Bad Hop Injury Problem Solved
Groundskeeping Guru Explains How To Have “Cushioned” Dirt
This story originally appeared in the October 2, 2009.
By LOU PAVLOVICH, JR.
OMAHA, Neb. — Every year, thousands of high school and college infielders are drilled by bad hop grounders in the face, chest, and other areas of the body which cause extreme pain during practices and games.
On many occasions, dark bruises are left behind as a reminder.
Other times, eye sockets have been shattered and bones broken while a few deaths over the years have taken place with direct blows to the heart on bad hops which have resulted in heart attacks.
Several years ago, a second baseman’s collar bone was broken during a high school practice in Tucson, Ariz. on a bad hop.
The culprit in virtually every case has been poorly maintained skin portions of the infield.
How many coaches across the nation make it mandatory that the dirt portion of the infield is dragged before every practice to prevent bad hops to slow down the epidemic of injuries to their infielders?
The honest answer is few.
And for the non-varsity teams at high schools that try to sneak in an infield practice when possible, poor infield dirt conditions are almost guaranteed.
The skin portion of the infield is obviously dragged prior to games.
But many times an ideal apparatus is not used to churn up the soil slightly and then smooth it out.
The key is utilizing a drag that leaves a cushion of dirt that is smooth which allows for normal hops that all infielders enjoy instead of nasty hops.
To Jesse Cuevas, one of the greatest groundskeepers in the history of baseball, maintaining this area of the diamond has been absolutely vital for 31 years while working on the field at Rosenblatt Stadium, site of the annual NCAA Division I College World Series.
Think about how many baseball players work on the skin portion of the infield. There are six players on defense who stand in dirt when they are fielding most of the balls they catch (C, P, 1B, 2B, SS, 3B) and only three on the outfield grass.
On top of that, every offensive person works in the dirt with the batter hitting in the batter’s box and eventually running to the different bases on soil.
When you analyze it, 90 percent or more of the baseball game takes place on dirt.
So why isn’t more attention paid to this area of the field for pre-game groundskeeping preparation and especially practices?
Cuevas utilizes a special combination nail/cocoa mat drag that he has made by hand for over 30 years and a special hand made wooden tamp.
He has been compared to the best baseball groundskeepers ever such as Emil Bossard, legendary groundskeeping pioneer for the Cleveland Indians in the 1920s, and George Toma, who learned his craft from Bossard, to become the most noted groundskeeper in history with the Kansas City Royals.
It only seems fitting that Cuevas earned his stripes in this demanding business by learning from Toma as Jesse worked Rosenblatt Stadium under the watchful eye of another superb field supervisor, Frank Mancuso.
For many years, Rosenblatt Stadium has housed the Omaha Royals, AAA affiliate of the Kansas City Royals.
Since Kansas City and Omaha are only a few hours away, many ideas and practices were shared by Toma with Cuevas along with the skilled Mancuso.
Players Love Rosenblatt
Cuevas’ infield dirt is raved about every year by the eight teams that travel to the College World Series.
And not a year goes by where coaches haven’t asked Collegiate Baseball to write a story on how Cuevas and his grounds crew prepare and maintain such a magnificent playing surface.
For the first time, Collegiate Baseball is doing just that in exploring how Jesse and his crew take care of the dirt portion of the infield.
“When I got started in groundskeeping back in 1979, Frankie Mancuso showed me how to build a drag from scratch,” said Cuevas.
“We have different ones for different uses. I really like our combination nail drag/cocoa mat drag which digs up the soil a little and then smoothes the soil down. The dirt is as smooth as glass when we are done with the field. That is the one we use most of the time prior to games, and it does a terrific job for most of the infield dirt. For other dirt areas near the lines, home plate and on the pitcher’s mound, we use commercial cocoa mat drags for one person after the wear areas are tamped down.
“Over the years, we have come up with special use drags. We have a nail drag in front of chain link fencing which is used on wet soil after rains as we try to get more air into the soil particles so the dirt dries quicker. We also use this drag to re-distribute soil that might build up in certain areas of the infield.”
