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Original Issue


Supposedly a money saver, artificial turf is now the big thing in baseball. Faster and bouncier than grass, it is changing the old game—but not entirely for the better

Geoffrey Chaucer

Richie Allen

Grass, the old-fashioned, common, green growing stuff, is dying out, a lamentable death wrought of ambiguity and polyestered progress. In most cities more of it is found on air controllers' radar scopes than on the ground. Some people spend their time smoking it rather than mowing it, while others busily try to weed out the smokers instead of dandelions. Grass in America, it seems, has had its heyday, and no place is it less in clover than in one of its oldest strongholds, baseball.

This season ball parks in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and San Francisco have gone the way of Houston's Astrodome and Chicago's White Sox Park by sewing synthetic playing surfaces. Fake fields are easier and cheaper to maintain, say their owners, most of whom are steely traditionalists on other matters pertaining to the game. Players and managers, who do not approach the question of field conditions by first checking a five-year depreciation schedule, are at best ambivalent about the new surfaces and how they will affect the playing of baseball. Groundkeepers are unambiguous. They, like the purists among the fans, abhor artificial fields. In fact, the only thing that everyone can agree upon about the new diamonds is that soon there will be more of them.

Philadelphia will open its new park complete with an AstroTurf surface next season, and, although the stadium-building boom seems to have now run its course, many older parks, especially ones in which football and baseball are played, have already been surveyed for rugs.

With the exception of Houston, where the original synthetic field was installed when it was discovered, to no one's great surprise, that grass is difficult to grow indoors, the laying of artificial baseball fields has been guided by economics. It is estimated that, on an average, a surface pays for itself in reduced maintenance costs in seven years.

Impressive for stockholders or city councilmen but unconvincing to the players, if Cardinal Shortstop Dal Maxvill is any indication. Maxvill is the lone player representative on the Baseball Commissioner's artificial-turf committee, and he prefaced his remarks on the new fields with an obscenity. "I don't think any of us like it, deep down," he continued. "Oh, some guys may say they like it because they know it's here to stay, but, really, I don't think they do."

A SPORTS ILLUSTRATED sampling of player opinion on all major league teams reveals strong support for Maxvill's view. Very few players wholeheartedly approve of the new fields, although most can count some advantages for their personal strengths or their teams'. A significant minority, including Managers Ted Williams and Leo Durocher, are outspokenly against artificial turf.

Most of the complaints involve the heat on the playing surfaces and the hardness of their asphalt bases. The stiff foundations cause batted balls to travel at higher velocities and have given some players, mostly older ones, sore legs. Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, which is covered with Tartan Turf instead of the AstroTurf used at the other parks, generally receives better comments from National League players. They feel its slower surface makes the ball travel at more reasonable speeds, and its better underpadding allows more comfortable running.

Houston's five-year-old AstroTurf field, the first installation of the sort anywhere in the world, is the most widely criticized except when the players talk of heat. (The air-conditioned Astrodome is always 72°.) Cooking thermometers have become a standard part of baseball equipment this season as managers, trainers and sportswriters have engaged in measuring the effects of the midday sun on field-level climate. Temperatures as high as 160° on the surface and 134° just above it have been reported in Cincinnati. On a 90° day in St. Louis, the temperature was 123° at the surface, and 114° six feet above it. The heat conditions are caused by the baking asphalt under the turf, which, unlike grass and dirt fields, does not give off cooling, evaporating moisture.

"It's like playing on a shopping-center parking lot on a hot day," says Brave Manager Luman Harris, who is otherwise uncritical of the synthetic fields. Last spring outfielders at games in St. Louis and San Francisco found that blisters formed on the bottoms of their feet even on cool days. Infielders learned the same lesson later in the season when Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium opened. There even the dirt infield has been eliminated, except for sliding areas around the bases and home plate. At all these fields players now wear innersoles in their spikes, but some, like the Giants' Bobby Bonds, have found they do not protect against blistering. Two Florida inventors have recently begun selling innersoles to the Reds that have built-in intake valves and exhaust vents to circulate cool air under the feet as the wearer walks or runs. Because artificial turf is not as easily pierced as dirt, the Pirates' Willie Stargell and others have switched to wearing ripple-soled shoes for better traction. A greater number of players, including the entire Giant outfield, have gone to wearing soccer-type cleats for the same reason. They must be careful to use shoes fitted with rubber or heat-resistant synthetic cleats, since the plastic fittings manufactured to be worn on grass melt on synthetic surfaces.

