Keeping infield skins safe through the summer

Many volunteers around the country manage infield conditions at local fields, often without much if any professional oversight. We asked some STMA members for advice for those less experienced in keeping baseball and softball skins safe throughout a summer.

Q: We know sweeping out water from low spots can create a larger puddle the next rain. How do you repair low spots in infield dirt areas?

Andrew Siegel, University of Texas-Arlington: The past few years we’ve run between 95-115 summer games in June/July. We don’t sweep or squeegee wet spots. We may suck water with a shop vac or work in calcined conditioner.

Joe Barr, Milton Hershey School, PA: The most effective practice to low spot repair is to be constant and persistent in maintaining the infield skin. During the season requires routine efforts of the high-traffic areas. I also know firsthand this is something that is a very difficult task for many of us managing multiple fields. In my situation there are just two of us. We prep 15 different playing fields for seven different sports.

Patrick Jonas, CSFM, Charleston, SC: First, we avoid sweeping water from low spots, and instead use hand pumps to remove the excess water, then use absorbent puddle pillows to get the rest of the water. To repair the low spots I have a pair of leveling bars that I drag behind the tractor as often as I can. This technique works well for small low spots. If low areas get larger and deeper I simply just take the tractor out there and with the front bucket move the high areas into the lower areas and then try to touch it up with the leveling bars. Most of our fields are so flat it’s fairly easy for me to eyeball, so I don’t really ever rely on laser grading.

David Presnell, CSFM, Gainesville (GA) City Schools: You should never sweep out a puddle. We try and just let them sit until they’ll soak in. If you don’t have that time then take a sponge or pump and remove the water. I like to mark the puddle and then come back and fill it in with clay. You can smooth and level it with a long board. I strongly believe in laser grading the skin every year to avoid this.

Dave Anderson, Hempfield (PA) SD: One thing that baseball fields at all levels must deal with is wet weather. While professional fields are tarped and cared for by trained grounds people, the local community field rarely receives that kind of protection.

If that’s the case that field may be unplayable following a moderate to heavy rain. Since the game must go on, no matter what, volunteer coaches, parents, and sometimes players come out to attempt to dry the field. And while there efforts are commendable, the practices they use to dry the field can sometimes do more harm than good.

One of the most common practices is to take a broom or rake and push away the water that has accumulated in low spots on the field. Doing this may get today’s game in, but it also makes those low spots even deeper and causes a bigger problem the next time it rains. I’ve also seen people push or rake the mud out from the skin area and into the grass areas.

First of all, if the field is too wet either saturated or has puddles, leave it alone and cancel the game. No team’s game is more important than the next, so there is no sense trying to get a game in if it harm’s the field or makes more work for the next team’s coaches or volunteers. The simplest and most logical solution to the wet field with low spot puddle problems is to not allow the low spots to form in the first place. Following games and even practices, teams should rake the usual low areas, around the mound, the batter’s box and around the bases. Raking these areas to keep them reasonably level would take no more than 5-10 minutes following games or practice. Involving the players in this would also give them a sense of ownership of the field and help teach them responsibility.

Investing in a cheap vinyl tarp weighted down with something like sandbags and covering the plate and mound areas can keep those areas reasonably dry. If the budget allows it might be good to buy some infield conditioner or a drying agent to help dry smaller puddles. However, the best solution for low spots is the old ounce of prevention adage and rake the low spots level following each field usage.

Keith Lehman, Pine Grove Area (PA) SD: Concerning low areas I would first try and correct the practices that have created them. If the infield mix area was laser graded during construction the low area has probably been created by using the same drag pattern over a lengthy period of time; I have also created them often by being too aggressive when opening the mix to allow for game day drying. The aggressive opening loosens mix that can more easily be moved.

Being the head baseball coach, I sometimes forget what hat I have on when prepping our field for games, which usually creates a future headache for the groundskeeper. To repair a low area first I will try and determine if an excessive high area is close by and I will open that area manually or with equipment and gather and deposit the loose mix in the low spot. If this process isn’t possible I will mark the area after a rain and when dry I will add mix from my stockpile. Whichever process I use I try and level to the best of my ability, tamp or roll (even with equipment tires) and then give a good soaking overnight.

Q: What skin conditioning product and/or maintenance practice do you recommend if your skin is getting too hard mid-season?

Jonas: I seem to never have a problem with my fields getting too hard during the season as I used to in the past, (if anything they’re way too soft), but due to the fact that we have smaller kids playing on the fields, that works toward our advantage. That wasn’t always the case, I had to add calcined clay to the fields, and learn the art of moisture management of the clay. Of the four game fields I manage, we have quick couplers so we can fairly easily add the water that we need to.

Presnell: We keep a topcoat on the clay during the season. Moisture is the key to keeping your clay from getting to hard. You have to find the perfect amount so it’ll stay firm but not to hard. You’ve gotta maintain the moisture through the entire skin profile. If you’re still to hard you can always nail drag the clay.

Lehman: Moisture is the key; if the moisture does not come naturally and a water source is not available at the field I feel it is that important to exhaust any other options that are possible, starting with the local fire department. Knowing the composition of your mix and if there is any available money a calcined clay product to help retain some moisture could be incorporated into the top 1 inch of mix.

Anderson: On low maintenance fields, it is probably better to use the less expensive infield mixes; they have a higher percentage of sand to clay and this helps the field drain better following a rain. However, during the hotter and drier times of the summer these fields too, will become hard and compacted. Continuous mat dragging of the field can add to the compaction problem, so it is good to occasionally use something to scarify the field to a depth of about a ½ inch or so.

