Protecting The Great American Pastime

Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Jackie Robinson–you know their names, but do you know who maintained their fields? Personally, and I may be a bit biased, I believe that a good–and safe–baseball game requires not only athletic players, but also properly manicured fields.

This month, I’m outlining a few steps to help you maintain any baseball field–whether it’s used by varsity players or YMCAers. Every field has its own set of unique conditions, but following these key steps will pave the way for the next generation of All-Stars.

Mound And Base-Path Maintenance

What is baseball without the iconic pitcher’s mound and base paths? At Virginia Tech, I usually spend 90 percent of my time maintaining the infield because it is so important to the game. If a ball doesn’t roll just right or if it hits a lip and pops up, the players (and probably the coaches) are going to blame the field–which is why I pay special attention to the soil.

Probably the biggest problem I face going into baseball season is what I call “cake-batter soil.” Every winter here in Virginia, ice crystals form within the soil, causing it to expand. The sun thaws the crystals just in time for more to form. This freeze-thaw-repeat cycle causes the soil to become fluffy, like cake-batter, which is not good for traction.

To get the field ready for the first big game, I use heavy rollers and water to compact the soil. I usually wet the field first, and then drag the rollers across it, making note of any areas that become uneven and need filled in along the way.

Soil Conditioning

After compacting the soil, I apply soil conditioner. Similar to cat litter, soil conditioner helps absorb moisture and, conversely, helps hold moisture in the soil. To apply conditioner, I use a self-propelled in-field groomer. This is particularly useful since I can attach a drag mat to aerate the soil if it’s wet or needs to be smoothed out.

Maintaining soil moisture is not cut and dried–it’s almost an art form. Knowing how much water the soil needs is a key factor in deciding when to protect the field from rain, and when to let it fall. A field that’s too wet will require spending more time and money applying additional conditioner. A good rule of thumb is when a player’s cleats go into the soil, they should come out cleanly, leaving neat holes in the ground. If they sink in or rip up additional soil as they come out, the soil moisture is not what it should be.

In addition to soil conditioner, I like to hose down the field before a game to restore moisture, soften the ground, and keep dust down. I know that those of you who maintain public fields usually don’t have that luxury, but a regular watering schedule, particularly close to games, can help greatly.

Besides monitoring moisture, the infield also requires daily maintenance after each practice, such as sweeping loose soil and debris, blowing away lips that may have formed along baselines, tamping clay back onto the mound and batter’s box, covering the soil with field conditioner, and raking the infield smooth. I also edge about once or twice a month, but a particular turf may require more or less edging. I also rebuild the mound before each season, using survey equipment to ensure that the shape and size meet regulations.

Turf Maintenance

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