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Why Western PA dirt is used in MLB infields

This is not a story about dirt.

It’s actually a story about an old asphalt plant, a set of computers older than the average baseball player and a man who revolutionized an industry he didn’t know existed.

OK, and it is about dirt.

But this dirt is special: It starts under the ground in Western Pennsylvania and ends under the cleats of the best baseball players in the world.

“Most people have no idea that the infield mix for Major League Baseball, from San Diego to Boston, comes from Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania,” said Grant McKnight, president and founder of DuraEdge.

DuraEdge, which has administrative offices in Grove City, counts 21 of MLB’s 30 stadiums among its clients, including iconic ballparks such as PNC Park, AT&T Park and Wrigley Field.

Matt Brown, the Pirates’ director of field operations, said DuraEdge has “revolutionized” the infield skin industry, even saving Pirates games that would have been postponed or delayed.

“When people see a DuraEdge infield, they are impressed with it and they want it in their field,” Brown said. “I think that speaks volumes of just how far we’ve come in just a 10-year stretch with DuraEdge.”

McKnight grew up in Slippery Rock, swam for Bucknell University and quit baseball at the age of 11. After his family’s coal business shuttered, McKnight worked for his father’s new construction-materials company; in 2000, while still working for his father’s company, he opened his own business, producing sand and soil mixes for golf courses.

While working on a project at Slippery Rock University’s new baseball stadium, McKnight talked to the athletic director about putting in the infield. The athletic director asked about the other places where McKnight had built infield surfaces.

“Nowhere,” McKnight responded. “This would be the first place.”

The athletic director was hesitant, but McKnight was undeterred. Still, it was new territory for baseball and softball. Unlike the golf industry, which had plentiful resources on turf management, McKnight couldn’t find anything from MLB on infield skins. So he had to experiment, making a test plot and dropping it off at the ballpark.

“They put it in,” McKnight said, “and the rest is history.”

Through the high schools and colleges that played at Slippery Rock’s stadium, McKnight, a 45-year-old father of four, started to build a network of groundskeepers who wanted the dirt — and helped him refine it. The Washington Wild Things were his first professional client in 2002. A few years later, the Philadelphia Phillies became the first MLB team to plunge into DuraEdge’s muddy waters.

All the while, McKnight was tinkering with the product. McKnight, who drives a Mercedes and is partial to automotive metaphors, said he honed the product at the major league level before distributing it to recreational fields — much like car safety features are tested on high-performing racecars before heading to the mass market.

“It was trial and error,” McKnight said. “All the research and development has been done at the major league level for all our products.”

In essence, he married aspects of his two companies: the soil science of the golf business and the mixing tools of the construction materials industry. The soil features finely measured ratios between silt and clay, blended with various amounts of sand.

DuraEdge makes its soil at a former asphalt plant in Plain Grove, near Slippery Rock. The operation runs on decades-old computers, in a trailer the team affectionately calls “mission control.” Large hoppers spit out sand and clay onto belt feeders, which carry the materials into a 1950s pugmill that McKnight bought at an old farm field in Ohio. Piles of red clay stand nearby, like scale models of the Grand Canyon.

Plus, there’s the “completely dumb luck” that McKnight happens to be from Western Pennsylvania, whose clay, he insists, is special.

“Not all dirt is created equal,” McKnight said. “It’s a very, very unique mineral.”

That clay, mined in a proprietary location near the plant, is the only material that appears in all of the company’s infields. DuraEdge ships that clay by barge, train and truck down the Ohio River and across Appalachia’s railways to the company’s nine mixing facilities throughout the country, where it’s blended with locally sourced sand.

What makes this dirt different from all other dirt? Brown said DuraEdge infields are easier to maintain, sturdier and less prone to “chunking” when a player slides or pivots, resulting in fewer funky baseball hops. Plus, the clay is absorbent, letting teams play in rain and even preventing costly postponements. Before the Pirates installed a DuraEdge infield in fall 2008, PNC Park averaged 5.6 postponed games each season. Since then, that number has shrunk to 2.5 postponed games per year, according to data provided by the team.

“Once it’s in place, it’s pretty much foolproof,” Brown said. “It takes an obscene amount of water, as you can see. We’re able to play four or five innings in a moderate rain and be completely fine.”

As DuraEdge’s footprint in MLB grows, so does the company. McKnight estimates there are about 1,200 to 1,500 DuraEdge infields, generally priced from $15,000 to $50,000, across the country. The business employs a few dozen people, most of whom work at the company’s offices in a former G.C. Murphy department store in Grove City. DuraEdge also sells “top-dressing” — crushed shale layered on top of infields — and warning tracks, which are made from Colorado lava rock.

Most of the Pirates’ minor-league affiliates have installed DuraEdge dirt, too. The team’s minor-league stadiums in Indianapolis and Altoona, along with Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla., use DuraEdge dirt.

“Just from an organizational standpoint, it’s very helpful to have your Single, Double, Triple-A fields mirror each other as much as possible,” Brown said. “That way the players build up a certain level of comfortability and they know what to expect when they’re moving up the ranks.”

Before this season, the team installed a brand-new DuraEdge infield, which Pirates infielders were quick to praise, although they credited Brown’s crew more than the silt-to-clay ratio and sand particle size of DuraEdge’s soil. Last year, shortstop Jordy Mercer noticed the field had some wear and tear, causing dirt build-ups and bad hops.

“Ours has been amazing this year,” Mercer said. “They did it right. It needed to be redone, but they did it the right way, and it’s been awesome.”

But perhaps the strongest endorsement came from utility player Sean Rodriguez, who recently returned to the Pirates after a stint with the DuraEdge-less Atlanta Braves at the new SunTrust Park.

“This place has been amazing, since I’ve been back a couple of days,” Rodriguez said of PNC Park. “Atlanta, I don’t know, being a new field, I don’t know if they’re still trying to get a feel for how it’s going to work, but I would definitely give this field a way bigger edge than Atlanta right now.”

Who knows? Atlanta may find a solution in Western Pennsylvania.-

ELIZABETH BLOOM

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

ebloom@post-gazette.com

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