In a splash of laser beams, black clay and water, another baseball landmark took shape Tuesday at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.
The pitcher’s mound — the spring domain of Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer, Houston Astros lefty Dallas Keuchel and dozens of other major leaguers — started to rise for the first time from the middle of the infield in the main stadium.
And it was not just a matter of simply dropping a mound of dirt. It was more like molding a sculpture with help from more than 10 groundskeeping techs experienced in creating mounds to Major League Baseball specifications.
“It’s kind of a specialty art,’’ said Matt Eggerman, the ballpark’s director of field operations. “So, we’ve got lot of different guys from around the country who come down for a few weeks to help build the mounds at the same time and make sure the specifications are perfect for play for the major league guys.’’
The stadium off Military Trail at 45th Street just about looks like it’s ready for baseball. Blue seats, 6,500 of them, are installed, some waiting to be tagged with a number. The grass on the field is green, the special “Platinum TE” sod — the same turf used at Minute Maid Park in Houston — having taken root after it was laid in November.
Home plate was installed Monday. And later this month, the dirt “warning track” around the field will be laid.
On Tuesday, it was all about the pitcher’s mound, where the game action starts with each pitch.
Laser beams, aimed in a northeast direction from home plate toward second base, ensured an accurate alignment. Then, Cam Richardson and Zach Severns, groundskeepers with BrightView Sports Turf, started piling in sandy dirt and black gumbo clay.
Water was added. Dirt was compacted with hand-held tools called tamps. More dirt. More water. More tamping and shaping. The pitching rubber was installed. More dirt, water, tamping.
“It’s built in layers,’’ Eggerman said, rattling off a recipe that crews meticulously follow to create a mound to Major League Baseball specifications: 18 feet in diameter and 10 inches higher than home plate.
“You put about an inch of clay in, compact it and add more, combine it together, work it, make sure there enough moisture to compact it well. Raise it up in 1-inch layers to make it a firm base throughout.’’
The black clay is especially important on part of the mound in front of the pitching rubber because that’s where pitchers will land after unleashing 90-mph fastballs. “It needs to be firm and tight so it’s safe for them to land on,’’ Eggerman said.
That’s why Richardson brought out a machine called a vibrating compactor. It looks and moves like a lawn mower, hammering across every inch of the mound.
When it’s done on Wednesday, the mound will be just about ready for Scherzer, who won the 2016 Cy Young Award as the National League’s top pitcher.
Crews “have to work on the specialty clay and reshape the whole thing and make sure it’s uniform and smooth throughout so there’s no transitions,”Eggerman said. “We’ll make sure there adequate moisture in it and tarp it and keep it from drying out.”
The first game is Feb. 28 when the Nationals host the Astros. But Eggerman hopes the teams play a practice game or two in the new stadium before that first game, to test the mound and other parts of the field and “to make sure the players have everything they need and don’t have any complaints.’’
As Eggerman watched crews work on the mound, a stiff breeze blew in from right field.
“We’ll get that afternoon coastal breeze from the right field,” he said. “Left-handed hitters are going to have a hard time on days like today to hit one out.”
Fans can watch workouts at the new facility starting Feb. 18. Ballpark officials later this month plan to announce special parking details to make sure that fans watching the workouts will stay safe from other areas of the $144 million complex that are still under construction.