Here’s a dirty little secret. You know what baseball is really about? It’s about dirt. I have spent enough time dragging base paths, building up pitching mounds, repairing batter boxes, putting down chalk lines, eliminating dirt ridges, raking base paths to know that the most valuable team member is the groundskeeper. How many sports are played on dirt? Soccer? No. Football? No. Rugby? No. The only game played on dirt is baseball. It is the only game that depends on the right dirt in the right places. You don’t want loose dirt that the players slip on. You don’t want the infield too hard or the ball bounces too high … too soft and the ball doesn’t bounce at all. A light bump, a minor hole in the field, can cause a bad bounce and affect the outcome. The whole game depends on dirt or ” infield mix.”
Infield mix? Get five groundskeepers together, and they will host a seminar on “infield mix.” Each of these guys has a Ph.D. in dirt. They are horrified to see a runner slide into second raising a cloud of dust. The last thing they want is a dusty infield where everyone chokes on dust for nine innings. But then again, your base paths can’t be hard as a rock. The ground must give when a player’s body strikes it. If there is no give to the base paths, the runner will slide and not even make second base. He needs some loose silt that will enable him to slide. A loose mixture of dirt is like ball bearings.
A good infield, as any good groundskeeper will tell you, is often a mixture of sand, clay and silt … clay for hardness, sand for drainage, silt for sliding. But what is the exact combination of clay, sand and silt? Some groundskeepers swear by 50% crushed red brick, 20% clay, 30% soil. Others swear by 1/3 sand, 1/3 compost, 1/3 top soil. No wait, it should be 70% topsoil and 30% compost. And every part of the infield must have a different soil composition.
Ever think about a pitcher’s mound? You just can’t take some dirt out of your backyard and build a pitcher’s mound. The minute it rained, the whole mound would wash away. If a mound was just dirt, by the third inning, there would be big holes where the pitcher pushes off and where he lands his front foot. That is why a pitcher’s mound is really 80 percent clay or more, which is then covered with a thin layer of infield mix.
Think about the area around home plate – how the catcher moves constantly, how batters stride, twist and turn. A batter’s box has to be tough or by the third inning the batters are hitting out of a trench they’ve dug. Again, that is why, like the mound, the batter’s box is 80 percent clay or more. But baseball players wear cleats, and they need to twist when they hit. It would be a nightmare if their cleats got stuck in the clay. That is why batter boxes always have a thin layer of infield mix on top. Some groundskeepers mix in crushed red brick with the soil to give the infield a rich red look. But put in too much red and the uniforms are impossible to clean, which really annoys the equipment manager.
When it comes to baseball, maintaining the dirt, I mean “infield mix,” is a fine science. For instance, when dragging the infield, ground crews should keep the drags at least six inches away from the grass so that the loose dirt does not get into the grass and form a “lip,” or ridge, in the grass edge.
In short, baseball is really about dirt. Even the umpires, before every game, rub the baseballs down with Major League Baseball’s official rubbing mud – a brown, nearly pure silt from a New Jersey streambed.