It's 2 p.m. and Chad Laurie and three members of his crew are watering down the infield dirt at Coca-Cola Field. The routine is part of the job for the Buffalo Bisons head groundskeeper but this year he's spent even more time on the infield. It's been a hot, dry summer in Buffalo and the biggest toll has been felt on the six-inch deep dirt path around the bases, at home plate and at the pitcher's mound.
The hot, dry weather has created challenges for the grounds crew while simultaneously providing a glorious summer for staying on baseball's everyday schedule. The first real game-day challenge for Laurie and the Herd may come Saturday with a forecast filled with potential thunderstorms. Of course in the superstitious world of baseball jinxes you don't talk about the weather forecast, at least not in the press box. So fate is now tempted by writing the following stat: The Bisons have yet to have a home game postponed in 2016.
With 12 home dates remaining, the Herd has yet been forced to issue rain vouchers. The record for fewest postponements in a season at Coca-Cola Field is 2012 when only two scheduled games were washed out. Since Coca-Cola Field opened in 1988, the average number of postponed home games has been 5.35.
The low total is impressive especially considering home dates in April are often good for at least one postponement with cold temperatures or spring rain storms. Last year the team had to cancel six home games including three for the unusual reasons of a power outage, high wind and fog.
The potential incoming thunderstorms are not the reprieve that Laurie is looking for when it comes to maintaining the field. Thunderstorms produce a rain that is hard and fast. The field, mostly the dirt, needs a long, steady soaking rain. So why is rain so important on the dirt? It all has to do with footwear and footwork.
"We wet the dirt so that the players’ cleats will get into it," Laurie said. "We want it firm, but we want it soft enough like a cork board where their cleats can get into it and it’s stable. If it’s at the right moisture, the cleat will go in and come out. If it’s too dry when they push their cleats into it and then move their foot or push off, it will take a little chunk out. We’re looking for that cork board feel.
"If you only have the top layer wet, it dries out faster and if you look for it through a game, at the beginning of a game it’s wetter and then it will dry out a little and once the sun goes down it will actually start to wet itself again if you have that moisture deep because the top will dry out and there’s this thing called capillary -- it will take moisture from the base and bring it to the top. There’s a lot of feel to it. I’ve been doing this for 15 years now so you kinda get a feel for it."
Keeping the dirt at the right moisture is part science, part art.
The grass is a different story. The lack of rain doesn't cause concern at Coca-Cola Field since the stadium has a relatively new and well-maintained underground irrigation system. It's the heat that's the bigger factor, especially at night. Turns out, the grass benefits from a good, cool night's sleep as well. That's partly why the grass around home plate is getting a little brown and worn in spots.
"The heat causes a lot of stress on the grass," Laurie said. "The wear around home plate is worse because it doesn’t cool off at night especially in the last month. That’s when the grass heals itself and comes back. It’s been pretty warm at night and the cool-season grass doesn’t like that very much."
From the player's perspective, weather is one of a number of factors out of their control. They learn how to deal with the weather variety throughout their career, starting the season with toques and multiple layers of shirts in April then dealing with humidity by July and August.
For pitcher Chris Leroux the heat becomes problematic.
"For me personally I enjoy it when it’s a little colder because I sweat a lot and the more I sweat the less grip I have on the baseball," said Leroux who pitched Thursday with a game-time temperature of 89. "I’d rather be able to blow into my hands as opposed to dripping down my arm and trying to get the sweat off my hands, and have the ball slipping out of my hands. Obviously being Canadian, I’m used to the colder weather but too cold is too cold obviously. Cold is cold whether you're from Canada or not. But yesterday, that’s way too hot for me. I needed another jersey and I didn't have one so I was dripping down."
It's the opposite feeling for outfielder Chris Colabello, who would rather have a hot day then finding space by the dugout heaters to defrost in the first month of the season. But hot or cold, Colabello echoes the popular sentiment -- control what is in your control and block out the other factors.
"You can’t control the weather ... so you do the best you can to get ready for it and prepare for the circumstances that are happening around you," Colabello said. "I’m very routine oriented. I try to do the same things every day. I would say I get a lot closer to the heaters when it’s hot out. Just try to keep your body loose however you can. I’d rather have it be too hot than too cold any day of the week."