Nothing says spring like fresh grass
The snow began to recede this week, revealing a newspaper from January 27, a Gatorade bottle and our Christmas tree, dragged to the curb just before two feet of snow fell. But the greatest revelation was a patch of grass, still small but undeniably spreading, like the happy opposite of a bald spot.
As much as I love a sheet of ice, a parquet floor, a clay court, a red carpet, a rubber track, three feet of fresh powder or 20 miles of new road, grass is sport's most indispensable surface -- its most indispensable substance. (Beer is second, leather third.)
I felt unworthy walking onto the court at the old Boston Garden, I felt giddy on the track at Churchill Downs but I felt like a criminal -- a criminal trespasser --when setting foot for the first time on the grass at Wrigley Field. And that was foul territory at the Friendly Confines. What must centerfield at Yankee Stadium feel like?
Lots of people know the answer, because fans used to celebrate championships by sprinting onto the field and tearing up the turf, the way screaming teens in newsreels tried to tear the clothes off the Beatles. Only stadium grass was better than a Beatle-sleeve -- grass could be transplanted in your back yard and didn't smell of Ringo sweat.
Today, of course, you don't get to tear up the grass at major league ballparks, just as you can't take the paintings home from the Museum of Modern Art, which is what baseball fields have become with their hypnotic stripes and checks and swirls. They're living neckties. Major league outfields have eclipsed Chia Pets, Disneyland topiaries and the Great Gardens of Europe in the pantheon of organic artworks.
As in the art world, grass has its own geniuses, men like Roger Bossard, The Sodfather, third-generation groundskeeper in his 45th season with the White Sox, a man who conjured soccer fields from the sand for the Saudi royal family, which must have considered him a kind of desert sorcerer.
To we in the north, spring training games are almost too bright to look at on a high-def TV, the grass an unnatural electric green that otherwise exists only on televised golf, which owes it success to the grass more than the golf. (I'd watch golf courses on TV without the golfers, but wouldn't watch golfers on TV without the golf courses. Nobody would.)
I'm not crazy. I'd still rather play on grass than look at it. Harmon Killebrew's mother used to complain that he and his brother were tearing up the lawn with their baseball games. Until his father, H.C. Killebrew, intervened. "We're not raising grass," he told his wife. "We're raising boys."
It's not possible to do both, which is why my grass looks like the last 60 percent of that word, even though I lovingly cut it on a riding mower, imagining all the while that I'm driving a Zamboni. "Make it look like Arsenal's," my soccer-playing daughters say. But Arsenal's groundskeepers sets an impossible standard, which is why head groundsman Paul Burgess was lured away to Real Madrid in 2009, another one of their superstar signings, a Galactico of the grass.
The late English manager Brian Clough said of longball soccer: "If God wanted us to play football in the sky he'd have put grass up there." But you don't need earth in heaven when you've got heaven on earth, which is what the most beautiful fields resemble.
I once watched a group of businessmen from Macau slip under a rope and step onto the immaculate grass at the Emirates Stadium in London, unable to resist running their loafer toes through the luxurious sod, after which they were frog-marched out by security.
Most of us can relate to the impulse, especially if you had that neighbor who didn't let you retrieve errant baseballs from their yard, forcing you to stand there, forlorn at the fence, on the other side of which the grass really was always greener.
Maybe that's why I'd rather watch Wimbledon than the French Open. I'll take the grass outfield seats at Scottsdale Stadium over any box seats, unless it's a flowerbox, which I'd happily sit in to watch a game.
I'm going to enjoy the grass before I'm on the other side of it, or my ashes are scattered across it somewhere -- perhaps behind the mound at Target Field, not because I have any special affinity for the Twins' new ballpark, to which I've only been once, but because it's the only way of ensuring that my family and friends will visit me.
Athletes appreciate good grass, and that's not an ancient Cheech-and-Chong reference. A survey of 1,619 players last season by the NFL Players Association revealed a topsoil Top 10 of NFL grasses, the Cardinals' being the best and the Steelers' being the worst. You'd have a greater appreciation for grass, too, if your face were being rubbed into it on a regular basis.
Which isn't a bad idea. At your earliest convenience, go graze a little. Lie in the grass, pick at it, turn a blade of it into the reed of a woodwind instrument and play that thing. You're only as old as your last grass stain. And to all who say this sounds as exciting as watching grass grow, I say: Exactly.