My younger brother bought a house in Mesa several years ago. I stayed with him at that house when I moved to Arizona. While he owned it, he chose to rip up the concrete patio and put in an artificial turf surface, a popular thing to do with a desert backyard. While we rode out a particularly rough monsoon, I watched as the rain threatened to flood the remaining concrete areas, yet efficiently and efficiently drained at the artificial turf patch.
Since then I’ve had a chance to take tours of several stadiums. I walked on natural grass and artificial turf systems for baseball, football, and soccer. Mind you, I didn’t field ground balls or practice cutting on turf, so I can’t speak to how well it’s working. A great deal of R&D has gone into perfecting these turf systems over the past 50+ years, which you can see on display every weekend. So-called third-generation products like Field Turf have become the surface du jour for football and field hockey, while soccer and baseball players tend to be more skeptical. It’s gotten to the point where there are formulations for the specific sports based on how much contact the ball has with the surface. We’ve come a long way from the old Astroturf with its rock hard carpet that caused ridiculously high bounces and rug burns. The new stuff is designed to be better playing, better draining, and most importantly for fans, better looking.
It’s not perfect yet, but in three ballparks I visited over the past three years, it’s easy to see how the technology has progressed. I capped off the 2017 season with visits to Toronto and Tampa, where new turf systems developed by AstroTurf and Shaw Sports Turf. Here in Phoenix, the Diamondbacks decided to replace their grass at Chase Field with a newer version of Shaw’s turf. So now we have three different iterations of the product in three MLB domed stadia to judge.
The Blue Jays’ Rogers Centre was the first with the latest generation of turf in 2015. In conjunction with the new turf, a full dirt infield was implemented. This was possible because the stadium’s football and soccer tenants moved to their own venue, BMO Field. The turf is called AstroTurf 3D Extreme, and nearly four years in, it’s a huge improvement over the old stuff.
Cosmetically, it still looks like carpet. At least it doesn’t have the strange sheen of the stuff at the Trop in St. Pete. This product is named TruHop.
Over in Phoenix, a newer version of the Shaw product was installed before this season, called B1K. These products are subject to nearly constant iteration. The old versions of artificial turf would often have a multi-year life span. Right now the emphasis appears to be on getting as true a bounce as possible while reducing the amount of “splash” from the crumb rubber infill, so it’s likely that the composition of the turf or dirt could change from year to year.
Sorry guys, when I saw this picture from the tour guide I recognized this shirt is WAY too big for me now.
Here’s the funny thing about these technologies. As turf becomes a more complex product to install and maintain, it requires more resources. It’s normal to water the turf, not because anything’s growing there, but rather to keep its plastic and rubber from compacting and drying up. Meanwhile, grass always seems like the more environmentally sound product due to it being organic, yet it requires lots of precious water and fertilizer has numerous chemicals.
Look, the next ballpark in Oakland is not likely to have an artificial surface. Baseball’s ancient pastoral feel is more than a field, it’s a milieu. Whether we’re talking about kids running the bases after games on Sundays, or the occasional fireworks or movie night on the grass, people want to experience it. It matters more in place that, unlike California, actually experiences all four seasons. Yet it still matters on the West Coast. It’s just nice to know that science is working the resolve many of the problems that plagued the older versions of turf. Chase Field may be replaced in the next 10 years. If it does the replacement will probably utilize turf. The next ballpark for the Rangers will be in a dome and will also use turf. MLB and the owners are looking at the turf experiments in Phoenix, St. Pete, and Toronto to guide their processes in the future. Who knows, ten years ago there were several improvements in grass (mostly by impregnating plastic) to make it more durable. Perhaps more innovation is due on the grass side. Whatever happens, it’s good to know that the gap is closing. Here’s to hoping the green we see out there is more than a color, it’s an attitude.