Managing and repairing lips on baseball and softball fields

By Keith Winter

When it comes to the lips, or transition zones between turf and dirt on baseball or softball fields, a little effort each day can save a lot of time and money down the road. But even beyond the labor or dollars, player safety should always be a top concern whether you are maintaining a professional, collegiate, high school, or Little League playing surface. If a dramatic lip exists, sooner or later someone is going to have a bloody lip or nose, a black eye, or tender groin area from the ball hitting that lip and jumping up to “bite you.”

How do you know if your lip is unsafe? First of all, it’s pretty obvious to the naked eye if you have a raised area at any turf/dirt transition area. There will be a “hump.” If you can’t see it, you can always feel it. Put your foot half on the dirt, half on the turf. If your foot is level, life is grand! If you feel the bump, you have work to do. At the higher levels of infield maintenance, watching batting practice tells a lot. As ground balls travel through the infield, is the ball staying down? If it “jumps up” every time it moves from grass to dirt or vice versa, again, it’s time to go to work.

The best place to start is at the start. In the off-season, determine where your area of concern is. If the turf is high and your infield mix low, strip off your infield conditioner or topdressing and raise your dirt. Adding material in bulk and laser grading the entire skin is suggested, but if you don’t have the budget, “cheat” by adding some material along your edges. Bring in a roller and with half of the drum on the dirt and the other half in the turf, smooth and compact that edge until it is flush. We roll again in the spring after our winter freeze and thaw before we put the conditioner back on to make sure we have “baby’s bottom” edges going into the season.

If the transition zone of your turf area is raised from the ongoing battle with your infield material moving into your edge (from wind or water erosion or dragging too close to the edge) taking out that “bump” requires more time, effort, and the proper equipment. Unless you want to extend your inside or outside edge by simply cutting back the sod and grading away the excess dirt, using a sod cutter to strip the turf is suggested. Once the turf is pulled back, you can remove that compacted soil (again with your sod cutter or grading blade), and bring that elevated area back to flush. Replacing the same stripped sod, laying new sod, or seeding the area, will get that “bump” out of your way.

Now that you have done the work to have a flush edge, MORE work will keep it that way. These are the methods we use at the professional level to maintain all our turf to dirt transition areas:

Blow out loose conditioner or soil daily with a gas-powered blower. Move that loose material AWAY from the edge. One of our grounds crew does this on every edge after every game. When he is finished, there is a foot of “naked” infield mix exposed without conditioner.

Periodically sweep all edges with a stiff-bristled push broom. We do this at least once a week or after tarp pulls to get that conditioner back where it belongs. I call it “bump and push” as you bounce that broom over the turf to loosen the material and move it away from the edge.

Power wash the edges with pressurized water. We do this at least once or twice each season depending on the status of our build up. Instead of high volume, high pressure (1-inch hose), we go with a ¾-inch garden hose and easy controllable nozzle that can pinpoint where the water is going. High pressure, high volume water can get too deep into the crown of your turf plant and take a long time to recover. Our goal is to get the conditioner OUT of the turf, not to blow it up!

Edge, edge, edge! I don’t think you can edge too much. A gas-powered, belt driven, single blade edger is a relatively cheap investment. Change the blades often to give you the best and longest cutting surface. We string and edge all our warning track and infield edges before the start of every home stand, and often again when another team comes into town during that same home stand. That clean, edged look gets everyone’s attention. I’ve taken care of youth league and high school fields where all I did was edge, and people commented on how much better the field looked! Edging also helps you maintain that “transition zone” so you have a crisp and specific line to work with. If your edge is not distinct, the lip WILL build up in a relatively short period of time.

Drag and rake carefully! When dragging with any kind of pull-behind drag, stay a foot away from the edge. Loose soil and conditioner moves very quickly, especially when it is dry. When hand raking, develop a “touch” to bring your conditioner right to the edge, not over it or into the turf. We keep our edges “naked” until pre-game, so none of that conditioner is moving around during batting practice or infield. During pre-game work, we carefully cover the “transition zone” without piling it up.

These are some of the methods we use at the professional level. Depending on the amount of crew and time spent maintaining a high school or amateur field, you may not be able to devote this much attention to your edges or lips. However, a little work can go a long way in the prevention of material build up in your lips, which enhances player safety, as well as the overall aesthetic appeal of your field. Not only do clean edges catch the eye of spectators, but players at any level appreciate when they are not constantly on the lookout for the “bad hop.” Every little league coach tells youngsters to “keep your head down” when fielding a ground ball. As a groundskeeper (paid or volunteer), our efforts can go a long way in giving athletes the best chance to succeed.