Blue Jays pave way for grass at the Rogers Centre
Preparations have already begun to make the highly anticipated transition to a natural grass field in time for the start of the 2018 MLB season.
Thursday, April 24 2014
You may notice a slightly more charcoal hue to the artificial turf and a few sharper bounces in the outfield at the Rogers Centre this season.
But what’s darker on the eyes is actually softer on the knees. The darker shade and livelier playing surface are the result of changes made by the Rogers Centre’s grounds crew to extend the turf’s lifespan.
Underneath the polypropylene blades of “grass” — think garbage-bag material — is an infill of black rubber beads, which are about the size of coarse coffee grounds.
Previously, that infill was a combination of sand and rubber, which, in the four years that the current turf has been in place, had grown hard and compact from the compression that occurs whenever the turf is rolled up and not in use. The sand particles had settled at the bottom, while the rubber bits deteriorated to the size of pepper grains.
“It created a very hard field,” said Kelly Keyes, vice-president of building services for the Blue Jays.
By the end of last season, Keyes and her crew knew they needed to make a change.
So this off-season the grounds crew, led by Keyes and head groundskeeper Tom Farrell, painstakingly tamped out all of the turf’s old infill and replaced it with a fresh all-rubber infill, doing away with the sand mixture. Hence the black streaks and puffs of what look like little black clouds when an outfielder dives on the turf or a ball skips hard on the surface.
Infielder Maicer Izturis said he noticed the difference right away.
“Absolutely, it’s a little softer this year,” he said earlier this month, before suffering a knee injury in Baltimore. “But the ball jumps a little bit more, too.”
But this year’s improvements are just a stop-gap, a means of squeezing another season out of the current field before purchasing a new AstroTurf field for next season, which will bridge the gap before natural grass is installed by opening day in 2018.
Preparations have already begun to make that highly anticipated transition, but the transformation is complicated and extensive, requiring not only rigorous study, but also physical retrofits to the stadium.
When Jays president Paul Beeston announced last September that the Rogers Centre would have natural grass by 2018, he framed the timeline as if it were a gesture of goodwill to the Toronto Argonauts, whose lease at the stadium was extended until the end of 2017.
But even if the Argos could move into a renovated BMO Field before 2018, the Jays would not be able to install grass any sooner; in fact, the organization needs every bit of the intervening four years to research and then produce the sod that will eventually be installed.
“We need the time as well to make sure we do this right, because we’ve got one shot at this,” said Stephen Brooks, the Jays’ senior vice-president of business operations. “As soon as you put jackhammer to concrete . . . you better know what you’re doing.”
Though the partnership has yet to be formalized, the Blue Jays are working with researchers at the University of Guelph to test and develop the blend of grasses best suited to the Rogers Centre’s unique conditions and also the methods by which it will be maintained.
In the meantime, the Jays still need a field on which to play.
After determining at the end of last season that the current turf needed a new infill, Farrell conducted extensive testing to ensure they used the appropriate amount of rubber. Too little and the field would play too fast and could also lead to injuries; too much and balls could skip and spring as if on a trampoline.
“It’s not going to bounce like a natural grass field — the technology is not there — but we tried to get it as close to real grass as possible,” Farrell said. “More important than anything is making sure that every time it bounces, it bounces the same.”
They used a device called a Clegg Impact Tester, which looks like a bicycle pump and provides a G-force reading to measure the hardness of the field. The NFL regulates a specific Clegg Impact measurement for its fields to protect players from concussions and other injuries. In baseball, however, there is no regulation, so Farrell simply tested by trial and error, seeing how the ball reacted while adjusting the rubber infill accordingly. He set up a pitching machine and fired balls into the outfield to ensure every bounce was consistent, and also hit groundballs to some of his staff to gauge the turf’s playability. “I’m not going to lie, that’s an enjoyable part of the job,” he said.
It’s an inexact science. The players want a somewhat hard surface, so the bounces are true and predictable; but they want it soft enough so it doesn’t pummel their knees and backs.
But why, when the grounds crew realized the turf was in trouble at the end of last year, did the Jays not just buy a new field for this year?
“There’s not a big warehouse of turf,” Keyes said.
The artificial field must be custom-designed to the Rogers Centre’s exact specifications, so raw materials are trucked up from Savannah, Ga., and the designers will actually work inside the stadium to build the field. There was not enough lead time to do that for this season, Keyes said.
