The importance of infield maintenance

Ah, the baseball diamond. The smell of fresh-cut grass. The perfect contrast between the light green and dark green stripes of the turf. A well-maintained sports field can be visually impressive, but the grass is only part of the picture.

Andy Ommen manages moisture on the infield.

“Everybody notices the 2.5 acres of grass that are on baseball fields, but the most important part to me always is the infield dirt. Only three people stand on grass in the entire game and everybody else is on the dirt. So, I do spend an enormous amount of time on the dirt part,” says Andy Ommen, head groundskeeper for McLean County Pony Baseball in Bloomington, Ill.

Ommen manages six fields at the McLean County complex, all of which are heavily used. Each field supports 245 games per year. Keeping the infield dry and level is imperative so the many leagues that play on the fields can complete their schedules.

To keep the infield mix game ready, Ommen uses Turface infield soil conditioners and drying agents to smooth out the surface or for spot-drying wet patches in the infield soil.

“It’s moisture management, so when it’s dry outside you put water on it. Turface helps retain water to keep the field a little bit softer. We are in an unbelievable drought right now. I can pour hundreds of gallons of water on my infield mix and get it softer and it lasts longer. With Turface, that moisture stays in the field. Likewise, when it rains heavily, it works like a sponge. It helps manage that, maintains traction that the fields need when it gets a little bit more water than we’d like,” Ommen explains.

Jeff Langner is a brand manager for Turface, manufactured by Chicago-based Profile Products. He details how the product is made.

“We take a clay, a very unique clay. We mine it, screen it, kiln fire it so it converts into a ceramic. We’re changing the mineral composition. We change it to become a material very hospitable to rootzones and products for moisture management on skinned infields,” Langner says. The end result is a material that “creates a moisture reservoir on the top 4 inches of the infield mix.”

Langner suggests using a rototiller to apply the infield conditioner.

Keeping the infield dry and level is imperative.

“To amend the top 4 inches, we recommend 18 to 20 percent by volume of Turface. On a 90-foot field, that’s 8 to 10 tons of material. You rototill in that amount of product. Once you get to that 18 to 20 percent of Turface, now you’ve permanently modified the infield and created a very high level of air space to prevent compaction over time. When it first rains it will suck in excess water, instead of the clay becoming slippery and slimy. Over time, as the field dries out, it starts to release mixture into the infield mix. It keeps it moist over time, holds onto moisture and slowly releases [it].”

Since he started using the Turface infield conditioners and drying agents on his fields, “we’ve gone from playing 60 to 70 percent of our games in the schedule from April 1 to July 31 to playing about 83 percent of the games simply because of the use of those products and using the right techniques. Where [before] if we got rain we’d be done for two or three days waiting for the fields to dry, we can turn those [fields] over real quick now and get them back to playing. It just provides a more consistent baseball experience for the kids, and a better experience for everybody involved.”

While on a vacation in Arizona a few years ago, Ommen stopped at the California Angels’ spring training facility at Tempe Diablo Stadium and noticed the maintenance crew laying down paint instead of chalk for the infield lines. After a chat with some of the staff there, Ommen returned to Illinois and changed over from chalk lines to paint.

Turface infield soil conditioners and drying agents are applied to an infield.

“One thing that drives me crazy about home plate in baseball parks is the big cloud of dust. The umpire can’t see how to make a call because there’s a big cloud of dust, so we went to paint and it’s really cut down on our maintenance. We don’t have to scrape the chalk away all the time. The chalk is a really fine dust particle, where the paint lays on top of topdressing on the Turface. It puts down a nice line. It’s maybe not quite as crisp, but it stays longer, lasts longer. It’s not as hard on the kids, it doesn’t get in their eyes. And then it’s easy to change and move around. Chalk, over time, you get actual material that builds up. Paint is a little more expensive than chalk, but the savings on the back end is just huge,” Ommen notes.

More important, switching from chalk lines to paint has made the game more accessible to the Little League players.

“Even down to the little kids who are trying to catch for the first time, they don’t get that big puff of dust in their face when they’re trying to make a play and learning how to catch the game. I’ve seen so many kids get fearful of playing the position because of that, and it’s been a real treat to see that kind of impact on the game,” Ommen says.

With a staff of volunteers, Ommen has learned first-hand how important proper training of staff can be.

“For example, one field we had playing fantastic in March and April, then a single person in about two hours caused me seven rainouts,” Ommen said.

A well-meaning volunteer saw a wet patch and rather than apply a drying agent, took some heavy machinery and a rake to the area. The result was loose soil that only an asphalt roller could compact hard enough to make it playable.

What the volunteer should have done was focus on the top quarter inch of soil by using a drying agent and a good rake to spread the material.

Proper use of good tools is important, Ommen says. He goes to seminars to learn the proper techniques and then teaches them to the dads, coaches and other volunteers at his facility.

To keep the infield mix game ready, Ommen uses Turface infield soil conditioners and drying agents to smooth out the surface or for spot-drying wet patches in the infield soil.

“You don’t just rake a field, you do it the right way. There’s a proper technique. It’s funny, I’ll do seminars and say, ‘I’m going to teach you guys how to rake,’ and they look at me like I’ve got six eyes. But then I say, ‘No, really, let me show you the difference and what it can do.’ Each one of my fields has about 245 games on it per year, so my analogy to this is: You take a cup of dirt, just one cup of dirt, and throw it in the grass; that’s not a big deal, but you throw 245 cups in the grass, you get about a 10-gallon bucket, or more, full of dirt sitting in the grass. It will cause a huge issue. So, everything you do, if you multiply that by 245, then you realize how important it is to watch the edges of [the] infield. The grass to dirt lips, you need to really keep an eye on those,” Ommen says.

Midwest Rake, based in Warsaw, Ind., makes a tool called the Field Rake, designed with an increased height on the striking edge that makes it easier to spread out drying agents. The flip side of the tool has teeth to level out the surface.

Joel Bowers of Midwest Rake says the company also makes a tool called the Monster Broom. This 7-foot broom can be used in place of a drag mat.

“About the third inning, five guys will come out and go out in the skinned areas to take out the footprints and sliding marks with drag mats, but if they use the Monster drag broom, you don’t need as many people. Drag mats are typically 3 to 4 feet wide. The Monster Broom is 7-feet wide, so you don’t need two extra guys. You get more coverage per person. High schools, colleges, Little League fields, they don’t have 15 guys to do field maintenance, they have one or two, so you can get more work done for less energy,” Bowers says.

The hoop-style handle on the Monster broom has hooks that allow it to be hung from a chain-link fence for easy storage during games.

Using the right tools and being open and willing to try new things has been the key to Ommen’s success. He’s been maintaining the ball fields at his complex for nine years. “It’s been a great ride for me,” he says. “I love doing it.”

Stacie Zinn Roberts is the president of What’s Your Avocado?, a writing and marketing firm based in Mount Vernon, Wash.