Quality fields draw heavy use

Photos courtesy of Greg Chorvas.

There are two ways to approach just about any job: you can do the bare minimum, or you can do it right. Examining the quality of the athletic fields at Cantine Veterans Memorial Complex in Saugerties, N.Y., it’s easy to tell what decision Superintendent Greg Chorvas has arrived at. The maintenance staff at Cantine could just as easily mow the grass and hope for the best. Instead, Chorvas and his team have put together a maintenance program that rivals those followed on professional sports fields.

The impressive 127-acre complex includes 11 baseball/softball fields, four soccer fields, tennis courts, basketball courts, picnic areas, grandstands, bandstands, playgrounds and more—a highly prized collection of amenities among the community’s 25,000 residents.

Chorvas, who currently serves as vice president of the New York State Turfgrass Association, began working at Cantine Veterans Memorial Complex some 33 years ago as a senior in high school. At that time, he recalls, the facility covered just 35 acres and held one regulation baseball field, one regulation softball field, two Little League fields and a T-ball field. “Maintenance at that time was basically mowing, and raking and marking only when required for games,” he says. “The infield material was just native soil, and there was no type of turf maintenance program, such as aeration and overseeding.”

Originally planning for a career in accounting, criminal justice or TV broadcasting, Chorvas realized during college that he preferred working outdoors. When the foreman’s position at the sports complex became available in 1978, he jumped at the opportunity. “I was in the right place at the right time,” he recalls. In 1981, he became superintendent.

During his early years at Cantine, the facility was expanded thanks to a donation in the 1970s of 39 acres of land made by a local resident in honor of veterans from Saugerties who had served their country. “It was flat farmland, but a little grading and drainage work was required,” Chorvas recalls. “We were able to hire a professional land and recreation planner who laid out an additional five ball fields and lighting upgrades, along with recreational amenities such as a large pavilion and a senior citizens’ multipurpose recreational facility.”

Each fall, some 50,000 visitors fill the Cantine Veterans Memorial Complex for the nation’s second-largest Garlic Festival.

In 1991, thanks in large measure to the quality of the facility and strong demand for access by residents, the Cantine Veterans Memorial Complex was again expanded through the purchase of an additional 69 acres of adjacent property.

Not surprisingly, given the number of fields available and the high level to which they are maintained, there are active youth and adult sports programs in Saugerties. “Currently, there are more than 1,200 children in the Little League program utilizing six fields,” Chorvas explains. “There are 62 teams in the men’s and women’s softball leagues, using three lighted fields.” There are also regulation-size baseball fields with upgraded lighting that will allow the complex to host a major Babe Ruth League tournament in 2009. In fact, the facility hosts numerous tournaments throughout the year attracting thousands of visitors, “which helps to bring a positive economic benefit to the community,” says Chorvas. The sports complex itself generated more than $325,000 in 2007.

“We get tremendous support from the main user organizations,” lauds Chorvas. The many leagues and groups that use the fields contribute heavily to its success, and not just monetarily. For example, the local Little League chapter constructed roofs on all of the dugouts on the fields it uses and also painted those dugouts. The leagues also operate concession stands—“they’re actually more like mini-restaurants,” he marvels—and have corporate sponsors with signs surrounding the fields.

A comprehensive maintenance program is followed to keep fields in top playing condition. Here, an AERA-vator is used to condition the infield.

Thanks in part to the financial strength of these well-run organizations, it’s possible for Chorvas and his team to make upgrades not often found at municipal recreational facilities. “For example, on all of our baseball fields, the infields are constructed of high-quality material from the same source that supplies Yankee and Shea Stadiums. It’s similar in composition, but with a slightly lower clay content than what is used at those stadiums, where they have professional grounds crews that can put out and remove tarps five or six times a day if needed. The ability of the material we have to drain is fantastic, which is great because we have baseball games starting here in mid-March.”

Cantine also hosts an annual garlic festival, the second largest event of its kind in the country, which draws crowds of 50,000 people over the course of two days. Fortunately, all of that traffic is kept off the ball fields. “About 70 percent of the booths and activities are staged on hard surfaces; the other 30 percent is held on turfgrass, but not on any of the playing areas,” says Chorvas. “As soon as cleanup is over, we begin an aggressive aerification and overseeding on those areas.” The festival is in late September, so timing coincides well with Chorvas’ fall turf management program.

There are 10 full-time employees at Cantine Veterans Memorial Complex, though not all are devoted to maintaining the grounds. One staff member, for example, manages the facility’s full-size, enclosed ice rink. The crew also handles electrical, plumbing and heating maintenance for several town buildings.

