A Penn­syl­va­nia firm gets down and dirty

Soggy steal leads to more sci­en­tific main­te­nance

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - Sports - FRANK FITZ­PATRICK

SLIP­PERY ROCK, PA. — It was 10 years ago, on a fa­mously mis­er­able Oc­to­ber night in Philadel­phia, that this oddly named bor­ough in an op­po­site cor­ner of Penn­syl­va­nia be­gan to ac­quire an­other strange ap­pel­la­tion: the Cap­i­tal of Base­ball Dirt.

Dur­ing Game 5 of the 2008 World Se­ries, a cold rain fell re­lent­lessly on Cit­i­zens Bank Park. Just be­fore play was sus­pended, with the Phillies lead­ing, 2-1, Tampa’s B.J. Up­ton took off for sec­ond base, burst­ing through rain­drops that glis­tened like fire­flies in the ball­park’s ar­ti­fi­cial light.

Each foot­fall raised a plume of wa­ter on the pud­dle-pocked in­field, yet the Rays out­fielder moved swiftly and freely, eas­ily beat­ing catcher Car­los Ruiz’s throw.

Though Up­ton’s dash, in con­di­tions one sports­writer de­scribed as “dicey at best, hor­ri­ble at worst,” seemed a fool­ish risk, he hadn’t lost his grip. More im­por­tantly, nei­ther had the in­field.

“The ground stayed sta­ble,” Mike Boekholder, the Phillies head groundskeeper, re­called re­cently.

“De­spite all that sur­face wa­ter, it stayed sta­ble. I talked to Up­ton later, and he was amazed. He said, ‘It was the weird­est thing. You had all this wa­ter on the top, but I never lost trac­tion.’”

Many oth­ers in base­ball no­ticed, too. They wanted to know about the makeup of that in­field, how it could with­stand so much rain, why it re­mained playable. The se­cret, they would learn with some be­muse­ment, was a dry rock found near Slip­pery Rock, Pa.

It was, more pre­cisely, a hard and pow­er­fully ab­sorbent clay mined, re­fined and sold by a small com­pany on the out­skirts of this col­lege town 80 kilo­me­tres north of Pitts­burgh.

Spread­ing the dirt

A decade ago, the Phillies, who three years ear­lier had been the firm’s ini­tial big-league client, were one of just a few MLB teams us­ing Dura Edge Inc.’s prod­ucts.

But Up­ton’s soggy steal ig­nited a trend that has re­sulted in a more sci­en­tific ap­proach to in­field con­struc­tion and main­te­nance and in Dura Edge’s be­com­ing MLB’s chief sup­plier of dirt. Eigh­teen teams play on full Dura Edge in­fields this sea­son. Over­all, 22 use its prod­ucts on warn­ing tracks, mounds and bat­ter’s boxes.

“Peo­ple have no idea that most of the dirt be­neath ma­jor-lea­guers’ feet comes from Slip­pery Rock,” said Grant McKnight, 46, the com­pany’s founder and pres­i­dent. “That one play in the World Se­ries put us on the map.”

A Western Penn­syl­va­nia clay is the sport’s dirt of choice. “This clay is spe­cial,” McKnight said. “Ev­ery team is con­cerned about mois­ture man­age­ment, and af­ter that World Se­ries, they all were ea­ger to learn how it held that in­field to­gether.”

His­tor­i­cally, MLB in­fields were formed from lo­cally sourced soil or the red clays In­dige­nous to South­ern states. Though some drained or bonded bet­ter than oth­ers and al­most all were slip­pery when wet, lit­tle se­ri­ous thought was given to the dirt sur­faces.

Few cared about the in­field’s chem­i­cal com­po­si­tion. Aes­thet­ics were of­ten as im­por­tant as playa­bil­ity.

But as the multi­bil­lion-dol­lar base­ball in­dus­try in­creas­ingly turned to an­a­lyt­ics and science, qual­ity con­trol and con­sis­tency be­came im­per­a­tives. Sub­par dirt sur­faces, it came to be un­der­stood, could lead to in­juries, bad hops, de­lays and costly post­pone­ments. So McKnight and the game’s groundskeep­ers ramped up the re­search.

