There’s a landscape crew sculpting the edges of a nearby ball field – defining the lines between dirt and deadened grass – when Scott Mackeben pops out of a Lippold Park concession stand.
Mackeben, the man at the head of a mad dash to get the fields ready by this weekend’s tournament, knows as well as anyone what a long winter means for the people who prepare the county’s Little League baseball fields. This has been the longest in his eight or so years with Crystal Lake Little League Baseball.
Usually, the league does things in phases – assemble rosters, prepare fields, match players with uniforms. This year, delayed field maintenance has added a major scramble to normal preseason happenings.
“Everything had to be done at once,” said Mackeben, director of fields and grounds for the league of more than 400 players.
Mackeben isn’t the county’s only head of maintenance working to get fields in good enough shape for their respective leagues’ opening days – which land, typically, in the last half of April. A surplus of late-winter and early-spring moisture combined with frozen grounds from prolonged cold temperatures have challenged area Little League field crews.
For Mackeben and the Crystal Lake league, that has meant hiring a landscape company to help prepare fields. The early date of their kickoff tournament – which starts Saturday at Lippold Park – has made things tougher.
Crews typically start on Crystal Lake fields in March – sometimes toward the middle of the month, weather permitting. This year, even after the snow had melted, the thawing ground caused issues.
“When the frost comes up out of the ground, it just makes everything muddy,” Mackeben said.
Plumbing issues have also caused headaches. The harsh winter burst a pipe and caused several faucets to malfunction and require replacement. In all, the maintenance will cost the league between $2,000 and $3,000 – considerably more than the few hundred dollars a year league officials expect to pay for preseason plumbing repairs, Mackeben said.
Crystal Lake crews eventually started working in the beginning of April.
Huntley Little League President John Spankroy said fields were too wet to start work until this week.
“We’re starting in earnest now,” Spankroy said Monday. “And we should have them ready to go by the beginning of the season.”
He added the fields – which are maintained by the village’s park district – are in pretty good condition, all things considered.
“I’d have thought, especially with this past winter, that they’d have been in a lot worse shape,” he said.
Fields taking shape later than usual has meant some area coaches are finding other ways to prepare.
Some coaches have turned to indoor practice facilities in the interim, said Tim Beese, second vice president of Lake in the Hills Youth Athletic Association.
But Gregg Sibigtroth, who owns Player’s Choice Academy, an indoor training facility with locations in Lake in the Hills and Algonquin, said his business is yet to be flooded by teams with no outdoor field to use.
More coaches start aggressively seeking other ways to facilitate practice hours in the middle of April, he said.
“If a kid can get out by April 15, that’s a plus,” said Sibigtroth, who’s also a coach for the Crystal Lake Bombers. “If they don’t, that’s pretty much the norm.”
He added that in the past few years, coaches have wanted to get out earlier and earlier if the weather allows.
Whether all McHenry County parks will have their fields ready to go by the April 15 threshold, Sibigtroth couldn’t say.
“As soon as you get the sun out, it thaws quick,” he said. “But I know some fields that still have some frost issues.”
Beese, who said a late start on field maintenance has delayed teams from practicing by almost three weeks, anticipated the league would have all its fields available some time in the upcoming week – given that temperatures, and frost, cooperate.
“More than anything else, it’s just a waiting game,” he said.