Field day: Houston UYA gets groundskeeping lesson

HOUSTON -- Top MLB groundskeeper officials directed the first 2013 Sports Turf Management Clinic on Wednesday in Houston, part of the league's commitment to promote safety at all levels of the sport.

The free clinic is offered at each MLB Urban Youth Academy. After stopping in Houston on Wednesday, officials will host a similar event at the New Orleans Academy on Thursday and at the original Compton facility outside Los Angeles in September.

"It's the favorite part of my job," said Tom Burns, former head groundskeeper for the Texas Rangers and current salesman for Diamond Pro, a Texas-based supplier of groundskeeping products and solutions. Diamond Pro sponsors the free Urban Youth Academy clinics and offers several others with its distributors.

"This is a great thing to give back. If it hadn't been for my mentor in Cleveland, I wouldn't be where I'm at. I just like to teach these guys how to take care of their fields.

"It's really rewarding."

Instructors and special guest speakers at the Houston event included Murray Cook, MLB's field clinic coordinator; Dan Bergstrom, head groundskeeper for the Astros; and Chad Olsen, manager of construction and maintenance operations for Brickman Sportsturf.

"Major League Baseball has made a big investment in these types of programs," said Cook. "You've got guys like Darrell Miller [director of MLB's Urban Youth Academy], Frank Robinson and folks in the Commissioner's office that really understand what the importance is.

"It comes down to safety for the players and the kids trying to make it up to our level. We can't have kids reluctant to take a ground ball because they're afraid of getting hurt."

About 50 professionals traveled to Wednesday's clinic at the Astros Urban Youth Academy in north Houston, mostly on behalf of organizations such as local school districts, colleges and the Houston Parks and Recreation Department. Three students also attended from a local high school's turf management program.

"We've had a lot of questions," said Bergstrom, now in his 10th season with the Astros. "People come with questions specific to their fields and we can answer them directly.

"We try and do several field days around town each year. My passion is maintaining the ball fields, and anything I can do to help that mission, the better."

Hot topics at Wednesday's event included efficiencies in maintenance and renovations, hands-on infield maintenance, and turfgrass cultural practices such as aerification, verti-cutting, topdressing and mound construction.

"Efficiency is a big deal," said Cook, who recently returned from hosting similar clinics in the Dominican Republic. "Some guys might not be able to afford top-of-the-line equipment, but we can show them tricks of the trade so they can compartmentalize."

Other prominent discussions focused on padding, the importance of the batter's line of eyesight and dugout maintenance.

In addition to specific field tips, Cook stressed the importance of making these events enjoyable for those who attend. The Houston clinic, which lasted six hours, included catered lunch, networking opportunities and entry into a clinic raffle.

"We do try and make it fun," Cook said. "At the one in Compton, we bring out all the high school players because the teams there take care of their own fields. We put them on mowers, let them paint logos and show people the fun parts as best we can."

The Urban Youth Academy clinics will be held at each site on an every-other-year basis. Darrell Miller, who attended Wednesday's seminar in Houston, said the academies in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., are expected to open in the very near future and are likely to host the clinics in 2014.

"I think it's great that Major League Baseball has recognized that field maintenance is part of growing the game, especially at younger levels," said Burns. "If youth don't have fields to play on, they can't play the game.

"You really get everyone from Little League to the big leagues," he added. "Everybody needs help on maintaining their fields. It's giving kids everywhere a safe place and confidence to go out and play."

Ben DuBose is a contributor to MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.