Artificial Turf Strikes Back in Baseball
Derrick Hall, CEO of Arizona Diamondbacks, received complaints about the natural playing surface at Chase Field for many years.
Players grumbled that the grass had dried and hardened over the course of the season, causing the ball to bounce too high and roll too fast. Medical staff feared that large patches of dead lawn could pose a risk of injury. Fans complained that the grass looked ugly after a summer of Phoenix’s harsh desert conditions and limited sunlight from the stadium’s retractable roof.
However, Hall refused to consider an alternative. “I’m a traditionalist,” he said. “I wanted real weed.”
Hall gave in last year and agreed to replace the grass in the downtown Diamondbacks ballpark with artificial turf. He changed his mind after discovering an artificial turf technology that he believes truly mimics the reality of the game and the impact it has on players ‘bodies: Shaw Sports’ B1K (“Batting 1,000”) system Turf from Georgia.
Artificial turf almost disappeared from Major League Baseball. Now it’s suddenly back. After eight years of having weed in their Little Havana home, the Miami Marlins switched to Shaw’s lawn in 2020. The Texas Rangers will also use it at Globe Life Field, their newly constructed stadium in Arlington, due to open later this month.
This represents a controversial change in ballpark design: three organizations, or 10% of MLBs, are moving from grass to turf within 12 months.
“We didn’t want the best Major League Baseball turf, we wanted the best Major League Baseball playing surface,” said Rob Matwick, Rangers executive vice president of operations. “People might say baseball should be played on grass. I would say it should be played on the best surface we can bet our players on. “
The Texas Rangers decided to install turf in their new stadium: Globe Life Field.
Jerome Miron / Reuters
Artificial turf came to baseball in 1966 after the grass at the Astrodome in Houston died of a lack of sunlight the previous year, forcing the Astros to play on green-painted dirt. AstroTurf – renamed ChemGrass after arriving in Houston – quickly conquered the industry as indoor (Kingdome in Seattle and Olympic Stadium in Montreal) and multi-purpose stadiums (Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh and Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati) became fashionable. By 1982, when the Minneapolis Metrodome opened, 10 of the 26 teams (38%) were playing on artificial grass.
Not everyone bothered to watch baseball play on a neon green carpet. In the 1988 film “Bull Durham”, as Kevin Costner portrays, Crash Davis delivers a monologue that includes the line, “I believe there should be a constitutional amendment banning AstroTurf and the batsman-designate”.
Taste began to return in 1992 when the Baltimore Orioles moved into Camden Yards, a baseball-only facility that sparked the construction of “retro” stadiums across the country. These stages contained elements from earlier stages and all contained grass.
As recently as 2018, only two teams played on an artificial surface: the Toronto Blue Jays at the Rogers Center with retractable roof and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field, the last domed stadium in baseball. Given the ongoing rumors of the Blue Jays potentially considering grass and the Rays actively looking for a new stadium in Florida or elsewhere, the end of artificial turf in baseball seemed possible after more than half a century, if not imminent .
“You can make turf that looks exactly the same but is still not grass,” said Mark Anderson, a 47-year-old Savannah, Georgia resident who runs the popular MLBcathedrals Twitter account, which posts images of ballpark images become its 82,000 followers. “It’s the fake versus real Christmas tree argument: some of the fake ones look phenomenal, but it’s still not a real Christmas tree.”
Chuck McClurg, vice president of Shaw Sports Turf, understands some fans think that way. “That’s a natural answer,” he said. “Baseball is America’s pastime. It was always played on natural grass. ”
But McClurg and the teams working with Shaw now insist that this latest incarnation of turf bears no resemblance to old-school AstroTurf, or even newer versions made up of individual blades of grass. A vegetable filling made from 90% coconut is used instead of the traditional rubber pellets and sand. Teams say the new substance looks like actual soil.
The ground team prepares the field for game action at Tropicana Field, the home of the Rays.
Dirk Shadd / Zuma Press
Jamie Reed, Rangers Senior Director of Medical Operations and Sports Science, actively participated in studies at Auburn University to test the surface. In 2018, Shaw visited the Rangers’ old stadium and shot baseball out of cannons to test how they would behave on the turf so it could reproduce speed and jump onto turf. Shaw also conducted kinesiology studies to create a surface that would not cause injury. This ultimately led the Rangers to abandon their original plan of trying natural grass in their new park in favor of Shaw’s lawn.
“I’m sure this artificial playing surface will be better in the future than trying to play real grass in a really difficult environment,” said Reed.
The three stadiums that replaced their grass have a lot in common: They play in cities with extreme weather and have retractable roofs. Three other teams – Astros, Milwaukee Brewers and Seattle Mariners – are currently playing in stadiums with retractable roofs and natural grass.
In Miami, the amount of rain and high humidity made growing good quality weed a challenge, resulting in a surface that was “inconsistent to our players” and “aesthetically not up to our standards,” said Adam Jones, chief revenue officer of Marlins. He added that man-made surfaces will make it easier for the marlins to use the stadium for non-baseball events during the season.
In Marlins Park, sand is placed on the artificial turf surface.
In Arizona, Hall said, adding turf has improved the experience for players and fans alike. In the case of grass, the diamondbacks had to keep the roof open until 4 p.m. before 7 p.m. at the earliest so that the sunlight falls on the grass. As a result, the players trained outside at temperatures of 110 degrees or more before games. Often times, the air conditioning didn’t turn on quickly enough to keep fans from sitting in a scorching building at the start of the game. Now the roof can remain closed all summer.
Hall admits he was initially concerned about the fan reaction but felt better in last spring practice session after the Diamondbacks installed turf on one of their practice fields. During a meeting with Special Adviser Joe Garagiola Jr., a woman outside the organization sounded disappointed with the move to turf.
“I just don’t think I’ll like it,” she said. “We should play on that.”
Then she pointed to the artificial turf.
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