Make the dirt work for you

The key to great infield soil is finding the combination that fits your facility and budget and learning how to make that dirt work for you. There are nine players on a baseball or softball team, and only three of them play on the grass. To have a great field, you need great dirt. The good news is there’s always a way to make it work.

The mix

The ratio of sand to clay to silt depends on the geographic region and what the groundskeeper likes to work with. I’ve seen great infield soils that contain anywhere from 50 to 75 percent sand and anywhere from 15 to 35 percent clay and 15 to 35 percent silt. There are many companies that sell good infield soil mixes, and some are able to custom-blend a mix to meet the groundskeeper’s specifications.

Crew members wrap up the infield soil preparation with a rake, a mat drag and a broom.

In the early days, we didn’t have the broad range of soil conditioners that are available today. We just used sand to amend the infield dirt. Some groundskeepers got their sand from a foundry, so it was dark. They screened it to remove the impurities and the largest sand particles to get a more uniform material.

The first amendment that came out was called Lusoil, and Joe Mooney started using it in Boston. It was a grayish white material, and many of the players didn’t like it because the light color created a glare in the sunlight. The first calcined clay soil conditioner came out in the late 1950s.

Now there are many choices in soil amendments. I like many of them, and use different ones according to the existing field conditions, the weather pattern and what we want to accomplish. I look for a firm base, not too hard and not too soft, with a shallow lighter surface. When the players run on the base path, all I want to see in the infield soil are their cleat marks.

Working with water

You have to have water for your infield dirt. The key is knowing how much and when to put down it down. That can vary on the same field depending on the temperature; humidity level; sunny or cloudy sky; wind direction and speed; amount of shade and the location of that shade cast by the stadium, bleachers or other structures; the weather forecast; the timing of the last activity on the field for the day; the amount of moisture retained in the infield dirt following that event; and the timing of team practice or batting practice, any pregame activities and the game the next day.

Heat and cold, sunshine and shadow, winds and humidity are factors that affect infield soil conditions.

Preparation for the next day’s activities starts immediately after the last on-field event. Mound and home plate preparation and cleanup of the turf and infield areas come first. After that, many groundskeepers like to flood the infield and allow the water to soak in overnight. Some groundskeepers like to water lightly at night and water heavily early in the morning. I like to water at night, more like a good, gentle rain, but still a good soaking.

I also prefer hand-watering. I like a quick coupler and 1.5-inch line placed right behind the mound. The water needs to go down so the coverage is uniform, with no puddles or dry spots—another combination of art and science. Once the field is prepped for the day, it will need to be hand-watered periodically to keep it just the right consistency for practice and play.

Fields with inground irrigation systems often have a circle of irrigation heads placed in the grass just beyond the infield arc to wet down the dirt. In many parks and recreation situations, or school systems with limited labor power, these heads are the most effective way to water. A light syringe can keep surface moisture at an acceptable level in hot, dry conditions when there isn’t a large enough crew to make hand-watering practical. They’re also a good way to wet down the infield in a hurry when windstorms move in fast.

Infields should be sloped so the water will slowly run off that dirt. I’ve seen the slope vary from 3 to 5 inches within 50 feet or so, depending on the field and the dirt. The infield soil consistency and the degree of slope are right when, after a good, soaking rain, the field will dry down and be ready for play.

Sharp, clean turf edges line both sides of the base path. This pregame wet-down is one of the periodic light waterings from a hand-held hose that keeps the moisture in the infield soil at the desired level. This crew member works outward toward the grass edge so no footprints will detract from the smooth surface.

I do like to flood the field at times when the team is playing away, maybe once a week or so, depending on the weather conditions. I like to do the flooding at night, so the dirt will be ready to work the next morning.

Working the dirt

When the ballplayers complain about bad infields, a lot of times the problem is with the dirt. Sometimes it’s not the dirt, but the way the crew is working the dirt. I like to work the dirt myself and prefer to do it the old-school way, without mechanical equipment.

The drag is pulled behind a utility vehicle.

I like to use a 36-inch square nail drag, with the nails facing outward on one side and a flat surface on the other. Dragging that by hand does a great job of scarifying. I can feel the resistance while pulling the drag by hand, and have learned over the years just how deeply I want it to penetrate.

I like to start with a nail drag and follow that with a steel mat, like a topdressing drag. Some people work the dirt with a hand rake following the nail drag and finish up with a cocoa mat drag. Whatever is used, when you finish dragging the infield, take a corn broom or a housekeeping broom and sweep the grass to get the clay out of it to prevent lip buildup.

The mechanical field rakes, with multiple attachments, are a great asset to any baseball or softball program. With multiple fields to prep, and limited crews, they’re the most practical way to get the fields worked.

George Toma is an NFL Hall of Fame inductee, founder of the Sports Turf Managers Association and mentor to hundreds of sports field managers over his 66 years in the profession. If you have questions for him or would like to hear his take on a topic, drop an e-mail to tomatales@sportsfieldmanagementmagazine.com