For something so vital to the game of baseball, dirt sure does get a bad rap. Players spend far more time on the dirt in the batter's box...
INDEPENDENCE TOWNSHIP, N.J. —
For something so vital to the game of baseball, dirt sure does get a bad rap.
Players spend far more time on the dirt in the batter’s box, pitcher’s mound and infield than they do on grass, but no one ever recalls their first visit to Yankee Stadium with a teary-eyed description of the base paths.
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And they didn’t call the Kevin Costner movie “Dirt of Dreams.”
Yet to hear a New Jersey farmer explain it, making the perfect baseball dirt is an art.
Meet Jim Kelsey of Independence Township, the DaVinci of Dirt.
The Warren County farmer supplies the reddish/orange clay that Mike Piazza knocks from his spikes and Derek Jeter wears on his shirt when he steals second base. He supplies the pitcher’s mound mix that Pedro Martinez will land on this season at Shea Stadium after firing a fastball and the firm warning track surface from which outfielder Hideki Matsui leaps to rob a batter of a home run.
In fact, Kelsey’s Partac Peat supplies dirt and other products to all 30 Major League Baseball teams, more than 150 minor-league teams, more than 700 colleges and thousands of towns and schools worldwide. So when he watches a baseball game on TV, it should be no surprise that Kelsey views it a little differently than most people.
“I’m always looking at the earth to see how it is performing,” he said.
Standing in front of a geyser of dirt being screened for oversize particles on its way to a gigantic Hershey’s Kiss-shaped pile last week, Kelsey is serious about his soil.
“You want a firm surface that doesn’t track, and a soft surface for sliding that drains well and doesn’t separate,” the lanky 57-year-old farmer said.
Too much silt in the mix and you get a dusty, hard layer that drains poorly and would leave a burning strawberry on the hip of a base stealer.
Although Kelsey’s trademarked Beam Clay Baseball Diamond Mix for the infields and batter’s boxes is reddish-orange, he also offers pitcher’s mound mixes in red, orange, brown and gray depending on a stadium management’s taste.
Piles of the raw materials from an on-site clay pit are scattered throughout Kelsey’s family-run, 1,000-acre property. Some raw dirt comes from other sources; the home-mined and imported dirts are screened and mixed to make the final product.
Although the Major League Baseball shipments are only a small portion of Kelsey’s overall business, it is what the business is best known for. And it gives the 15 workers at Partac Peat a sense of pride. Besides baseball, Kelsey supplies special soil and clay mixes to tennis and bocce courts, golf courses, football and soccer fields and track venues.
The story of the Kelsey business is one of reinvention.
Over a 60-year stretch, the Kelsey family has had a vegetable farm, then a peat business, then a sod farm, then a sand and gravel business on the property. A 1974 fire closed the peat packaging plant.
In 1978, Kelsey developed a sterilized topsoil for golf courses with Rutgers University that was spread on the greens to keep out diseases. The business boomed. In 1984, he bought the Beam Clay business, which supplied baseball dirt to a handful of major-league teams.
Kelsey has since expanded the business to supply every major-league team and thousands of other diamonds across the country. Pitching legends Nolan Ryan and the late Jim “Catfish” Hunter even ordered Kelsey’s Beam Clay mix for their pitching mounds at home.
Still, Kelsey remembers some baseball teams being skeptical when he told them about his particularly fine sports dirt with its low silt content. He recalls a representative of the California Angels telling him he was crazy for trying to market dirt all the way across the country.
When he began trying to market the sports dirt in trade magazines, there wasn’t even a category for it in the advertisement listings.
“One team used to get their clay from cemeteries once the graves were dug,” Kelsey said.
But as baseball salaries began to skyrocket into the millions of dollars, baseball management became increasingly concerned about providing better sports surfaces to protect their investment in the players.
Kelsey can supply the sports dirt, but it takes a talented groundskeeper to blend the surfaces.
“A great groundskeeper can take poor dirt and make a great field, and a poor groundskeeper can take great dirt and make a poor field,” he said.
“But we can help that great groundskeeper by giving him really good sports dirt to make his job a lot easier.”