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Doing the Groundwork
Amy Nutt
September 20, 1993
New Jersey's Jim Kelsey supplies many U.S. sports venues with a basic element—dirt
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September 20, 1993

Doing The Groundwork

New Jersey's Jim Kelsey supplies many U.S. sports venues with a basic element—dirt

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Kelsey spreads the good word about dirt through advertising and direct mailing. When he really needs to nail down a sale, he tucks a two-by three-foot scale model of a playing field under his arm and hits the road. In 1986, while visiting the Los Angeles Dodgers' spring training camp in Vero Beach, Fla., he accidently dropped his model in the parking lot outside the stadium. Bill Moolenaar, then the Dodger groundskeeper, noticed that the pitcher's mound in the model didn't break apart when it landed on the concrete. Duly impressed with the clay's cohesiveness, he exclaimed, "I'll take it!"

Kelsey is mum when it comes to the secret of his soil mixes, though he can wax poetic about the nuances involved in turning a simple playing surface into a true playing field. For example, the pitcher's mound, which requires about five tons of dirt, is built of a pulverized, compact mix firm enough for good footing but also with a little give to save a pitcher's knees. Mound dirt comes in four colors, red, orange, brown, and gray, which are blended according to the particular tastes of each client. The dirt used for the diamond (about 132 tons are needed) is a bit less firm—for purposes of sliding—than that of the mound, but it is compact enough not to separate and blow away. The home plate area (1� tons) is a medium-hard mix, just right for digging in, while the warning track (which needs anywhere from 40 to 88 tons) has a "crunchy" feel to warn outfielders that the wall is near.

According to Kelsey, caring for a playing field is an art form. And to reward particularly gifted groundskeepers, Kelsey, along with the Sports Turf Manager's Association and, since 1986, Sports Turf magazine, has sponsored an annual Baseball Diamond of the Year Award. This year's winners, voted on by a panel of four major league head groundskeepers, included West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium, in the professional category; the University of Mississippi's Swayze Field, in the collegiate division; and Twi-Light Field in Danvers, Mass., in the school-municipal-park division.

A few years ago Kelsey tried to bring some of his award-winning dirt to the Far East when Japan's baseball commissioner, Ichiro Yoshikuni, asked him to resurface all of Japan's major league parks with his special Garden State soils. Unfortunately, Japanese customs officials were evidently unimpressed by the American dirt; they deemed it to be an illegal agricultural product and sent it back to the States. These days Jim Kelsey's problems are really rather, well, down-to-earth. "All those piles of sand," he says, surveying his dusty domain, "I haven't been able to wear contact lenses in years."

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