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Published: Tuesday, 3/6/2001

Ex-pitcher gets call for Hens' home turf


Joe Zelinko's budding career as a baseball pitcher ended when he tore his rotator cuff in 1980 while trying out for the Cincinnati Reds, but he has found another way to stay active on playing fields.

“I loved the game, and now I've found a way to stay close to it,” he said.

Instead of playing on the field, Mr. Zelinko now makes the field.

He and his wife, Karen, operate Athletic Field Services, Inc., from their home in Oregon. One of their next projects will be to install the playing field at the ballpark under construction in downtown Toledo for the Mud Hens.

Fifth Third Stadium, home of the Dayton Dragons minor league baseball club is among those for which the Zelinkos' firm installed the playing field. Fifth Third Stadium, home of the Dayton Dragons minor league baseball club is among those for which the Zelinkos' firm installed the playing field.

Mrs. Zelinko is looking forward to the job because she expects a heightened sense of ownership in work done near home.

“Most of the jobs we've done, everyone comes in and builds a ball park and then goes home. The jobs are all done well, but this one will be different. A lot of the companies will be staying right here,” Mrs. Zelinko said.

The company has grown quickly from its beginning in 1994.

“We weren't looking for any big construction jobs when we started, but I thought there was a market for improving fields that youngsters play on,” Mrs. Zelinko said.

“Some are too hard, or they have rutted base paths and other problems which can cause children to get hurt.”

After his injury, Mr. Zelinko worked on the grounds crew for the Cleveland Indians and the Browns. With seven years of experience, he considered his wife's idea and decided, “I can do it.”

The company stayed busy with work on fields for schools and other amateur organizations, then got a contract to install an athletic complex for Tiffin University that includes baseball, softball, and soccer fields and a practice football field.

That project was done in 1995 and 1996, Mr. Zelinko said.

Athletic Field Services installed its first professional baseball diamond for the Lakewood Blue Claws in Lakewood, N.J., and two other fields that opened in 2000.

One of those was the Louisville Slugger field for that city's Triple-A River Bats and the other is the home of the Dayton Dragons, a Single-A minor league franchise affiliated with the Reds.

The Dayton project was probably the most difficult, because steel ordered for the stadium didn't arrive on time and threw off everyone's schedule.

Normally, it takes six to eight weeks to install a professional baseball field, but because of the delayed steel shipment, Athletic Field Services had only four weeks to do the work. “We worked 18-hour days, seven days a week to get that job done,” Mr. Zelinko said.

“I think we were all sleepwalking when it was over,” Mrs. Zelinko said.

The last of the turf was installed only two days before opening day, “but it held up,” Mrs. Zelinko said.

“They did a great job and have a growing reputation,” said Dan Almond, architect for the field.

Mr. Almond, an architect and consultant with Millennium Sports Technologies, Inc., of Littleton, Colo., said he is pleased that the Zelinkos have the contract for the Toledo stadium, because he is the architect for the field.

“They're very diligent and very easy to work with. I'm looking forward to it,” Mr. Almond said.

Before they begin the Mud Hens project, Athletic Field Services will install a football field at Ohio University and begin the baseball project in late summer or early fall.

“We need to get the sod in before November,” Mr. Zelinko said, so there is some root development before winter.

The couple have detailed plans for drainage and irrigation and will begin by spreading more than 2,500 tons of gravel about four inches deep, then topping it with 4,000 tons of sand and Dakota Peat about eight inches deep.

A special bluegrass sod will then cover the field.

Mrs. Zelinko said rainwater should drain easily through the surface and collect in an area where it will be pumped away from the diamond.

“It is hard to believe, but fields can handle a rainfall of up to 12 to 15 inches of water in an hour. Not that you'd get that, but that's the capability,” Mr. Zelinko said.

He said the field in Lakewood was drenched with five inches of rain in 24 hours and it didn't have a puddle.

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