On a recent Saturday in Oak Park, a 10-year-old boy engaged in some unusual behavior outside his family’s home: He voluntarily shoveled snow.
Sam Bilyk was trying to clear the family’s patio so he could kick around a soccer ball, said his father, Tom Bilyk.
“He’s not a shoveler,” Bilyk said. “Unless I’m paying him, that ain’t happening.”
But Sam’s options for play were limited. Soggy athletic fields in Oak Park and elsewhere in the Chicago area have meant that he and thousands of other youths eager to get outside and play their favorite sports after enduring a long winter will have to wait longer to do so this spring.
In many suburbs, the first youth baseball and softball games and soccer matches are often scheduled for the first weekend in April, but many of those contests are being delayed days and weeks because the fields are not playable. In Chicago, the Park District normally aims to have baseball fields ready by April 15, but that also might be delayed, a spokeswoman said.
“It’s been such a brutal, cold winter with so much snow, the ground is still thawing,” said Joe La Margo, spokesman for the village of Orland Park, where officials are aiming to open fields by the second week of April if the weather cooperates.
Dan Hurley, vice president of the Orland Youth Association boys sports program and coach of a baseball team for 8- to 10-year-olds, said he had optimistically scheduled a few games the first week in April.
His players and his two sons are “champing at the bit to get outside,” Hurley said.
Soggy surfaces combined with underground ice make the fields particularly fragile, said Travis Stephen, sports field manager for the Park District of Oak Park. Any use creates a “shearing” effect, ripping grass from its roots and requiring months of recuperation to fix, he said.
Stephen said professional baseball teams have expensive methods to repair fields, but Oak Park’s youth leagues will have to hope for sun.
“It’s just a matter of not having any more snow and getting temperatures above freezing,” he said.
Oak Park Youth Baseball and Softball canceled games scheduled for April 14, delaying the season’s start by a week. Recent pitching, base-running and fielding drills held in gyms and racquetball courts have whet players’ appetites for the real thing, coach Wil Greenwald said.
“It’s not the same, but it’s better than nothing,” Greenwald said.
Several feet of frost still lurk underneath park district fields in La Grange and the Wheaton-Glen Ellyn area, officials said.
“I would be here 30 years come June, and this is the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Larry Bower, the Wheaton Park District’s director of parks and planning. “The fields are very saturated. We’re very delayed.”
In recent years, kinder winters have allowed the fields to be ready for spring sports by as early as mid-March, Bower said. This year, staff won’t even stripe the fields yet, worried that the markings could draw eager players before the grass is ready.
Dean Bissias, executive director of the Park District of La Grange, said he expects spring sports teams will have to play double-headers to get in the usual number of competitions after the delays.
Chicago Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner said “extremely low temperatures” and resulting soil conditions could keep fields unplayable beyond mid-April.
About 20,000 children who play soccer through the American Youth Soccer Organization in Chicago and the near suburbs are also playing the same waiting game, said Vanessa James, an area director for the organization.
In Naperville, where soccer matches are scheduled to start April 5, outdoor practices this week were canceled, said Brad Wilson, director of recreation for the Naperville Park District.