Slippery Rock company finds success in its field
By Karl Henkel
SLIPPERY ROCK, PA.
When the Cincinnati Reds, a team that had two games postponed last season because of unplayable field conditions, needed a new warning track, they looked to Slippery Rock, Pa.
When the Miami Marlins, a team set to debut a new stadium this season, needed a new infield skin, they looked to Slippery Rock.
More than half of Major League Baseball looked to Slippery Rock for its infield soil needs.
What is the deal with Slippery Rock?
The Western Pennsylvania borough is home to Natural Sand Co., a soil engineering company that manufactures DuraEdge products, which are blends of clay, sand and silt for professional, college and little league baseball fields.
Grass often gets a bulk of the attention — the cutting, the trimming and the watering — but arguably, the most crucial part to any baseball field is the dirt, in the batter’s box, on the pitcher’s mound and in the infield, home to most of the action.
Natural Sand Co., owned by Slippery Rock native Grant McKnight, says it has revolutionized infield dirt at its Harlansburg Road plant, a few miles south of Grove City and just a stone’s throw from the Mahoning Valley.
The uniquely blended mixes are specifically engineered for individual ballparks based on cost, need and climate, but all have the same intention: to make the field playable no matter the weather conditions.
There is no better anecdote for the company’s r sum than last August in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, which doused the East Coast with more than a half-foot of rain.
The Monday after the storm dissipated, the New York Mets hosted the then-Florida Marlins in a matinee.
The Mets are one of 16 MLB teams that use DuraEdge products, which are becoming more popular at college and little-league levels.
“I’ve never seen a company so primed for growth or with this much marketing potential,” said Jonathan B. Honthy, chief financial officer, Boardman resident and Youngstown State University graduate, who joined the company just six weeks ago.
THE SPECIAL MIX
Instead of standard clay, sand and silt-based product for use across America, Natural Sand Co. specially creates DuraEdge productsSFlbfor each individual stadium.
The recipe looks something like this: McKnight starts with silt and clay, which he mines from a mine he purchased in 2005 in Pennsylvania’s Indiana County.
The ratio of silt-to-clay, or SCR, needs to be about 0.5 to 1.
That ratio, McKnight says, is the most critical aspect of any field mix.
If the SCR is too low, a field will feel like a beach when conditions are dry; the field also will get chunky when wet.
If the SCR is too high, a field will be dusty when conditions are dry; the field will get mucky when wet.
The silt-clay concoction is then mixed with varying amounts of sand, purchased locally near the ballpark of interest.
Mixes with a higher percentage of sand, around 75 percent or so, are mixes used at little league and recreational levels.
Major League Baseball stadiums, such as PNC Park in Pittsburgh, use mixes with lower percentages, say, 55 percent.
Field renovations, which consist of about 75 tons of reformulated mixes of field substances, can cost about $5,000 to $15,000, depending on the size of the field.
Complete removal and replacement of field substances can cost $25,000 to $40,000 at the high school and college levels, like at Slippery Rock University, the first field McKnight ever refurbished.
A complete overhaul of an MLB field, which can use nearly 450 tons of soil, can cost $85,000 to $90,000.
The total process takes six weeks on average, from soil sample testing to shipping to the three days needed to install the infield skin.
THAT’S NOT ALL
On the field, different components are used in different areas of the field.
For instance, the substance for the pitching mound and batter’s box, two of the most heavy- traffic areas during a baseball game, uses an additional product: psyllium powder.
Psyllium powder is the product used in Metamucil, which thickens the consistency of another substance, in this case, the infield soil.
The psyllium powder increases the stability of those field areas and does not compromise the permeability, or the ability for the soil to accept and retain moisture.
The baselines, infield and warning track get their own special soil formulas.
This allows Natural Sand Co. to develop soil formulas specific to a field’s needs.
Take for instance Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.
Last year, the Reds had two home games postponed because of inclement weather.
The warning track had flooded because the soil was unforgiving and did not absorb most of the rain-water.
As McKnight points out, each home baseball game is worth about $1.5 million to a team; a few thousand dollars on a warning track upgrade, which Cincinnati will pay for this year, is worth the cost.
A GROWING BUSINESS
McKnight never envisioned working with clays and sands. McKnight, a former swimmer, also never envisioned he’d work in baseball.
“I was not a baseball guy,” he said.
But the longtime construction-materials business owner in 2001 started looking into a field job at Slippery Rock University’s Jack Critchfield Park.
“There was no standard for how an infield skin should play,” McKnight said of the baseball-field logic.
“You have to get the field favorable to preserve the integrity of baseball, but be able to get the field ready to host multiple events.”
The university loved McKnight’s result, and McKnight slowly directed more of his time to soils and clays.
Five years later, he decided to shift all of his attention to the subject, and he’s never turned back, setting up satellite locations in Toledo, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Colorado and possibly St. Louis. DuraEdge products are sold nationally through distributors in multiple areas.