Field of Dreams

For athletes from around the world, the Olympic Games represent the ultimate showcase of their talents. In much the same way, thousands of support personnel who make the Olympics a reality do their best to make their own “performances” as flawless as possible. Not far from the long shadows of the Parthenon, American Murray Cook was one such person during the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece.

About 30 miles south of the Olympic Village, Cook served as Olympic field consultant for the Olympic baseball and softball complex. For Cook and his team, their quest to design, construct and maintain a world-class venue almost started with a “bang.”

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The first phase included the transformation of an old abandoned airport — chosen for its flat topography — near a Greek air force base. When the land was cleared in late 2001, several unexploded German and British bombs from World War II were found during the removal of the old airport runway. Given the fact that the area served during much of the last century as either a U.S., Greek or Nazi army base, the discovery wasn't a total surprise.

“After the first bomb was found, the assistance of nearby military experts and metal detectors suddenly became quite popular,” Cook says.

Cook was chosen to fill his Olympic role as Deputy Competition Manager largely because of his work in the Major League Baseball commissioner's office, where he's overseen its international field development projects as a stadium and field consultant for 15 years.

STARTING FROM SCRATCH

Although relatively expensive — $50 million to complete the project — and time-consuming in comparison to remodeling an existing stadium complex, starting from scratch when constructing new ball fields has its advantages. In Athens, for example, the desired soil mix of sand, clay and silt could be brought in and mixed on-site to create the ideal playing surface for the fields.

Beginning in 2002, Cook began to forge an international staff of experts and volunteers that would work to make the metamorphosis a success. The experience presented a unique set of challenges to Cook, who also serves as president of the Sports Turf Services Division of Brickman Landscape Co. in Gaithersburg, Md. But working in foreign territory is nothing new to Cook. He's worked in more than 20 different countries, including Australia during the 2000 Olympics, and logged about 3.5 million miles globally in 12 years.

“Unlike Sydney in 2000, the biggest challenge in Greece was finding people with knowledge of the game of baseball,” says Cook, who's been in the sports turf industry for nearly 30 years. “Because baseball and softball aren't commonly played in Greece, very few of our contractors had ever built a diamond before. We had to continually stress to the crews the importance of constructing and maintaining fields for an excellent playing surface.”

Turning an old airport into a world-class baseball and softball venue required not only great teamwork but also expertise from the sports field industry. With the help of Budgie Clark, field construction supervisor, the major construction phase was accomplished. After that phase, field crew supervisors Josh Ingle (baseball), Cindy Unger (baseball), Dr. Dave Davis (baseball) and Ric Nuvelle (softball) ensured that precise maintenance practices were followed. Yet, as with any project, there were a few glitches along the way.

“During construction, a fire hydrant was placed in one warning track, and a few of the low walls were too close to foul lines,” Cook says. “We got those problems fixed right away.”

LOST IN TRANSLATION

Additionally, some information was lost in translation between written Greek and English. One notable example was when “warning track” became “warming track” in a translated document. Furthermore, most of the written specifications outlined Australian turf types and soils that were not available in Greece.

“The experience sort of reminded me of what it would be like if someone wanted to build a field for the sport of cricket in North Dakota,” Cook says. “It would be unfamiliar territory.”

FOCUSING ON CULTURE

Despite the challenges of working with different cultures and languages, Cook and his team still found time to focus on considerations related to standard sports field cultural practices. He used the product Turface Pro League to stabilize the upper levels of the soil, prevent “plating” and improve the tacky surface caused by the large amount of water applied to the high silt and clay mixture. The product is a “calcined clay,” which means it has been heated above 2,000°F. Six pallets of Turface were mixed into each of the seven fields used for practice and games. The team also irrigated the infield clay a little more at night to keep the moisture at a high level to combat the afternoon 100-plus°F days.

The Common Bermuda turf from Italy was the grass used for the playing fields. It's known for its fine-leaf texture, darker green color, denser cover and increased cold tolerance when compared to other turf-type Bermudas.

Knowing the hot, dry Greek summer was going to cause challenges, Cook advised that an additional 10-percent Lithuanian peat moss be added to the rootzone to help the fields retain moisture.

The infield clay consisted of 60 percent sand, 25 percent clay and 15 percent silt. On average, the temperature was between 105° and 110°F during the day. During the hottest days, the diamonds were irrigated for 45 minutes twice daily.

GREEK CUSTOMS

Tarps, drag screens, chalk, tamps and several other items were successfully brought in from the United States through the Greek customs office. However, because of the occasional sluggish nature of international transport and customs procedures, the team sometimes had to work without products or equipment taken for granted in the United States. Examples were fungicides and herbicides, a self-contained chemical spray rig, a hydraulic aerifier and a large rototiller.

To work around these problems, Cook used cultural practices, such as watering the grass early in the day, to keep fungal pathogens at bay and mixed soil using other machinery, such as a top loader and a big mesh screen used to sift clay particles.

THE FINALS

The finished complex features one 9,000-seat stadium and one 4,500-seat stadium for baseball, and a 6,000-seat stadium for softball. Two practice fields for each sport are located there, too. The dimensions of all the fields are equal to American diamonds, but all measurements are in metrics to accommodate international competition.

The volunteer staff working with Cook came from countries such as South Africa, Holland, Australia, Italy, Greece and the United States. Not only did many of them not ever see a baseball game before — just like many of the contractors — but the language barriers presented other obstacles. To work through this, a translator worked with Cook to help overcome communication gaps. Of the 74 Greek volunteers, about 20 knew some English, according to Cook.

A field test event with four baseball teams was held in March. This enabled Cook's team to test their preparation and cultural practices. Although it was cold when the test event was held, Cook says the rehearsal increased the confidence of the crew before the summer games.

“Just like in America, it's important to find the balance between trusting and assuming something is going to get done,” Cook says. “So when confronted with language barriers and different cultural practices, realize that what you think and they think can be two different concepts. Accurate and frequently used communication channels can be tremendous assets to overcoming these problems.”

Cook is set to serve in a similar role in 2008 for the Summer Olympics in Beijing. With more international experience gained as a field general in Athens, he's looking forward to it.

Jeff Chaltas is a freelance writer who resides in Shawnee, Kan.

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