The heat problem is barely reduced on warm summer nights. During this year's All-Star Game in Cincinnati, Boston's Carl Yastrzemski, one of two men to play all 12 innings, had to change his sweat-soaked shirt three times.

The speed with which balls carom off the hard surfaces is the other primary source of players' complaints. Three Dodgers—Pitcher Don Sutton, Utility-man Bill Sudakis and Infielder Bill Grabarkewitz—offered typical critiques, even though their fast, spray-hitting team has won 16 of 24 games on artificial turf this year.

"It's like trying to catch rocks as they skip across a lake," said Sutton, who should know. Like other pitchers, he is the only member of the defense who cannot play deeper to allow the fast-moving balls extra room.

"It's faster—like stickball," added Sudakis. "It's like trying to play with a rubber ball on cement."

"No matter where you play in the infield, you're a third baseman. Everything hit is a shot," Grabarkewitz concluded.

Met First Baseman Donn Clendenon gave a casual display of the extra life in synthetic fields during a series last week in St. Louis. After taking a throw for the final out of an inning he dribbled the ball basketball-style to the mound as he returned to the dugout. Giant Coach Jim Davenport no longer says he is leaving for the stadium when he heads to a game at Candlestick Park. Instead, he says, "It's time to go to the basketball court."

Before the artificial turf came into wide use its springiness was well known. Because of it, certain changes in the game were predicted. Two of the most popular forecasts were that many more runs would be scored and that certain batters—like the Reds' Pete Rose and the Pirates' Matty Alou and Roberto Clemente, who are expert ground-ball and line-drive spray hitters—would suddenly revive the era of the .400 hitter. Neither has come true. Of the four teams that moved onto synthetic fields this season, two have averaged fewer runs per game on artificial surfaces than off them. The Pirates show an increase in scoring of seven-tenths of a run per game and the Cardinals only four-tenths. And the spray hitters have yet to turn the surface to their advantage. Alou has averaged .270 in Pittsburgh's new stadium, and Clemente has hit .323. Both figures are well under the players' season averages. Rose has suffered similarly in Cincinnati.

Pitchers are still moaning—"There goes another synthetic single over the bogus blades of the ersatz infield" or something to that effect—every time they see a grounder bounce over the shortstop's head, yet they deserve no sympathy. The higher, speedier bounces and the faster roll that baseballs take on artificial turf have indeed added hits on batted balls that would have been outs in the past. Yet, as the decreased number of runs scored indicates, they have subtracted hits, too. The truer bounce has made the ball easier to grab once it is caught up to. Even with the infielders playing deeper—some of them on the edge of the outfield—balls that formerly would result as forceouts become double plays, even in the case of such fast left-handed batters as the Dodgers' Willie Davis and the Cards' Lou Brock.

In the future smart positioning and quick hands probably will become more important than range for infielders. "Anybody who hits the ball in the air in a park with artificial turf should fine himself," argues San Diego Coach Bob Skinner. "Not only do you have a better chance of beating out the choppers, but the outfielders are going to be playing deeper and catching more of the long flies."

Outfielders tend to bunch deep in toward the power lanes in right and left center field to cut off doubles and triples. The synthetic turf does not slow ground balls as grass does, so un-fielded grounders in the outfield will usually roll lo the wall before they stop. This billiard-table effect, plus the unusually high bounces that line drives take, have made outfielders even more standoffish than infielders. A typical play could have cost the Mets a victory in their crucial series in St. Louis last week. A liner to right center that easily could have been contained for a single by Rightfielder Ron Swoboda on a grass field took a high, fast bounce into the alley. Only an ungainly leap, at full speed, by the Mets' fielder prevented an extra-base hit. The next day Swoboda gave up a triple when he missed fielding what seemed a simple single. To protect against balls rolling routinely to the wall, the defense will have to give up more Texas League singles and concede triples on hits down the foul lines that normally would go for doubles. However, extra-base hits in the alleys and long blows over the outfielders' heads may be rarely seen on synthetic fields.

