WRITTEN BY: Luke Yoder
What is a true sustainable long-term solution for your infield skin?
The topic of infield skin selection and management has more than grasped my interest since I got into the game in 1994. Is it an Art or a Science? In the early 90’s during my time at Clemson we studied soil science. We learned about the makeup and design of the USGA rootzone that was engineered and introduced to the game of golf in the 60’s. This new USGA spec would go against the old push up green that had been common practice since the game of golf began. Push up greens were inconsistent across the country and around the world due to different local or native soils that were within a certain proximity. The introduction of engineered soils to golf came with unequivocal benefits such as: ability to play in the rain or immediately after without adverse impacts to the putting surface, a more consistent putting surface in all weather conditions, more tolerant to wear and tear, increased number of golf rounds, more resistant to compaction, and the ability to duplicate that same putting surface/rootzone from holes 1-18 and around the world. At the time this was not hard for us students to grasp nor was it for the golf industry. Cost per sq. ft. may have initially played a factor in the decisions made to install a USGA green vs a push up green, but it did not take long for the entire golf industry to make sense of the Return on Investment. (R.O.I.)
It wasn’t until leaving Clemson in 1994 and working on my first couple of ballfields that I started to wonder why the science of infield skins was not discussed in a single college class nor was it described in a textbook that made sense like the USGA golf green. In the 90’s every ballfield in the country was using a local or native infield material. At best, these mixes were dug out of the ground and run through some sort of screen to remove the rocks. This meant that in all parts of the country infields were different. An example is from the Midwest to the Southeast: Midwest infields have more silt than clay and therefore are extremely dusty when dry and very sticky when wet. Southeast materials have very little silt with a high percent of sand that suffer from extreme migration issues and very low moisture holding capacity. Back then I accepted that working with infield skins was more of an art than a science. Today I realize that translated into spending more time and aggravation to achieve acceptable playing conditions. Examples of the extra maintenance practices involved include: more time spent to achieve proper moisture, frequent rolling at a timely window of ideal moisture conditions, (these timely windows were very small) using more conditioner to get games in following rain, more tarping, and additional work to maintain position areas and edges. I was not the only SFM at the time that longed for some sort of standard for a soil specifically engineered for Baseball / Softball.
Flash forward to 2020 and we now have at our disposal an engineered infield material with similar benefits to the USGA rootzone. This was first introduced to the Sports Turf Industry in 2004 by DuraEdge Products. Of course, an innovation like this starts at the upper echelons of the game, just like the USGA Rootzone did. Even though this technological change has been proven across the country at different levels, it is still not totally understood or accepted by the masses. So, what is an engineered infield material? It is designed based on science and raw data with these aspects in mind: sand size and shape, percentages of sand/silt/clay, unique mineralogy of the clay, silt:clay ratio, breakdown of course vs fine silt, and the ability to consistently reproduce all across the country. Some of the benefits of an engineered infield surface vs a local or native infield are increased resiliency, quicker play after rain, consistency, reduced tarp pulls, reduced amount of conditioner required to get games in after rain, increasing the value to your facility, selling more games, recruiting, being able to implement a predictable maintenance program, and–most importantly–achieving a safer playing surface.
Understanding these benefits is the first step to implementing a long-term solution for your facility. If you are not well versed on the pros and cons of native materials vs a legitimate engineered infield material, you could get laughed out of the room when upper management compares the cost per ton of each. This comparison is apples to oranges and you need to be able to clearly explain the differences. Besides the USGA example, here are a few other talking points to consider. A natural field costs $5-$10/sq.ft. to build. An artificial surface cost $10-$20/sq.ft. While these may seem like wide ranges, my point is that in most cases the end user will spend a fraction of that for a native infield surface. This number is typically only $0.95– $1.50/sq.ft. for enough infield material to fill a 4” profile. Cheap and Good aren’t synonymous terms! 70% or greater of the game occurs on the skinned portions of a ballfield. While an infield surface only comprises of 10-20% of the total surface, it is where most of the game is played. It also requires the majority of the maintenance, where most of the challenges and headaches are exposed, dictates the outcome of a game due to inconsistencies, and poses the greatest risk for injury. That being said, why cut yourself short on the most important part of your field where the majority of the game is played.
Similar to the USGA engineered rootzone, DuraEdge engineered infield material costs more per ton to purchase than a local or native material. Of course, this is because of the process that takes place during production. The cost per sq.ft. to purchase a legit engineered infield material is $2.50-$4.00/sq.ft. for a 4” profile. These numbers are easy to legitimize and well within acceptable range when building a new field or executing a major renovation project, especially when you compare to the cost of ownership/sq.ft. for the remainder of your Baseball or Softball field.
If you have an existing infield with no plans in the near future to remove and replace then consider the amendment approach. SFM’s have been amending their infields since I got into the game. This process has included, but not been limited to, tilling in sand, tilling in heavy clay, and tilling in Calcined Clay. This approach has not been based on science, but determined on touch and feel (art), vendor recommendation, or what was considered industry standard. My experience with this over the years was that tilling in sand may have been implemented to get games in quicker after rain, tilling in clay may have been done to tighten up a loose or shifty mix, and tilling in calcined clay has been attempted to solve just about any problem. Today the engineered amendment process is streamlined and proven based on science, that is predictable, replicable, and testable. The process entails: testing your existing infield material, analyzing the data, determine where you should be, and then selecting the proper engineered amendment (1 of 6 different DuraEdge FieldSaver Products) based on the results and who you are. Incorporating the proper FieldSaver amendment into your infield will leave you with a permanently modified infield profile that will provide higher performance moving forward and reduce maintenance. It has been quite liberating for me to learn and see this firsthand over the last 10 years. I used to implement the practice of amending infields with a random heavy clay or calcined clay. After working with and being exposed to the science of engineered soils, I understand that amending an infield with Calcined Clay is counterproductive and will not create a well-balanced infield profile, provide proper soil structure, increase stability, reduce migration, extend the window for ideal moisture holding capacity, or provide a more predictable and consistent surface moving forward.
There is no doubt that it does take time for a technological change to fall into place across an entire industry like the Engineered USGA rootzone did for golf. Some of our industry has grasped the innovation of DuraEdge engineered infield material, and are reaping the benefits of a higher performing infield surface and seeing the R.O.I. We are not far off from most of our industry grasping this concept and implementing these new best practices that are proven based on science and positive results in the field. A recent quote from a former MLB Infielder: “One of the greatest evolutions in the game of baseball that doesn’t get talked about much is the playing surface. Amazing how far infields have come in a short period of time” -Kevin Youkilis; 10-year MLB Player/All Star 2004-2013. Kevin played half of his career on a local/native infield material and his last half on a DuraEdge Engineered Surface.