Cuevas said that when he first began making the combination nail drag/cocoa mat drag, he could purchase 8-foot lengths of cocoa mat locally.
“But those days are over. I just haven’t been able to find lengths of cocoa mat like this any more. We now have to get two cocoa door mats that are 3 x 4 feet long normally used for door mats and sew them together with bailing wire on the three foot sides to make one 8-foot-long mat.
“Nothing finishes an infield like cocoa mat and gives it that smooth texture. I really love that material.
“These hand made drags last a long, long time. Just by trial and error, we came up with the product we use now. The mat itself will last 10 years. The nails should probably be replaced every four years.”
Cuevas said that it is important to cut the sharp points off the nails with a grinder or bolt cutter and slightly round over the nails with the grinder. The reason is that the sharp points on the nails cause the nail drag to bounce. And you don’t want that to take place.
“You take off about 1/3 off the nail from the sharp side. When all the nails are finished being cut in this fashion after they are hammered into the 2 x 6 x 8 foot long board, it looks almost like a rake.”
Cuevas said that the finished nail drag can be made to scratch the soil surface or dig deeper, depending on how the infielders want the cushion of dirt under their feet.
“I have found that you can leave the nail drag/cocoa mat drag as it is when you drag the field, and the nails will go into the soil about ¼ inch which is about the depth of a spike from an infielder. Most infielders like that. But if you want the nails to go deeper, add a few sandbags on top of the nail drag along the 2 x 6 x 8 foot long board. Another trick is to move the rope closer to the utility cart. The nails will go deeper if you do this as well.”
Interesting Cushion Trend
Cuevas said that years ago, professional infielders demanded that the soil be cushioned more than they do now.
“When I first got started in groundskeeping, infielders demanded that the infield dirt have a nice cushion to slow the balls down by batters. But now, you have coaches who want the soil hard and fast. They also want the grass mowed down low. I have found that hitters want the field fast. But fielders want the complete opposite.”
Cuevas said that many years ago, he didn’t have the budget to go to a lumber yard and purchase wood for the nail drags and tamps.
“So we scavenged around the facility and utilized wooden pallets or old bleachers that were replaced. We don’t have to do that now. We definitely have the process of building our drags and tamps down to a science. We use certain types of wood and know where to drill holes and what bits to use for our drills.”
For many years, Cuevas has helped anyone who has asked how to make their baseball fields better.
“That is the way I was raised and educated under Frank Mancuso and George Toma. They believed in helping anyone who asked. If you can help all levels of the game, that is important. Everyone should give something back to the game.”
As far as his wooden tamp, that is unique in its own right.
“For years, there have been heavy, steel tamps used in groundskeeping in front of the pitcher’s rubber, landing area and the batters’ boxes near home plate which are dug out. But I never felt this type of tamp was the best solution to the problem. So we make our own wooden tamps which are made out of 1 x 6 wood 24 inches long and backed with a 2 x 4 22 inches long which is centered on the 1 x 6, glued, and held together with a couple of screws. Once the glue cures, a hole in the middle is drilled out the same diameter as a wooden mop handle. Then you glue in the mop handle, and it is almost ready.
“The final step is to purchase Weed Barrier fabric at a store like Home Depot or Lowes in the garden department. You simply cut out a length of the material which fits over the bottom of the tamp and stretch over the wood. Then using a staple gun, staple the material to the top of the tamp. This material keeps clay from sticking to the bottom of the tamp.”
Cuevas said the much lighter tamp allows his crew to put a lot more power into packing soil tightly as they re-pack clay into holes in front of the pitcher’s rubber, landing area and in the batters’ boxes.
“You can really pack the clay in tight with this tamp. We have a lot of doubleheaders during the College World Series.