From Grove City to the big leagues

The story of how this com­pany, whose mod­est busi­ness of­fices are in an old five-and-dime store in a neigh­bour­ing col­lege town, Grove City, Pa., won a rep­u­ta­tion and cus­tomers be­gan in 2000. That’s when Slip­pery Rock Univer­sity asked McKnight for help with a new ball field.

He started his busi­ness in 1999, the height of the golf boom, and de­vel­oped sand and soil mixes for cour­ses.

He ap­plied those prin­ci­ples to Slip­pery Rock’s in­field and, he said, “the rest is his­tory.”

“What I’d been do­ing with golf greens, I started do­ing to in­fields,” he said. “Then I went look­ing for a source of clay and found this stuff.”

Mined in an undis­closed But­ler County lo­ca­tion, the clay has ad­he­sive qual­i­ties and ab­sorbency that make it unique.

“I went look­ing for a clay, and when I found this stuff, I thought it was too hard. I al­most scrapped the whole thing,” McKnight said. “But when I de­cided to mix in some sand, ev­ery­thing changed.”

Some groundskeep­ers have tried to break down its chem­i­cal com­po­si­tion and re­pro­duce a clay prod­uct that mim­ics it.

“Peo­ple have tweaked lo­cal clay to get the same an­a­lyt­i­cal lev­els. Then they put it on their in­fields, and it just didn’t per­form the same,” Boekholder said.

“The bot­tom line is they’ve just got bet­ter clay than every­body else.”

Still, par­tic­u­larly at the cash­strapped lower lev­els of the game, the ex­per­i­ment­ing con­tin­ues. That’s be­cause while Dura Edge prod­ucts can cost as much as $70 a ton, a lo­cal clay might be had for $20.

The ma­te­ri­als for an MLBqual­ity Dura Edge in­field might go for $45,000-$50,000, McKnight said, and with mi­nor an­nual main­te­nance could last seven to 10 years. A Lit­tle League field, he said, might cost $15,000.

“We try to get peo­ple to un­der­stand the ben­e­fits of us­ing some­thing that’s specif­i­cally en­gi­neered to sit in a 2- or 3-inch col­umn on your in­field ver­sus some­thing you just pull out of the ground,” McKnight said. “MLB guys un­der­stand the science, but you talk to Divi­sion 1 ADs and they have no idea.”

As de­mand has in­creased, Dura Edge has added satel­lite pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties across the coun­try — one is due soon in the Philadel­phia area. When raw clay is shipped to those sites, one of the com­pany’s por­ta­ble mix­ers trav­els there to blend it with lo­cally sourced sand and silt.

“Our clay is like Coca-Cola’s syrup,” McKnight said. “That stuff is shipped ev­ery­where, mixed with lo­cal wa­ter and bot­tled. We ship the clay to our plants. They then use sand that’s avail­able in those places. That al­lows for the kind of con­sis­tent prod­ucts that MLB teams want.”

Be­cause the main in­gre­di­ent, the base clay, re­mains the same re­gard­less of lo­ca­tion, base­ball gets the kind of uni­for­mity it wants.

“They mix these prod­ucts na­tion­wide, so you get the ex­act same stuff whether you’re the Salt Lake Bees or the Philadel­phia Phillies,” Boekholder said.

And for that, all of base­ball can thank Up­ton’s stolen base.

“When we peeled off the tarp the next morn­ing,” Boekholder said, “we scraped off the con­di­tioner we’d put on the night be­fore and we could have played a game by noon that day. It’s the cra­zi­est thing I’d ever seen. This stuff re­ally has changed the way we man­age our in­field.”

OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL FILE PHOTO

Tampa Bay Rays B.J. Up­ton scores on a Car­los Pena sin­gle to left cen­tre against the Philadel­phia Phillies in Oc­to­ber 2008. Groundskeep­ers watch­ing this game wanted to know how it could with­stand so much rain.

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