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DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH : Come Hell or High Water, Coaches Find Way to Play

Times Staff Writer

There is a lot to coaching a baseball team.

Like knowing which markets have the best prices on cat litter. Or mastering the technique of throwing matches into puddles of gasoline without burning one’s eyebrows. And staying in good enough shape to dodge the powerful streams of water from the hoses of angry firemen.

Coaches are resorting to desperate measures to make baseball fields playable in the wake of a recent series of rainstorms.

According to U. S. Weather Service reports, more than five inches of rain has fallen in the Valley area in the past week, leaving baseball schedules mired because of the mud.

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More light rain is forecast through Sunday.

The downpour from the storms has left the dirt area of most infields in the Valley looking better suited to canoeing than baseball. The task of trying to pull the baseball diamonds out of the mud usually falls to the coaches.

“I’ve seen them do a lot of things to dry their fields,” said Philadelphia Phillies scout Jay Robertson, who lives in Simi Valley. “But I don’t think I had ever seen anyone throw kitty litter on their infield until I went to UC Santa Barbara a few days ago. It worked, though. They got the game in.”

Scott Muckey, the coach at Valley College, didn’t try cat litter. He took a more aggressive tack.

On Tuesday, Muckey wanted to clear water from the infield so Valley could play a game against Moorpark. The coach figured he’d fight water with fire, so he poured gasoline on the field and set it ablaze.

It was working pretty well until the fire department showed up.

“We gave it a try,” Muckey said, laughing. “But the fire department came by and told us to knock it off.”

Jim Williamson, a spokesman for the Los Angeles City Fire Department, wasn’t laughing.

“It’s a severe hazard to pour gasoline on something and then light it,” Williamson said. “It’s got the explosive power of TNT and, more importantly, it’s illegal to have a fire anywhere in L. A. except in a barbecue or fireplace. It’s been against the law since about 1954.”

Added Williamson: “That was the first time I’ve ever heard of someone setting a baseball field on fire.”

But burning the basepaths, in the literal sense, was a common practice at Cal State Northridge until a few years ago.

“The last time we did it, we got nailed as an environmental hazard,” Matador Coach Terry Craven said. “It was kind of ironic. A guy from the school paper was parked by the field one day when we were burning. When he saw the cloud of black smoke going up, he took a picture and it ran in the paper. A little while after that, we were told that we were damaging the environment and were asked to stop.”

Ron Stillwell, the coach at Moorpark, has yet another strategy for stemming the tide. It is one he borrowed from Jim Hansen, baseball coach at Thousand Oaks High.

“We’ve tried throwing foam rubber pads on the field to soak up the standing water like a giant sponge,” he said. “You get them from the inside of couch cushions. The only problem is that I couldn’t wring them out.”

Craven and Muckey are trying more conventional methods.

“Well, you get a shovel, a bunch of coffee cans and a few paint buckets and start bailing,” Craven said. “Then, when you get most of the water off, you rake the dirt and hope for some sun and wind to dry it out. Since Thursday, we have bailed and put our tarps out every day.”

At Valley, Muckey is fortunate enough to have a water pump, courtesy of a sympathetic booster.

“At our field, the outfield drains pretty well, but it’s like a lake at each of the four infield positions,” Muckey said. “We dig holes at each of those positions and let the water drain into them. Then we pump that water into the outfield. It saves a lot of time over your usual bucket brigade.”

Even with the efforts to keep infields dry, if rain returns, so do the puddles. And that means game cancellations.

Of Northridge’s 11 scheduled games so far this season, six have been rained out. Moorpark’s season opener against Pasadena was also washed out. The Raiders were scheduled to open at home against Valley, but the game was moved to Valley. Apparently, Muckey thought he would have some success with his basepath barbecue.

Muckey said that the game could have been played in the Everglades, for all it mattered.

“When you walked in the infield, your feet would sink three inches,” he said. “It was like running around in quick sand.”

But Valley’s field was still in better condition than the one at Moorpark.

“We were out there bailing water, but there was only so much we could do,” Stillwell said. “We’d have to run into the dugout every five minutes to get away from the rain.”

Next time, he might just keep running until he gets to the nearest Zamboni dealer.


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