“Immediately after the final out of the first game, our crew will run out to the pitcher’s mound and batter’s box areas to repair worn areas. They are like lions on a piece of meat. They first scratch up the area that has been worn with a rake, sprinkle on some water from a water can and then put more clay in that area. The person working the mound isn’t afraid to take the heel of his foot to initially push in clay into the hole next to the rubber. Then he adds more clay. After that, he uses our wooden tamp to pack in the clay tightly with powerful hits on the new clay. If more clay is needed, he applies that and then packs it in hard. Once you use a tamp like this, you will never go back to the heavy steel tamp. The 4 x 4 steel tamps sometimes hit an area and bounce up on one side. With our light tamp, you rarely get air bubbles because the clay is packed in so tight.
“Once the soil is packed tightly in the wear areas of the mound and batting boxes, crew members use the small commercial cocoa mats made for one person and drag the areas. Then they spray water over the soil to finish it off nicely.”
Cuevas said that years ago, the grounds crew used local clay on the mound and home plate areas at Rosenblatt Stadium.
But now they use Diamond Pro Mound/Home Plate Clay.
“It is more of a southern clay that is stickier. It is a nice red color and sticks together better when packing it in. The key is having a knowledgeable person take care of the mound on a day to day basis. You never want a new guy working on the mound.
“You have a pitcher pivoting off the mound and pushing off onto a landing area. If the pivot area just in front of the rubber and landing areas are not done correctly, the pitcher could be susceptible to injury.
“So having a veteran handle this is crucial. A newer member of the crew should be able to work on the batter’s box areas that are worn with proper instruction.”
Special Hand Crafted Tools
Cuevas said that every winter, his crew takes a week to build and repair groundskeeping equipment for the next season.
“We build 30-40 tamps, different types of drags, replace old nails in drags, etc. We have a graveyard behind the left field bleachers of experiments. It is a great laboratory for creating new products for groundskeeping. When we go into building mode, we have a production line of crew members to make the process more streamlined.”
Cuevas said his tamp is helpful in another way as well.
“The great thing about our tamp is that the bottoms are made of 1 x 6. And our crew can use the six inch side as a guide in front of the rubber because that is when the mound should start sloping downward. Keep in mind the handles will break over time. When that happens, you simply cut the handle down. Those work great for the shorter members of our crew.”
Cuevas said that many years ago, power tools were rare.
“The people we have on our crew now have a hard time believing that I drilled holes with an old hand drill that was hand cranked. It worked just fine. But the power tools of today are amazing.”
The head groundskeeper at Rosenblatt Stadium said he learned a great lesson years ago from Toma.
“We always used simple tools that were extremely effective. George once told me that it was the man with the equipment, not the equipment with the man. In other words, you didn’t have to have the most expensive equipment as long as what you use does a great job. And that has stuck with me for all these years. Working with Frank Mancuso and George Toma was special. It was like learning from top professors. You couldn’t help but learn.
“One of the big things I learned from Frankie was not to over think things too much which I am guilty of at times. When I have a problem take place, I think of what Frankie would do, and it is a soothing tonic to my problems. Frankie was a groundskeeper for many years as well as his father before him. He understood that you could outthink yourself.
“I tell my crew from time to time how I worked on Rosenblatt’s field all by myself with no carts and pulled hoses all by myself. I tell them what they have to do now is nothing compared to 60 years ago. So they pick it up a little bit when I get on them this way.”
Cuevas has won many honors during his illustrious career.
Under his direction, Rosenblatt Stadium has been named the American Association and Pacific Coast League Field of The Year. Cuevas has also been the recipient of the prestigious George Toma Award.
“I am fortunate to have an incredible crew working with me. Man for man, it is the best in the nation. I would put my 4-man crew against any other 4-man crew in the nation.”
NOTE: Complete directions on building Jesse Cuevas’ special combination nail/cocoa mat drag that he has made by hand for over 30 years, as well as a special hand made wooden tamp to compact clay on the pitcher’s mound and home plate areas, can be obtained by purchasing the Oct. 2, 2009 edition of Collegiate Baseball for $3. Click on “How To Subscribe” for more information.