The two main baseball fields are mowed twice each week. Those fields, along the main soccer field, have irrigation throughout and, obviously, the turf grows a bit faster there. The rest of the fields are mowed at least weekly, or as needed. “We’re very big into striping and adding different designs to the fields,” says Chorvas. “We used to use reel mowers, but about three years ago we upgraded to the Toro Sidewinder mower, which works very well, and the striping capabilities with the heavy rollers are great. Blade maintenance is also easier now, and I’m very strict about using sharp blades. We check them weekly and we have quite a supply of sharpened and new blades ready to go at all times. I tell people that if they’re not going to sharpen their blades, they would be better off not cutting their turf at all, because dull blades do so much damage to the grass and encourage disease.”

The rest of the rotary mower fleet at Cantine ranges in size from 72 inches to a 129-inch deck mounted on a Toro 455. The majority of the equipment at the facility comes from either Toro or John Deere. For the most part, equipment is purchased rather than leased.

A fall fertilization schedule is followed, with fertilizer supplemented at other times of the year only if needed, Chorvas explains. He follows a similar approach with weed and insect control. “We depend a lot on observation rather than set schedules, because you can’t tell at the beginning of a year what the weather and turfgrass conditions will be. Sometimes, no application is needed. Other times, a spot-treatment is required, but the whole field doesn’t need to be treated.”

Chorvas is currently in the midst of a three-year project to update the Toro irrigation system at Cantine, explaining, “I’ve been really happy with the Toro system, and now we’re going automatic and wireless, and we’re upgrading a number of individual heads.” Currently, two ballfields have heads in the outfields and all fields have heads in the infield, for both turf and the infield material. While the high-quality infield mix drains well, it also dries out quickly, making irrigation coverage essential, says Chorvas. “I stress to other field managers who ask me that if they select that material and they don’t have irrigation, they have to have some way to keep it moist.”

éWe’re very big into striping and adding different designs to the fields,_ says Chorvas. Here, the éDrunken Sailor_ pattern decorates one of Cantine’s professional-level baseball fields.

He encourages other field managers to push to have quality irrigation systems installed on their fields. “Unfortunately, the powers that be that control budgets often look at the initial expense, without looking long-term,” he says. “With an irrigation system, the payback time is relatively quickly thanks to a reduced need for labor. It’s expensive to have an individual who has to go around with a manual system, turn valves and watch the water for 10 minutes.”

The key is to educate budget-makers about how important it is to properly build and maintain athletic fields, says Chorvas. He feels that education is lacking in many cases, which in part explains the rush in many communities to install synthetic fields.

“There was discussion of installing a synthetic field here about three years ago, but the project didn’t go forward,” he says, adding that there are situations and applications where synthetic fields are necessary to keep fields in play during winter or to frequently host non-sport events, such as concerts. “There have been so many schools and municipalities that put synthetic fields in thinking that they’re maintenance-free, but that’s not the case and sometimes the fields fail, and even when maintained, there is a limited life to the fields.”

In addition to the normal turfgrass maintenance challenges faced at Cantine Veterans Memorial Complex, it is sometimes tough to find the time to perform the maintenance, given the level of play the fields receive. “We have a fairly sophisticated computerized master schedule for the entire complex. We can tell in April what fields will be in use on a certain day in August. In addition, we use a very large dry-erase board that serves as a double-check,” explains Chorvas. All of the fields at the facility are numbered, starting at the south end and running clockwise to the north and east, providing a quick way to reference fields and determine when they are being used.

In his three-plus decades at Cantine Veterans Memorial Complex in Saugerties, N.Y., Superintendent Greg Chorvas has seen the facility expand to 127 acres with 11 baseball/softball fields, four soccer fields and many more recreational amenities.

Whenever possible during breaks in the schedule, fields are closed for more intensive maintenance than is possible on a daily basis. For example, hoses and high-pressure water are used to “wash” the excess material that can build up berms on infield and outfield edges of the ballfields. “I’ve tried many methods over the years, and I’ve found this works the best,” says Chorvas. “It’s the least invasive, providing you’re careful not to do damage to the turfgrass plant or root system with the water, but it’s very important from a safety standpoint to do this type of maintenance.”

Of course, the fact that the facility receives so much use is as much a compliment as a challenge. “There is a lot of pride, a lot of dedication and a lot of commitment on the part of the leagues that use the facilities, as well as the entire community,” credits Chorvas.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.