Basic baseball field maintenance

By Andy Ommen

One of the most frequent questions I get asked is “What is the most important tool you can have when maintaining a baseball field?” My answer is always “time.”

Baseball fields cannot be maintained on a whim or a moment’s notice, especially if you expect to provide your athletes a safe, quality playing surface. It isn’t a basketball floor that needs a mop, or a soccer pitch or football field that might need mowing. As long as there is wind blowing, grass growing, or rain falling you need to be on your field. And the result can be a safe, well-manicured ball diamond.

No matter how busy or how vacant your field is, you have to maintain it. So often I see high school fields left unattended and neglected in the off-season because nobody is around to take care of it. This is your time to perfect it with no deadline time constraints. Step up, make the effort and take the time to continue to maintain that field. The better you maintain it the less work and expense it will be when season rolls around and the safer the playing conditions. If your time is limited, prioritize by:

  • Safety
  • Playability
  • Consistency
  • Aesthetics

The second most important tool is attention to detail. It is the little things that matter so much. There is no more important area on your field than the 12 inches of grass or 12 inches of dirt from any of your dirt/grass transition areas. Keep your grade level between those areas. I tell my crew if they can close their eyes when they drive a vehicle off the infield skin into the grass and still tell when they are in the grass, we have a transition issue that needs to be addressed.

Take the time after every event to walk each line and pull every single piece of dirt out of those areas you see. It may seem small now, but if it repeats itself over and over hundreds of times, it will not be so small anymore. We walk the edges and hand pull any chunks of infield clay out of the grass, then we walk through with a broom and we broom the 12 inches of grass toward the infield dirt. This will pull loose material out and help maintain grade and prevent lip buildup. It is important to not broom the dirt away from the grass edge however, or this will have a negative effect on maintaining grade between the two areas.

We religiously drag our fields after every use. This is key. Take your time when dragging, pull the bases and stay away from the edges. We make sure we vary our points where we enter and exit the field every time as infield dirt will come off the tires of our vehicle into the grass. As always we stop well short of the grass and lift the drag to deposit any spoils in the drag screen on the field and do not pull it into the grass edges.

We also frequently nail drag our fields. If you can nail drag with some moisture on the field that is the best time. Buy or build a lightweight nail drag. You only want your nails penetrating ¼-½ inch at most so you do not need a lot of weight. I see people piling weights on their drags and digging up their infield skin. If you do that, you lose footing, playability, and you will have a swamp next time it rains. We are only loosening up ¼ inch of material to fill in spike marks and allow your drag to move material around.

After nail dragging we will then drag with a large mesh drag, then finish with just the end of a stiff steel drag using only about 6 inches of it. We try to do this entire process by maintaining moisture in the skin. If we can do this, the weight on the wheels of our vehicle help pack the material back together and provide an optimal surface. We also have a 1500-lb., pull-behind roller we will frequently use to make sure our skin stays packed firm.

These details are what separate a high-quality baseball field from an average to poor field. It not only promotes a safe playing surface but also attracts your better athletes. Are your better athletes going out for a different sport during baseball season? If they are, what does your baseball field look like in the off-season? If your baseball field is maintained to a high standard as they walk by, then they may want to be a part of that sport. If they walk by and see an overgrown infield loaded with weeds, rusted fences, poor playing conditions, why would they want to be a part of it? As an athlete, I would be thinking, “Is that the way the coach is going to coach his team?” Or, if the field is well maintained, athletes may well think that the baseball coaches know what they are doing!

As the groundskeepers of a six-field baseball complex we consider ourselves as having some of the highest quality youth fields in the Midwest. We consistently attract players we normally would not attract simply due to the quality of our facility. It’s awesome to hear people say, “I want to play there because of the fields.”

Easier maintenance for multiple fields

At my level and the budget my facility has and the 230+ games a year played on each one of my fields, it is impossible to maintain every field at a professional level of quality. However that does not mean you cannot put out a very high quality, safe product. Watching the little things and details becomes even more critical. Know the causes of your problems and focus on those.

From a turfgrass standpoint, we focus on high traffic areas and get ahead of them. If we wait until it is worn, it will be too late. We frequently solid tine aerate high traffic areas to loosen compaction. We also overseed those areas weekly. These areas are on-deck areas, front of mounds, and grass base-paths (if you have them). We rotate around the fields and try to hit every field at least 1x per week with seed in the wear areas. We also carry bottles of seed with us on our mowers. It is the best time to inspect your fields and put seed in any small areas needing it.

From an infield skin standpoint, it is a constant battle of maintaining grade. The better you maintain your grade, the quicker recovery you will have from rain. The best way to maintain grade is to constantly drag your fields with the bases pulled out. You should never drag a field with bases in place. This will only cause buildup around the bases causing an uneven grade and problems when it rains.

The offseason is when most of our work happens. If you take the time and pick away at little things, you can accomplish a lot during this time and do not need to scramble when season hits. Our fields go into winter dormancy game ready (except for paint).

If your budget is tight, simply start a turf management process with the infield grass only. Buy yourself a quality push mower and dedicate that mower to your infield grass only. Keep the blades sharp and mow a consistent height year around. Your infield grass is flat and square, so it is easy to maintain. Follow the 1/3 rule and never cut off more than 1/3 of your plant. If you do, it can damage the cells and make your turf more prone to injury and disease. You’re better off mowing more frequently and not cutting much grass, than mowing 1x per week and chopping off a lot of grass. I have always followed the rule, if it is growing, then mow it. I consistently mow my fields at game height, year around even when we are not playing. We train it to be healthy at game height.

Fertilize your infield. This is easy, inexpensive and not very time-consuming. Most of the game is played through the infield grass, which makes that grass sacred ground. This can be as involved as your budget allows. I recommend a good fertilizer application in the early spring and one in the late fall at a minimum. If you can get another application in during your growing season that is even better. Grass isn’t too different from humans; it performs best with constant supply of food.

We do not neglect tour infield skin in the off-season either. We consistently drag it several times a week so weeds will stay off the field. Not only do you keep it clean from weeds, but with proper dragging techniques you also correct the little grade problems your field has by dragging in dirt to low spots, etc. Vary your dragging patterns and continuously nail drag as well. If you have a heavy roller, roll your field when it is moist. A constant program of nail drag, mesh drag, and rolling will improve your infield skin.

When it comes to drags, I have a wide variety of drags depending on what I am looking to accomplish. My “go-to” drag is a stiff 6 x 2-foot small metal mesh drag. A common mistake I see is people using very large drags that will move a lot of material. This will help grade your field, but will also push around a lot of material. When I have my moisture and my fields dialed in, I may use about 2 inches of my mesh drag to fill in cleat marks and re-distribute my conditioner and do not disturb too much else. I also use a cocoa mat when the fields are a little moist. Again, not a large mat, but a smaller one to eliminate cleat marks and distribute conditioner. All of my drags are treated with the top respect; we properly hang them up and take care of them to maintain their shape.

I tell people this constantly, if you do not know, ASK. What I have learned in the past 13 years of doing this is how close the groundskeeper community is. We all work together to provide our athletes the best possible playing surface for your sport. If you don’t know turfgrass, search for a local professional sports turf manager. If you don’t know infield mix, reach out to those who take care of other facilities and find out what works for them. The Sports Turf Managers Association community is huge, and notably helpful to those seeking advice.

Take the time, make the effort—your athletes are worth it.

Andy Ommen is the head groundskeeper for McLean County PONY Baseball, Bloomington, IL.