“Climate is what we expect; weather is what we get.”
When famed author Mark Twain made that proclamation so many years ago, he likely wasn’t talking about groundskeepers and field managers. Nevertheless, this statement is at the essence of what these professions are about as groundskeepers and field managers ready their infields for play when spring rolls around.
After all, between 70 and 85 percent of a baseball or softball game is played on the infield. That makes the infield the most crucial part of a playable, top-notch field once the bats start hitting the balls.
But let’s go back to the weather – the ever-changing, incalculable, erratic weather. For most groundskeepers and field managers, dealing with the weather – especially around Opening Day – is the biggest challenge of how and when they can prepare their infield and pitcher’s mound for the beginning of the season and day-to-day operations.
“The biggest challenge for me is always the weather,” says Kelly Rensel, head groundskeeper at Pioneer Park, home of the Greeneville (Tennessee) Astros, the rookie-level affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros. “Our game times don’t change too much, so the crew and I can have a good daily routine, but the weather can always change things. I usually have my phone glued to my hand, looking at radar.”
Working in the Mid-Atlantic, Mike Kerns is used to weather patterns dictating how he prepares his infield.
“It’s all based off the weather,” says Kerns, head groundskeeper at Arm & Hammer Park, home of the Trenton (New Jersey) Thunder, the Class AA affiliate of the New York Yankees. “Our spring is based off what happens in the fall. We can catch an early, or late, spring snowstorm. We have to wait [for the field] to dry out … to get it ready to go.”
Even if the field has been buried in snow, at some point, someone has to say ‘Play ball!,’ which means the infield and pitcher’s mound has to be ready.
So what’s all involved, during the preseason and each day during the season? What keeps that great reddish-brown expanse looking good?
Preseason infield prep
Conditions in Georgia happen to be slightly more conducive to preparing an infield as early as possible, as opposed to, say, New Jersey. Chris Ball, sports turf manager at Coolray Field, home of the Gwinnett (Georgia) Braves, Class AAA affiliate of the Atlanta Braves, is fine with that.
Ball begins laser-grading his infield in December or January, because of a full schedule of high school baseball games scheduled mid-February through mid-March.
“Usually that gives us two to three full weeks until [the Gwinnett Braves] get into town,” Ball says of his preseason preparation schedule. “So, we start with the laser grade and, anytime we can get out, we add our conditioners and our calcined clay and mixes into it, and we are continually nail dragging it, rolling it, just really trying to work it. This gives you a chance to make everything level, for example, if you have any low areas that need addressed.”
Groundskeepers, pro and amateur, recommend using caution when nail dragging the field so as to not create a lip of infield material at the edges of the grass. That lip can trip players and trap water on the field, preventing it from draining properly.
Turface Athletics, manufacturer of infield mixes, conditioners and other products, recommends that when dragging you never start and stop in the same place that you did the previous day. Repetitive dragging paths make the field uneven, and dragging equipment can carry or move the infield mix, resulting in first base ending up a couple of inches lower than third base. Instead, vary start and stop locations as well as the drag pattern.
Keith Winter, head groundskeeper at Parkview Field, home of the Fort Wayne (Indiana) TinCaps, the Class A affiliate of the San Diego Padres, does all of his infield prep work in the fall – weather permitting – so that the work is less daunting when spring arrives.
“We bring the [1- to 3-ton) roller in to get everything compact and good, and then we go ahead and open it up a little bit, to let air out, then we add our conditioners,” says Winter, who has won the Sports Turf Managers Association Class-A Sports Turf Manager of Year award two consecutive years. “This puts us in a position where … we wait on the weather and then we can fine-tune the infield for the start of our games. You can’t fool Mother Nature; you’ve got to let her do her thing.”
Mentioning the mound
Like every other part of the infield, the pitcher’s mound needs maintenance before the season and every day during – and most groundskeepers take care of their mound after each game.
“We rebuild our mound postgame,” Winter says. “I have a guy, that’s his baby. He’s packing that mound and getting it where we want it as soon as the game’s over.”
Once the TinCaps go on the road for play, he adds, his staff does more extensive work on the mound. For example, they’ll use their mound gauge to check the slope and do any necessary fine-tuning.
“I believe, on a mound, if you stay up with it and do it every night, and you have a guy who knows what he’s doing out there, then you’re not trying to reinvent the wheel on an ongoing basis,” Winter says.
Long before preseason, Ball installs new rubber on his mound in mid- to late-September, grades it to Major League specifications, then “puts it to bed for a couple of months.”
“When we come out again in the spring, we uncover it, and we know the moisture stayed in there really, really nice,” Ball says. “We scratch it up a little bit, water it to get the moisture content to where we want it, make any amendments we need to make, put some topdressing on it and then play on it.”
As a refresher, the Major League specification for distance between pitching rubber and home plate is 60 feet, 6 inches, and the top of the mound rubber must be 10 inches higher than home plate.
Day-to-day infield happenings
Talk to groundskeepers enough about day-to-day infield maintenance, and the phrase “cleat-in, cleat-out” tends to come up often.
For example: “I think nail dragging is very important to get rid of cleat marks … get a deep moisture level and [keep] the infield wet,” Rensel says. “Those practices can help ensure the ‘cleat-in, cleat-out’ effect rather than the infield chipping or chunking up.”
“Cleat-in, cleat-out” is the ideal condition for the infield, basically turning it into a giant corkboard – no chunks flying around when cleats go in smoothly, and cleats go out smoothly.
To get these ideal conditions at Parkview Field, Winter stresses the importance of a good infield mix, meaning the correct ratios of sand, silt and clay to ensure proper drainage, grading and overall health.
“Once you have [the proper mix] in place, then you’re just dealing with moisture management,” Winter says.
Moisture management – the practice of watering infields, how much and how often – has become almost a cultural practice among groundskeepers and turf managers. This aspect, perhaps more than any other, can make the difference between a good infield and an award-winning infield.
“I stand behind this every day,” Winter says. “Again, if you have the right infield mix, they’re designed to take a lot of water, and that’s when they play their best.”
“I probably spend roughly two hours a day watering our skin,” Winter adds. “Trying to get it wet, then trying to get it wet again and then wet again. Moisture management is huge part of a groundskeeper’s role on a professional level. It is a cultural practice.”
In Trenton, Kerns takes advantage of the team’s policy that the park is closed two days before all home stands, which gives his crew a chance to work on the watering aspect before the Thunder returns.
“Then, during game day, we will start [watering] every hour,” Kerns says. “Something’s getting some type of water, some amount of water is being put on the infield in those hours. If [the team] comes to me in the morning and says ‘We’re going to do early work at 1 o’clock,’ then I know the last heavy water I can put on the infield skin is 12 or 12:15, (depending on the) weather. It becomes most of our day, just checking [moisture], constantly going out and putting a key or a knife in the soil, seeing if it’s drying out.”