the field is too slick because of cold conditions, players could get hurt, and a rock-hard surface obviously isn't ideal for an outfielder trying to make a diving catch.
Detroit also brought in heaters to blow hot air under the infield tarp. The Tigers haven't had to worry about the grass at Comerica Park because, well, there hasn't been any.
The Tigers are re-sodding their field after it was used for part of the NHL's Winter Classic festivities. The outfield right now consists of a sandy base that looks nothing like a baseball field.
A shipment of Kentucky bluegrass is scheduled to arrive Thursday, and team vice president Ron Colangelo says this was essentially the timetable all along. Colangelo said the process of installing the new grass should take only a few days, giving the team a bit of a grace period even if more bad weather comes through.
"Obviously, Mother Nature's been incredibly generous in the amount of snow that she's been offering," Colangelo said. "The plan is on schedule."
The Twins are also confident, and have a stadium built to handle the cold. They began playing at their open-air ballpark in 2010, and it's well equipped to combat the remnants of winter.
"We have a state-of-the-art heating system that allows us to keep the field at a constant temperature no matter what the winter brings," Twins president Dave St. Peter said. "We worry more about the seating bowl and making sure that the pedestrian plazas and walkways and gate locations are dry and ice-free and safe. We spend just as much time if not more on those areas."
The Twins begin the season on the road -- something St. Peter says the team requests every season. Baltimore won't have that luxury this time. The Orioles are at home March 31 against the defending champion Boston Red Sox. That same day, the Tigers host Kansas City and the White Sox welcome Minnesota to what Bossard hopes will be a thawed-out opener on Chicago's South Side.
He's optimistic, but there are still plenty of reasons to be cautious.
"If I had this type of frost line on opening day, I would tell (manager Robin Ventura) that he couldn't play. That's how severe it is. I've never said anything like that before," Bossard said. "But we have two weeks, so I'm comfortable."