Most groundskeepers like to stick to their routines, and Jake Tyler is no different. So when the calendar flips to March 5 every year, roughly a month before the start of the minor league season, the Toledo Mud Hens field turf manager knows it's time to tune up the mowers and start cutting the grass at Fifth Third Field.
The only thing that stood in Tyler's way this year, unfortunately, was about 14 inches of snow.
"It's been a rough winter," said Tyler, who enters his 10th season with the International League club. "From day one, it got really cold and really windy and never stopped."
Such has been the case at ballparks in the Midwest and Northeast, as a seemingly endless winter left playing fields covered with an arctic-like snowpack and forced many teams to find creative ways to get the field clear and ballpark ready for Opening Day.
A late-March storm that dumped to a foot of snow in Western New York raised the level of difficulty for teams such as the Buffalo Bisons, Rochester Red Wings, Syracuse Chiefs and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders—whose general manager, Rob Crain, made an impassioned plea to the snow gods on Twitter. The Bisons, who open at home today, are offering local snow plow drivers free tickets as a show of appreciation for "helping the region cope with a long and punishing winter."
Dear Winter, You are no longer welcome at PNC Field. Please leave immediately. Sincerely, Rob Crain pic.twitter.com/uu7IUigPhA
— Rob Crain (@RailRiderRob) March 31, 2014
The amount of snow this winter has not necessarily been the issue, Tyler and other minor league team officials said, but rather the lack of a stretch of mild temperatures to thaw the snow on the field. As a result, one snowstorm piled on top of another, and left a frozen mess for teams to overcome.
The Mud Hens accomplished this in early March by creating what Tyler refers to as a "heat dome." The team spread its rain tarp across the field and then used heaters to blast hot air underneath it, causing the tarp to rise and create a 75-degree oasis on the snow-covered playing field.
After four days of work, Tyler and his crew had the field nearly snow free. "Then we got nine more inches of snow," he said.
But other than one corner of the outfield, where the grounds crew had to chip away ice like Alaskan King Crabbers and haul it into a dugout to be melted with hot water, the last significant blast of winter was relatively easy to clear.
"If we wouldn't have touched the field, we would have had the nine inches on top of the 14 inches we already had," Tyler said. "Because we got the field cleared off, we were able to put our field tarp on before that nine inches of snow came and then came out with a hot water line and melted the snow."
The Mud Hens are hardly alone in the scramble for Opening Day. The Red Wings (International) also faced a field full of snow with no break in the weather forecast. So the team rented construction-grade heating coils to spread throughout the field and help melt the snow. The team hopes to have the field thawed enough to plant new sod in the spot where a hockey rink stood this winter as part of Rochester's Frozen Frontier festival. The Red Wings had to wait until days before the start of the season to tackle snow in the seating bowl or turn on the water in the ballpark out of fear of freezing pipes.
"We can't put any water down on the seating bowl or else we're just going to make more ice at this point," Rochester general manager Dan Mason said in late March. "The weather not only put us behind schedule, but it's been a more expensive winter than normal. We're renting those (heating coils) and we've spent a lot of money on salt so people can get in the office without falling down. It's not only been a long winter, but an expensive one too."
It was a long winter in Fort Wayne, too, where the TinCaps (Midwest) are among the few teams that keep their ballpark open every day year-round—from 7 a.m. until sunset—for a variety of events. So when the team was hit with seemingly weekly Friday afternoon snowstorms, they had to have Parkview Field ready the following morning for a farmer's market, or wedding in one of the suite areas.
That left TinCaps management dealing with bursting pipes throughout the ballpark and more snow than ever in the seating bowl—general manager Mike Nutter reported over two feet of snow in late March. The team has had to hold off annual ballpark improvements—like new brickwork and fresh coats of paint—because of the cold temperatures.
"In my 23 years in minor league baseball—19 in the Midwest League—I have never seen a winter like this in my life," Nutter wrote in an email in late March. "We open on April 3rd and we will be ready, but there is still a lot of work to get done prior to that day and after that day. We take pride in Parkview Field and believe it is in better condition and looks better now than it did in 2009, but we have really been challenged this off-season."
Weather challenges were not limited to teams in the north. The Durham Bulls (International) spent the offseason overseeing a $20 million renovation to Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Already faced with a tight schedule to get an overhaul to the ballpark done before Opening Day, the team had roughly 50 days of work impacted by cold temperatures and an unusual amount of snowfall, general manager Mike Birling said.
"We're fighting hard to the finish," Birling said in a late-March interview. "We've got crews working seven days a week, putting in extra hours. But we can see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Tyler was confident the Mud Hens' playing field would be in fine condition for Opening Day, and while he may be irked over a few imperfections, the average fan won't notice the difference.
"But if you could get a picture from Opening Day and compare it to what it will look on May 1, it the difference will be night and day – that is, if we get some good weather in April."