In the summer of 2000, Paul Zwaska left Major League Baseball and the Baltimore Orioles to return to his home state of Wisconsin to begin a new career with Beacon Athletics. With him, he brought the developmental plans for several ballfield tools. His favorite? The Level Board.
We sat down recently with Paul to reminisce about the level board, its history, and how it came to be at Beacon…
QUESTION: Why is the Level Board your favorite, and what makes it so important?
PAUL ZWASKA: I’ve found the Level Board to be invaluable on the infield. It’s so much more precise than any rake. Groundskeepers who master the use of this finesse tool develop a sixth sense about the surface grade. They can spot imperfections on the field so much easier than groundskeepers who just use a rake.
Question: So how exactly did the Level Board come to be?
PZ: I was introduced to this tool by my mentor, Pat Santarone. As a Major League Baseball Hall of Fame Groundskeeper, Pat had a wealth of information to share and was an amazing resource for me during the first six years of my career with the Orioles. Pat and his crew taught me the art of leveling infields with a string line and a level board (yes, that’s Paul in the photo). This was pre-1990, well before laser grading was an option.
For decades, the string line & level board combo was the preferred method for fine finish grading on high-level ballfields. The level boards that we were using at old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore (and later at Oriole Park at Camden Yards) were actually custom homemade tools.
PZ: Pat (pictured on the left with Paul) reached out to the Hollywood Base Company in the mid-1980s and tried to work with the then-California based company to make the level board. They had made level boards in Japan using the readily-available mahogany lumber for the long blade. But, Pat quickly realized that mahogany was not well suited for the boards — the Japanese wood was too straight grained, and the boards would too easily split in half. After that experience, Pat gave up looking for a way to have level boards made commercially.
Question: How did you help Beacon Athletics develop a quality Level Board?
Answer: We researched materials and settled on poplar as our choice for a better, more durable stock of wood to use for the blade of the board. We then placed a bevel on the backside of the blade, which is critical for the best floating action of the tool. On the front of the blade, we added a stainless steel strip to the cutting edge. That stainless steel strip far surpasses the performance and durability of a wood-only cutting edge, which can quickly wear down. Finally, we beefed up the bracing on the handle in order to reduce the stress where the handle meets the blade. All of those qualities made our level board ready for production.
Question: What has the response to the Level Board been like?
PZ: Groundskeepers love the level board. When you place a level board in the hands of the right groundskeeper, you’ll see artistry in action as they maintain a perfect grade to their infield.
I vividly remember the first time I sent the level boards out with our mid-game dragging crew at Oriole Park. I was at third base, using the level board to groom the corner and clean up after the draggers. Cal Ripken, Jr. looked over at me from short and said, “What the hell do you call that? A ‘board on a stick’?!”
That may actually be an accurate description to the average person, but I definitely consider the Beacon Level Board to be a must-have tool for any groundskeeper.