In some cases, the skinned infield of a baseball or softball field may get less attention than its grassy counterpart. After all, it doesn't need mowing, weeding or feeding, it doesn't get bugs, grubs or gophers, and it sure doesn't look different from season to season.
A perfectly maintained infield at Mississippi State University.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SPORTS TURF COMPANY, INC., WHITESBURG, GA.
That's the problem: some field managers assume this means the infield is maintenance-free. However, the infield is where a majority of players will be, and where most of the action will take place. So if there are problems there, they'll affect more people, more quickly. The assumption that the infield doesn't need any care can lead to a lack of attention, which translates into field-wide problems. The best way to remedy these problems is to head them off at the pass. Look at your field as a system of integrated components, rather than two separate parts, and you'll get better results.
Here's the dirt
Some infields are simply dirt. Some are a professionally manufactured blend of sand, silt, clay, binder and other ingredients. The choice of which to use depends on the facility's budget, the amount of resources available to dedicate to maintenance, as well as the level of play and frequency of use. If a professionally manufactured infield blend is used, its composition will depend on the climate and the amount of use the facility is expected to get. A professional field builder in the area can provide recommendations for the correct surface.
Keep it smooth
An essential part of every ballpark maintenance plan should be dragging the infield. This creates a more consistent surface for players.
First, remove debris such as rocks, trash or anything else that has managed to find its way onto the field. Once all visible debris has been collected, slightly moisten the infield with a spray hose or sprinkler, and then comb with a metal drag mat. Change directions with the drag mat to create a consistent surface.
Edsel Ford High School's multi-field facility.
PHOTO COURTESY OF FORESITE DESIGN, INC., BERKLEY, MICH.
Try not to run the drag mat up against the edge of the grass, as this tends to build up a lip of infield material. This, in turn, can cause two problems: a tripping hazard for players and a drainage problem. When it rains, or when the field is irrigated, the water, once it has saturated the field, will need to drain off. The built-up infill material will have the same effect as a dam, holding water on the field or infield, leading to an unplayable field.
Once the infield has been dragged, use an infield rake near the grass to smooth out any remaining material and keep a lip from forming. The infield should be kept uniformly moist (but not overly wet). The correct amount of water and a regular schedule of dragging will keep the surface from becoming too dry and dusty, or too hard and compacted.
Here's a warning
Your warning track also needs to be maintained. After all, it can only serve its intended purpose if the player is able to depend on its presence to provide a heads-up that the fence is nearby. Don't let grass encroach into it, and don't let its texture be lost or even diminished. This may be one of the most important safety features your facility has. Follow the guidelines for the appropriate governing body regarding the width of the warning track and any other considerations.
Get a good grade
Something else that might be overlooked on a field is professional grading. A field has to shed water, and being properly sloped allows that to happen. If puddles are forming on the surface, it could be because the soil does not drain well, or because the field is not sloped correctly.
On occasion, fields are used when they are too wet for play, which leads to damage to the surface, as well as player injuries. Inspect your field for sunken areas, potholes or other high/low spots that are affecting the facility's drainage. Remember that fields can change from year to year. A season of heavy foot traffic, freeze-thaw action and other occurrences can change the topography, causing problems that weren't present the previous season - or even earlier in the current season.
Make it a point to walk the facility on a regular basis. Inspect all parts of the field. Check for irregularities in the grass - look for discolorations, signs of pest infestation, evidence that folks have been walking their dogs in the area, anything that could create a problem - and take steps to remedy any problems. Look at the bases and see whether they're in good shape or showing signs of wear and tear. Check benches, bleachers and dugouts, and look at the gates and fences to see if they are in good repair. Remember that it takes a lot less time to spot a problem and get it corrected than it takes to deal with an injury.
Mary Helen Sprecher is the technical writer for the American Sports Builders Association (www.sportsbuilders.org).