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.
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.
Although not as much of a focal point as the infield, the outfield requires moderate maintenance as well. As with any sports field, the grass should be mown frequently and cut no more than one-third of its height at a time, since over-mowing results in turf stress and discoloration. Mowing frequently with sharp blades promotes plant growth, leading to dense turf and a better play area. Trust me, when players dive for a ball or skid across the field, they need turf dense enough to cushion their fall, but also strong enough to endure the stress of the fall itself.
Aeration is important as well. The greater the wear on the field, the more the soil will need aeration to expose air to the soil, promoting better water penetration and turf recovery. You should aerate two to three times per year, depending on the type of turf and the level of play on the fields. Fields should be dragged after aerations to eliminate large clumps of grass and dirt.
In addition to aeration, baseball field turf requires deep irrigation to promote root growth and turf health. If irrigation is too shallow, the soil is more likely to erode or compact, causing weeds to grow more quickly and decreasing overall turf health. The irrigation system must be checked to be sure that it is working properly and the turf should be monitored to strike the right balance between not watering enough and overwatering. Scheduling is also key since players should be off the field for at least one full day following watering.
Lastly, turf should be properly fertilized to ensure turf growth and better water uptake. Last February, the New York Yankees came to play at Virginia Tech as a memorial to those students and faculty lost in our 2007 tragedy. This honor was an opportunity to show off the school but also a huge challenge to get the turf looking perfect in the middle of winter, before the true season had begun. Luckily, fertilizer did the trick. I applied ROOTS endoROOTS on the field three weeks before the Yankees arrived, and the fertilizer made a difference in terms of both color and turf strength. Fertilizer is not just a quick fix for an attractive field though; use it throughout the year to maintain turf health and firm turf tissue.
Baseball field maintenance requires daily dedication and work, but the end result is a beautiful field that the staff and team can be proud of. Besides, who doesn’t like joining the cheering fans in the stands, eating a hot dog, and knowing that you helped make it all possible when you hear those sweet, sweet words: “Play ball!”
Jason Bowers is the Sports Turf/Athletic Grounds Manager at Virginia Tech University. Before his current position, he worked as an Assistant Superintendent at Whiskey Creek and Beaver Creek Country Club in Maryland, and as a Turf Specialist at Bozzuto Landscaping. He graduated from Virginia Tech with an Associate’s Degree in Agricultural Technology. Bowers can be reached at email@example.com.