Moisture management to improve your infield

By Wes Ganobcik

It is almost impossible to describe proper moisture management without going into great depth on the many considerations made regarding every aspect for infield mix management. This will be a description of how we approach the infield over a 24-48 hour period of time.

Leading up to a home stand, we are working toward proper moisture at least 2 days in advance. The preference is to maintain good moisture at all times, but some situations call for the clay to dry out. At our facility, we have two dirt zones in our irrigation system, one on the inside edge and one along the back arc. Several times over those two days leading up to a home stand, we will run the dirt zones for 15-25 minutes at a time and “flood” the infield. To flood the infield, we irrigate to a point where there is standing water on the surface of the material. We allow that water to soak in, and then go through the process again. A depth of 3 inches is what we are maintaining and trying to create proper moisture within.

We will use our 1-inch hose to supplement areas that the irrigation doesn’t get as evenly while the team is on the road. All watering is done by hand with the hose on game days. At our facility, we use well water and our pump gives us 90-100 PSI.

A big factor that must be taken into consideration is whether or not the clay was allowed to dry out before reintroducing moisture. If the infield was able to dry out and become dusty, much more care must be taken when watering because the dirt will then become soft and muddy until rolled tight again. If moisture was maintained within the material, it is much easier to get back to proper game moisture. The retained moisture should keep the infield much tighter and firmer, keeping the integrity under foot or machine.

Weather dependent

Depending on weather, we will then get the infield skin “game ready” either the day before a home stand or on the morning the home stand starts. My goal is for the infield to be at full saturation and the conditioner on the surface to be at a point of just beginning to dry.

My first step is to use either an aluminum lute rake or 7-foot broom to “flip” the conditioner. This is as simple a process as going over the infield very lightly with one of those tools in order to get the conditioner to sit up on the surface and not be compacted down into the dirt from watering. The goal is to get to a point where the conditioner is dry on the surface, but the infield skin is still at full saturation underneath.

That process may take two or three passes with a combination of those tools. After the initial pass of flipping the conditioner, I will often make a second pass in a different direction. The goal of that is to create as smooth of a surface as possible with the conditioner and eliminate any ridges from previous dragging or play. It is also at this point that we will sometimes “clean” the conditioner. When cleaning the conditioner, I will start at one edge and pull the lute rake very lightly across to the opposite edge. By doing this, the majority of sunflower seed shells, grass clippings, or any other debris should pull off the surface to a pile at the edge that can be scooped and discarded.

Once we have the conditioner as smooth as possible and have attained optimal moisture, we will roll the infield skin with our 1.5-ton roller. This is done to compact and tighten the infield as much as possible, as well as to “lock” that moisture into the top 3 inches. We will almost never use the vibratory function on the roller, as I’ve found that to create layering that will lead to eventual chipping when played upon. It also tends to allow that surface layer to dry out more quickly and separate from the clay below. I will sometimes also see this if the infield is rolled two different directions. My experience has shown that a single pass over the entire infield creates the best result. We are also very careful to come to an extremely slow stop every single time the roller comes to an edge of the grass. If you are going too fast and come to an abrupt stop, you will push a little bit of infield material. This will begin to create a lip and lead to the chance of bad hops at your transition points.

Right before rolling

The reason we want the conditioner dry while rolling is so that material does not stick to the drums of the roller. But it is important that the skin has good moisture when rolling to achieve the desired compaction. Rolling dry infield material will not accomplish your goal and may even fracture the surface, leaving it even looser than before.

Once the infield has been completely rolled, we will start the nail dragging process. We have two nail drags; one that attaches to our infield groomer and is controlled hydraulically, the other tows behind and is wider, but allows us a little less control of pressure.

As long as our infield hasn’t gotten too damaged from an event or play, we are careful to nail drag at only a very shallow depth. We don’t allow the nails to go more than ¼ inch into the surface. This will loosen the conditioner up which was rolled into the infield skin and will just barely scratch the surface to eliminate any ball marks or cleat marks that may exist. We will nail drag in one, two, or three directions based upon how damaged the infield was.

Once we have finished nail dragging, we will let that loosened material dry enough so that any clumps will break down when metal dragging it and the drag will not become clogged with wet material. We will typically make one pass with the stiff metal drag by hand rather than dragging with the groomer immediately so that it doesn’t compress loose material in tire tracks.

We’ll then use a stiff metal drag with a weight on top to drag two to three directions. This will completely break down any clumps worked up while nail dragging. It should also create an absolutely smooth surface on the infield.

After using the stiff metal drag on the groomer, we will then come back in with either the aluminum lute rake or the stiff metal drag and pull conditioner as evenly as possible. This will once again eliminate any ridges left behind by the drag on the groomer. If there are areas where the conditioner is thin, it is at this point that we will add more conditioner to achieve our desired amount.

I tend to go with a slightly thinner layer of conditioner than many groundskeepers, still giving the player slight contact with the infield dirt without having it 100% covered.

This year, we have transitioned into having 100% of our infield conditioner being red professional ProSlide. There are numerous reasons I chose to go that route, but the biggest and most important was durability. We roll our infield almost daily and are aggressive with maintenance practices to create that smooth surface. Through all of that, I’ve seen almost no structural degradation of the particles. Not only has this created an easier environment for maintenance, it has also saved us significantly from a financial standpoint.

Checking the numbers

Once we have the attained the desired surface with the conditioner, it is time to begin adding water again. [We] take a great deal of factors into consideration, many weather related. I will constantly be checking humidity and dew point levels. The higher those two are, the slower the clay will dry out, and the less water I’ll want to add as we approach play. I also have to consider wind speed, cloud coverage, and temperature. Each of those three factors will also weigh heavily into how quickly the material will dry. Obviously, we need to take rain into consideration, as well.

Beyond that, the schedule of field use will come into play. Each night after a game, I will visit both our home and visiting managers. I inquire about whether or not there were any issues during batting practice or the game that day. I will also acquire a detailed schedule of exactly what each team plans to do for batting practice and additional early work on the field the next day. This will help me know exactly when I need the infield to be at a point to be played upon.

At our level of professional baseball, a significant number of infielders will not wear cleats during batting practice. This is huge in retaining the integrity of the surface through practice into the start of the game. I try to express this philosophy to teams at all levels that use our field, but it often goes in one ear and out the other. I also have a great appreciation for infielders that wear metal cleats rather than molded cleats. The metal cleats go in and out of the surface cleanly like knives and create almost no damage. The molded cleats, on the other hand, tend to be more like shovels and dig out small chunks with every step. With proper moisture, this is minimized, but regardless, molded cleats leave more of an impact than metal cleats.

To me, proper moisture for playability is as follows. The surface is firm and you leave no footprints when walking. However, I can press my knife at least 1 inch into the surface and pull it back out cleanly. The conditioner is wet to slow the drying process, as well as to create a darker contrast for the infielders to see the ball.

For a standard game starting at 7:05, our visiting team will finish batting practice at 6:00 and finish infield at 6:10. This gives us approximately 35-40 minutes to break down batting practice and do all of our game prep. During that time, we will once again groom the infield and add more water.

Following each game, I will continue to factor in each of those weather conditions and the upcoming forecast, as well as the next day’s schedule, both for the professional teams as well as any other events occurring during the day. But most evenings, I will put the infield under standing water after we have given the infield a quick post-game drag, starting the process all over again the next morning.

Wes Ganobcik is head groundskeeper at Huntington Park for the Columbus (OH) Clippers. This piece first appeared on the blog, thanks to them for allowing us to reprint here.