The faster surfaces are also forcing managers to revise their strategy. "I won't play my infield in unless it's the last of the ninth and there's a runner on third who can beat me," says San Diego's Preston Gomez. Although drag bunting may be easier on artificial fields, since the ball will roll faster past the in-charging defenders, sacrifice bunts of the type that merely drop in front of the plate and stop may become extinct. Even with the first and third basemen laying back farther than they do on grass fields, the fast surface often results in cutting down the lead runner. Some managers have already begun to rely more heavily on hit-and-run and run-and-bunt tactics in traditional sacrifice situations.

The one aspect of the synthetic surface that is unanimously praised is the uniformity of the bounces it produces. Good fielders can pursue grounders more aggressively because they can be certain that they will not have to make adjustments with their gloves at the last moment to cope with bad hops. "The surface should help good fielders and hurt bad ones," says the Braves' Harris. Most infielders agree, even to the point of preferring Cincinnati's all-artificial surface, despite the heat underfoot. "I thought the all-rug infield would cut down my range, that I wouldn't be able to get to a lot of balls I'd handle on dirt," says the Phils' shortstop, Larry Bowa. "But I was wrong. I discovered I could get a good jump and, with every hop a true one, I have to vote for this kind of infield." Third and first basemen, who play behind the sliding pits at their bases on the Reds' new field, are not as enthusiastic because of the irregular bounces grounders take in the pits.

The groundkeepers are among the few baseball people who have made a firm decision on the new turf. They think it is a pile of old-fashioned fertilizer. Matty Schwab, crew chief at Candlestick Park, used to water his field when it was dry, fertilize it a couple of times a year and cut it every Tuesday and Friday morning. Now a pair of his men spend two hours every morning vacuuming the field with a 10-foot-wide machine. Once a month the surface is sudsed up with detergent and rinsed off with a fire hose. Occasionally acetone is applied to remove globs of chewing gum.

Cigarette butts and football games are special problems. Visitors to the field who unluckily begin to light up are immediately set upon by legions of stadium guardians. Hot ashes, matches and crushed cigarette stubs leave the same sort of brown rings on plastic fields that they would on the Oriental rug in the living room. The lines drawn on the new surfaces are supposed to be washable with detergent and water, but, as anyone who has watched recent Sunday baseball games knows, it has not worked out that way. Attempts to remove the yard lines from football games preceding baseball games have left clear outlines of the gridiron on the field. They have also swamped the surface. Despite attempts to push off the excess water, blow it off and wring it out, it still remains, often for days.

"If it was my grass, I'd kick you off it quick, but not this stuff," Schwab said to a reporter meandering across his new field this spring. Although Schwab retains the appearance of a gardener, with his tanned, leathery skin and a crumple, straw fedora, he hardly feels like one. "Pride is lost," he said. "There used to be some talent involved in groundkeeping. You'd find a worn spot—rake it—seed it—put a little fertilizer on it—water it. Now you don't get to see anything grow."

The biggest losers of all in the new ball parks of even bounces and inorganic sterility may be the fans. Already there are some who are saying that the traditionalist owners who like to assign a position for baseball somewhere between God and motherhood are—not to put too fine a point on it—full of polystyrene bunk. The game is sorely in need of a change in attitude, but not in fields. A plastic field, like a two-day-old bologna sandwich pulled out of a bus-terminal vending machine, fills a momentary need but is unlikely to attract a long-standing clientele.

Baseball cannot be readjusted to compete with football's violence or basketball's speed. Its lasting attraction must be its atmosphere of relaxation and naturalness. The Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs still play day games in old, but very friendly, well-gardened parks. Their attendances are better than all but a few teams in baseball, even though their teams have been particularly frustrating also-rans the past two seasons. In both cities an unusually high percentage of young people attend games. The atmosphere is warm, unhurried, occasionally exciting and generally very healthy, roughly the sort that an older person would associate with a picnic or a younger one with a rock festival. Fifty-nine-year-old Twin Coach Frank Crosetti said early this season, "What they're playing on those fields isn't baseball. I'm glad I didn't have to play on it. The people who invented baseball intended that it be played outdoors on the good earth and under the sun. It's what I call "a natural game'—on infields and outfields of grass." Or, as Richie Allen says, the kind that a horse can eat.