This view from the third base side of SafecoField shows the consistent infield surface and the perfectedges between the infield clay and the grass.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE SEATTLE MARINERS GROUNDS CREW.
Years of experience, extending from their first days in baseball and moving through the ranks on the crew, equip head groundskeepers at the professional level to deal with baseball infield repair and problem resolution.
In 2011, Bob Christofferson starts his 11th season as head groundskeeper with the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field. For Clay Wood, it’s the beginning of the 17th season as head groundskeeper for the Oakland Athletics at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
At all levels, groundskeepers will have different priorities based on the time of year. During the playing season, the prime focus is getting each field in the best possible condition for each game.
Develop a plan
Both groundskeepers note an increase in phone calls for advice in late February and early March as field managers are getting their fields ready for practice. Depending on what field conditions were going into the winter that could be a monumental task. Making improvements in the spring is more difficult due to the day-to-day maintenance that must take place. So, if you haven’t already, make this the year to develop a long-range plan to undertake major projects at the end of the playing season. Plan only essential projects prior to startup. Allocate minor projects to when the team is away or, for municipal fields or sports complexes, for those short breaks between field users’ organized play schedules.
The topdresser operator and the observer followingbehind it work as a team to ensure consistency duringan application of calcined clay.
The first step is assessing current resources. Christofferson says, “Be realistic as you look at the conditions of each field and what you have to work with. How much equipment do you have? How much labor is available at specific times? Can you drag and prep each field daily? Does your budget allow for 10 tons of calcined clay, 1 ton or none? Do you have a readily accessible water source at each field with sufficient water pressure and the right kind of connections, hoses and nozzles for good infield water management? If not, what can you accomplish with what you have?”
This shot of dragging the infield shows the patternsof multiple passes in the infield clay.
Base the expectations for best game-time conditions for each field on this assessment. For multiple fields within a parks and recreation system, that might be daily prepping and lining. For others, it might be once-a-week basic field prep, with daily safety inspection and pregame lining, with all other field work handled by volunteers.
Whatever the situation, Wood says, “Establish a starting point, the best level you can achieve for the start of the playing season based on those current resources and conditions. Map your strategy to keep the field as close to that level as possible during the season and to that point, and preferably even better, when you close it down for the winter.”
When staffing is limited, find volunteers. Both recommend those at the high school level work with coaches to get players involved in field maintenance. Wood says, “As a high school catcher, I was responsible for the home plate area. After each game, I’d rake in the area and fill in the holes. I’d come back the next day at my lunch period to tamp it. When each player concentrates their efforts on their position spots and takes responsibility for them, they’ll develop a sense of ownership that reflects on the overall program.”
Search for additional material resources, too. Christofferson says, “We put our calcined clay on top of the infield dirt, then use the nail drag to work it into the top inch to keep the moisture near the surface. We replace that top layer of infield material about seven or eight times a year, donating the used material to local high school and parks and recreation fields. We also donate our used rakes when it comes time to replace them. Other programs do similar things.”
Whether working only with a paid staff or incorporating the assistance of volunteers, establish proper maintenance procedures at the beginning of each season and make sure they’re followed year-round. Wood says, “Bring your staff and volunteers to hands-on training sessions provided by the leagues, chapters, turfgrass associations or the infield material suppliers, or arrange for one of the pro-level groundskeepers like us to give a preseason seminar.”
Bob Christofferson, head groundskeeper for the Seattle Mariners (at the head of the hose), says moisture managementis the most important part of the infield prep program.
Correctly spiking and dragging the base paths will prevent several problems. Christofferson says, “When you spike or drag the infield, the wind will blow the loose material. You also may create high or low spots if you start and stop at the same point each time. That’s why we keep the spikes and drags away from the edge of the grass; vary the starting point; and work in different directions and in patterns ranging from loops to circles to crisscross.”
Low spots will form in the dirt where the players stand. Christofferson says, “As they move, their spikes make those areas soft and the material loose.” Wood adds, “Too often, volunteers wanting to help resort to a quick fix that makes things worse. They’ll drag the entire infield with a flexible drag that pulls the loose material from those sections and deposits it on other spots. They could use a stiff or rigid drag that would move loose material from high spots back into those low spots, or they could use rakes around those sections to move the loose dirt back into the low spots, tamp it down to harden it and water it to keep it in place.”
Understanding how soil amendments work is key to using them effectively. Christofferson says, “The more calcined clay you have on the infield, the more moisture it will retain, so if the budget allows, apply calcined clay to the entire base path. With a limited supply, use it sparingly to dry down a wet area.”
With moisture management, even when a good water source is available, the lack of labor and time are major factors. In this situation, both encourage watering the infield whenever the opportunity arises. “When volunteers handle most daily field maintenance, postgame might be the best time to properly drag and repair the infield, water it heavily and leave it overnight, says Wood.
“When it comes to problem solving, set your priorities,” Wood says. “Determine the worst aspect of the field and tackle that first. Lips are the biggest safety issue. An uneven transition from grass to dirt at the front of the base path can cause a dangerous ball hop. A lip at the back of the base path could be a tripping issue.”
This shot of rolling the infield clay shows the level transition from clay to grass along all edges of the infield.
Identify the real problem. Christofferson says, “A lot of people keep adding dirt to the infield thinking they’ve lost it to player’s spikes, when the actual cause is a buildup of dirt in the grass edge. If the buildup is minor, use a short break during the season to wash out the excess. Put a nozzle on a hose that will put out a solid stream of water at high enough pressure to move the dirt. Start just beyond the furthest point of the buildup, usually about 4 inches from the edge of the clay, gradually washing the dirt back onto the base path. When that process is completed, work the base path to bring the dirt that has been dislodged back to the correct level. You want a smooth transition, with no difference in the level between the dirt and the grass. I like to close my eyes and step along the base path seeing if I can tell by feel if I’m on dirt or grass and correcting any area that doesn’t feel just right.”
When the buildup is great, lower the grass edges and make them flat. If necessary, make it a postseason project. If you can’t tackle the entire base path at once, split it into thirds, first base to second base, second to third and third to home. Set up a repeating cycle, so at the minimum each section is reworked every third year.
This view from behind home plate at Safeco Field shows the perfect edges between the infield clay and the grass.
Christofferson says, “Run string lines to reestablish the field dimensions. Use a sod cutter to cut out three strips of grass. After the sod is lifted away, remove any excess material at the edge of the skinned surface of the base path. If the budget won’t cover replacing this sod, move the strip that was farthest from the base path into position closest to it. Put the middle strip back in that position and put the grass that was closest in the farthest position. Make sure each section is level as you put it in place.”
If the pitcher’s mound is not tarped, rain or irrigation will wash some of the material from the mound into the surrounding turf. Wood says, “Probably 95 percent of the fields without mound tarps have a raised level around the mound because of the buildup of material. Use the same procedures used for lip repair to rectify it.”
Both urge monitoring playing conditions throughout the season to identify any problem areas and determine how to correct them when time allows. “There’s always a solution, no matter how limited the budget, Christofferson says. “Applying the resources you have for even a temporary solution is 100 percent better than doing nothing.”
The author is a contributing editor for SportsField Management.