If the budget allows its always good to incorporate an infield conditioner to help alleviate compaction. This material can be worked into the top ½ inch or so of the infield mix. Infield conditioner is either of a vitrified or calcined clay material and will help manage moisture, relieve compaction and help make the field safer and more playable.

Siegel: During the season when the team is gone, we sweep all product out of low areas. I will flood it overnight then till first thing in the morning. After that we will work in fresh infield mix and till, smooth, pack and flood. During the summer we don’t get as much down time to repair. We will if we can but August is usually time for a major skin grade/renovation.

Barr: I volunteer for three youth leagues in my area and this is always an issue, as many fields do not have water nearby. I believe moisture is the key. If you have access to a water hose, I suggest you wet the dirt area down completely late in the day and let it dry overnight. In the morning lightly moisten the dirt area in preparation for dragging. Then spike drag slowly, lightly scratching the dirt. Next drag the field with a steel metal drag mat. When finished lightly moisten the dirt area once again.

In fact last year we were so desperate for water on our field we used a spray tank cleaner and neutralizer to clean our 50-gallon spray tank. We then filled it with water and used this to moisten the dirt area. It worked. Where there is a will there is a way.

Q: Your skin is wet and soft and there’s a game schedule for that evening or the next day. What do you do to make it playable?

Presnell: When the skin is wet I’ll try and let it sit as long as possible. If we need to speed up the process I like to take leaf rakes and loosen the top up, spread dry product with a push spreader and repeat this process until you’re able to hand drag. If we have time we’ll hand drag until it’s dry enough to machine drag.

Anderson: Soft fields take time to become firm enough to be playable. If the field is too soft you let the field dry and cancel the game. However, with tight league schedules that is not always possible. The biggest factor in drying a soft field is the weather. In the early spring when the weather is cool, or when days are overcast and cloudy soft fields dry more slowly. Wind can help, but even on cloudy and cool days wind can make little difference. The best weather factors for drying are a combination of wind and sun. Wait as long as possible to get the field ready.

If you determine that the field is firm enough to play on (you can walk on it without your foot making a noticeable impression in the infield mix) do your best to make it playable. If the field is still too soft to drag properly, keep equipment off. Rake the areas such as the batters and pitching areas as best as can be done. This is why it is beneficial that the previous teams that played or practiced on the field rake these areas after their use, to keep those low spots from forming causing water to accumulate and making these areas especially soft.

If the field is soft but firm enough for play, I like to use a liner with aerosol paint to line the batters box and baselines, instead of a liner that uses the traditional powdery chalk material. The aerosol liner is much lighter and will not make impressions like the heavier chalk liner will. Sometime after the game when it is determined that the field is firm enough to handle some equipment, lightly scarify and drag the field to level it out and make it more “game ready” for the next group to use it.

Siegel: We work in vitrified conditioners throughout the season. If we get caught too wet, we will topdress a calcined conditioner then nail drag it in. After we screen drag, if it’s still spongy, we will roll it with roller (if it wants to run that day) or the tires of a Workman.

Barr: Starting immediately after the rain ends and working on the field will increase your chances of getting a game in. However my theory is, if it’s too soft to walk on, you should not be on it. Then we wait. If you have standing water, you can use a puddle sponge, wet/dry vacuum, or a puddle pump to remove the water from the field. This is critical to giving the field a chance to dry. Do not push or pull it with the broom this will make it worse and spread the water creating a deeper hole. Next use a field rake to open the field. Just one pass over the soft wet areas, the idea here isn’t to move the dirt or go back and forth, but to just slice open the field evenly. Now let the sun and wind to do their magic. A drying agent can be used on the really wet areas. However this will turn to a paste and eventually get very hard. Therefore at your earliest opportunity remove the material completely. As your field approaches its final drying stages lightly and evenly apply your infield conditioner. This will help maintain a smooth, cushioned, playable surface for superior traction and player safety and absorb excess moisture.

Jonas: We will make a choice depending on how much time we have until the start of the game, to use ether coarse or fine calcined clay. If we have the time I prefer going with coarse calcined clay, it makes a better clay conditioning for the infield. We only use the fine particle product for when we need the field playable right away. I like to minimize using quick drying agents as much as possible. If we have adequate time before the next game, we will get a machine on to the field as soon as we can to open the clay up, which increases the surface area for the sun and wind, and start letting the clay dry out. This is where you have to know your field and how fast it can dry under different circumstances, such as the amount of rain you received, outside temperature and wind speed. Some of our fields perk water very well. Other fields I know will need a little bit of help with some calcined clay.

Lehman: To prep a wet and soft skin area I would first manually remove any water that has puddled in the low areas. Digging a hole in the middle of the low spot and scooping into a 5 gallon bucket or if the area contains a large volume of water and an electrical outlet is in the area using a submersible pump is a possibility. Always refrain from any sweeping/brooming action or you will be creating a larger area for the next rain. After this it is important to open the mix with equipment or manually to expose more surface area to the sun and any air movement to help in the drying process. As mentioned earlier, try not to be too aggressive while opening the mix or there is a good chance you will be creating a bigger problem for the future. There are plenty of infield mix drying products available to assist but when time permits and the natural methods are available I feel it is best to let them take care of the process as much as possible.