What are the large piles of dirt in Madison? Sacred ground

News-DemocratMarch 31, 2014 

The large piles of dirt sitting beneath a hanger in Madison are sacred grounds.

By the fall, about 7,000 tons of it will have been transported to fill and resurface some of Major League Baseball's infields. From the America's Central Port in Madison, James Beever deals the dirt to the St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Royals.

"It's a very niche thing," Beever said. "You don't meet too many dirt salesmen that stores dirt under a roof."

In 2011, the Belleville native helped expand an existing turf company, Agro-Logics, and became a Midwest distributor for DuraEdge, a company that provides soil for professional, college and high school baseball and softball infields across the country. The distinct dirt comes from Slippery Rock, Pa., where DuraEdge is based.

It is mined and transported by barge along the Ohio River and then down the Mississippi River to the port district. From Madison, it is transported to Busch Stadium in downtown St. Louis, Kaufmann Stadium in Kansas City, all of the NCAA Division I baseball and softball fields in Missouri as well as Illinois college and high school fields, including Edwardsville High School.

Beever's love for the game was forged on the playing fields that he now landscapes. He was a catcher on Althoff Catholic High School's varsity team. After graduating in 1999, he played baseball at Southeast Missouri State University. He was then drafted and moved to pitching. After spending time in the minor leagues, including a stint with the River City Rascals in St. Charles, Mo., he became a coach for the Russian Olympic team in 2007. He then served the next two years as a scout for the Chicago White Sox.

By that time he had met the DuraEdge President Grant McKnight. The two started working together in 2011. Beever said he had always wanted to work with baseball diamonds.

"I've always had a fascination with baseball fields," Beever said. "So after I got done playing and scouting, I got into the dirt."

Beever began dealing the dirt four years ago. He initially distributed the dirt used at Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets and later added Slippery Rock soil to the infields at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia and Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. Two years ago, Beever expanded the business' reach and became a distributor of ballpark dirt in the metro-east. The company has provided the dirt for the Cardinals and its minor league affiliates in Springfield, Mo., and Peoria. Beever said that has provided some Cardinals, like infielder Kolten Wong, some consistency as the advance to the big league club because the ball reacts the same.

He said McKnight recognized that there was not a nationally recognized standard for baseball dirt, so he began looking for the right mixture to offer big league and amateur ballparks. What McKnight found was that the clay from the Western Pennsylvania ground retained moisture well and provided a true hop for infielders.

"The water stays in the ground and therefore when the ball hits it, the water absorbs the impact of the ball and it stays down and firm," Beever said. "That's important in baseball. You want the ball to play down and firm so it plays more like a cork board. So when the cleat goes into the ground and it comes out, it stays in place and you see a cleat mark."

The Pennsylvania clay is crushed and mixed with sand. The soil is tested and data is loaded into a computer to help Beever determine the level of desired clay, sand and silt needed.

DuraEdge provides dirt to 19 Major League Baseball teams, including 12 of the 15 teams in the National League. After last year's World Series, which included three games at Busch Stadium, the infield was dug up and refilled. Agri Logics transported dirt to the ballpark -- about a 15-minute drive by truck from the metro-east port, across the McKinley Bridge to the stadium downtown.

The company has distribution sites in Slippery Rock, Toledo, Ohio; Boston, Orlando, Ogden, Utah and Southern California. As of last week, the metro-east terminal was storing a mound of dirt for a minor league baseball stadium in El Paso, Texas and another is going to the baseball field at Texas Tech University.

The hanger stores different mounds of dirt for different areas of the field. Whereas the infield dirt helps retain water, dirt for the pitcher's mound is a heavier, more firm, or a "gumbo," as Beever calls it, to help the pitcher's footing. The company also provides the soil used for the warning track, which is made of crushed brick and limestone that a player can hear when he steps on it with his cleats to warn him that he is near the outfield wall.

Beever said Major League ballparks usually refill and re-cover their fields every five years or as need. Beever said "touch ups" are provided before and after each season and usually during the All-Star break at mid-season. In Madison, he keeps 25 tons in stock throughout the year for Cardinals and Kansas City Royals, just in case.

Beever also envisions assisting coaches throughout the region with field design while also providing a safe environment.

"I want to make dirt our focal point and provide a resource to help coaches out all the way from the minor leagues to the colleges and high schools," he said. "I want to show them how to make the infields better through science."

Contact reporter Will Buss at wbuss@bnd.com or 239-2526.

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