Maintenance of the turf is made more difficult by the fact that the Rogers Centre is a multi-purpose facility, so the baseball field goes in and out about 40 times a year. If the field were down permanently, as it is at Tampa’s Tropicana Field, the upkeep would be a lot easier.
Football isn’t the only inconvenience. Concerts, monster truck rallies, Disney on Ice — “We take this up and down more than any place in North America,” Keyes said. And every time they do, the field suffers.
The field’s impermanence is also why Toronto can’t do an all-dirt infield, like Tampa.
Which brings us to the impending transition to natural grass.
When the SkyDome opened in 1989, 10 of Major League Baseball’s 26 teams played on artificial turf. By 2000 that number had shrunk to seven, and since 2010 only the Jays and the Tampa Bay Rays have played their home games on imitation fields. Meanwhile, the league’s successful new ballparks have all embraced classic open-air designs — even in cold-weather climates like Minneapolis and Philadelphia — that hearken back to the game’s nostalgic roots.
The turf also factors into the Jays’ ability to attract free agents, who are typically embarking on the second half of their careers and often deterred by the turf’s unforgiving reputation.
So now that the Jays are more than mere tenants — as they were back in ’89 — baseball has become the priority, at the expense of other endeavours.
“We’re looking at what’s best for the business and the analysis is really for grass,” Keyes said.
If only it were as simple as heading to Home Depot and picking up 143,000 square feet of sod. The four-year timeline before grass can be installed inside the Rogers Centre is based on a year of research and testing, followed by three years to produce the sod and grow the grass.
“For grass in the spring of 2018, you’ve got to sow the seed in 2015,” said Eric Lyons, an associate professor of turfgrass sciences and physiology at the University of Guelph.
Lyons said the sod requires at least 12 growing months, which, given the Canadian winter, means a minimum of a year and a half. Plus, if you want the grass installed at the beginning of spring, you need to harvest it the previous fall, he said. Commercial sod farmers also like to guard against the possibility of drought or disease. “They could produce it in two years, but they wouldn’t be able to guarantee it.”
Before the Jays even reach that point, they first have to find the right species of grass or blend of grasses, as well as the right soil mixture, artificial lighting system, irrigation system and whether or not any engineering changes have to be made to the stadium to manipulate air flow and humidity.
The Rogers Centre previously installed grass for a one-off soccer game without all this research and testing. But planting a baseball field for a full season is different from a brief exhibition. “We can get grass in here,” Farrell said. “It could last a homestand and all be dead.”
Milwaukee, Houston and Miami all have retractable-dome ballparks with natural grass, but the biggest differences between those stadiums and the Rogers Centre, Lyons said, is that their default configuration is open, while the Rogers Centre’s is closed.
“That creates a huge issue,” he said, pointing out that the grass will have to grow under artificial light for at least 60 to 90 days in the spring, and again in the fall. “Once you start growing plants indoors you have issues of humidity and low light and lack of air movement.”
That could make the grass susceptible to certain types of diseases, and that’s why the testing will take up to a year, Lyons said, as various grass cultivars are screened under the Rogers Centre’s specific conditions to judge their disease resistance and fortitude over an extended period.
Lyons also said that unlike soccer and football, you can’t be resodding a baseball field several times in a season.
“Soccer has a fairly large ball; if you lay two pieces of sod side by side and they’re off by half a centimetre, that’s not really going to affect the ball roll very much. In baseball, the ball is fairly small, so when it hits something like that it skips funny.”
Then, after all the different testing, it also has to look right.
“In the major leagues, looks matter,” Lyons said. “If we put a grass down there that grows fairly well under low light and is fairly wear tolerant and is resistant to some of these diseases, but it’s almost got a yellowish-green colour, would that fly?”
The Jays hope to have the species of grass selected and the bulk of the research done within the next year, so sod production can begin in 2015. Any stadium alterations can be carried out in the intervening years, so that after the 2017 baseball season, the first jackhammer can bust through the concrete floor with everyone confident the right grass is going in.
So while 2018 may seem a long way away, much has to happen between now and then. “You back up from there and you realize we need this time,” Brooks said. “And you got to be right or else there’s going to be huge issues.”