Is It Baseball Or Pinball?

Unrolled as if from a monstrous machine, artificial turf has changed, in particular, that most pastoral of pastimes, baseball
August 11, 1985

The trouble really started 20 years ago inside Judge Roy Hofheinz's Houston Astrodome. In the refracted light and manufactured air of that monstrous vault, which the Judge trumpeted as the Eighth Wonder of the World, grass, humblest and dearest of all natural things, simply yellowed and died. From his aerie in the rafters of the Dome, the Judge stared long and hard through the 1965 season at the barren acres below. How could the good Lord have done this to him? Everything else in his self-contained universe worked except the one thing that wasn't man-made—the damned grass. What he had was a palace with a vacant lot for a floor. He also had a baseball team that had to play on something. From the game's beginnings, baseball has summoned up images of brilliant green fields, bright sunlight and gentle breezes. But the Judge had his substitutes—powerful overhead lighting for the sun, air-conditioning for the breezes. Now he would have to improve on nature one more time.

He contacted the Chemstrand Company, a division of Monsanto, which had been experimenting with ersatz grass for several years. They called it ChemGrass, a term that fairly reeked of the laboratory. Chemstrand showed the Judge its stuff, and Hofheinz was impressed. The chemical grass could be tinted greener than the real thing, and it needed neither sunshine nor moisture to thrive, just an occasional vacuuming. Just like his lights and his air, it would be better than anything outside the Dome. The turf, about 85% nylon, had, according to Chemstrand, "much the same texture as a stiff, thickly bristled nylon hairbrush." The plan was to lay the hairbrush only in the infield at first and then, provided baseballs didn't start ricocheting off it up to the ceiling, spread it over the outfield that summer. With the last patch sewn in place, the Astrodome would sport the biggest wall-to-wall carpet—about three acres—in the history of interior decorating. Monsanto, after consulting its ad department, decided to call the big rug AstroTurf, a name that delighted the Judge and sounded a lot less test-tubish than ChemGrass. One question now remained: Could they play baseball on it?

The test came on March 19, 1966 in the first game of a two-game exhibition series between the Astros and the Dodgers. Under any circumstances, the Dome was a decidedly odd setting for baseball; now it looked as if someone had set a pool table down in a desert. Where grass should have been in the infield, there was Monsanto's bogus greenery. The outfield was still a wasteland of failed horticulture.

The new turf proved to be something more than a curiosity. Infielders praised its "true bounce," an expression now integral to turf lexicon. But some players complained that the ball got to them all too suddenly. Joe Morgan, then the Astros' second baseman, noticed that grounders took an erratic spin from the turf to the dirt, and Bob Lillis, then a Houston infielder, now the manager, found it strange that balls hit to shortstop invariably spun toward second base. Bart Shirley, an obscure Dodger infielder, was the most outspoken critic of the new surface. "Someone's going to break an ankle on this stuff before they're through," he groused prophetically. Columnist Red Smith wrote, "Under the worn soles of a sportswriter it feels like the carpeting in a funeral home."

Morgan, only 22 in 1966 and in his second full major league season, saw the funny lawn as nothing more than a novelty. "I thought it was something that would be unique to the Astrodome because the grass wouldn't grow there," he recalls now. "I couldn't imagine anyone using it outside. I couldn't see that it would change the game completely."

But it would. By July 9, 1966, the entire floor of the Astrodome was carpeted, and within the next 11 years, 10 new baseball stadiums, six more in the National League and four in the American, would install artificial surfaces of one kind or another. At Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium, they even did away with most of the infield dirt in 1970, preserving only the sliding cutouts round the bases. Others, including the Astrodome, would quickly do the same.

Two older stadiums, Chicago's Comiskey Park and San Francisco's Candlestick, would first put the stuff in and then, wisely, take it out. Comiskey had a rug infield from 1969 through '75, when Bill Veeck, a baseball man with his roots firmly in grass, bought the team and ordered the offending carpet removed. Candlestick had turf installed in 1971 when enlargement of the stadium was completed for the 49ers. Suddenly, a ball park had become a multipurpose stadium. But the Niners, who had wanted an artificial field in the first place, reconsidered after a succession of turf-related injuries devastated the team and requested that it be replaced by grass. The turf was replaced in 1979.

Candlestick has had its problems, to be sure, but if nothing else it has demonstrated that a stadium can house both a baseball and a football team and still have living grass. Regrettably, however, three major league ball parks—in Houston, Seattle and Minneapolis—are domed, and no one has yet come upon a way to grow grass there.

Morgan was right about the rugs changing the game. They have proved to be average-boosters for the chop hitters. "The turf helped me when I was young and just learning to hit," says Kansas City's George Brett. "I'd just hit the ball on the ground and run. But I'm a different hitter now—a line-drive hitter—and the turf just doesn't make that much difference." The ground-rule double, that high hopper over the outfield fence, has come to be considered a turf staple. And what is duller than a ground-rule double with a runner on first who cannot score?

And then there is the cheap inside-the-park homer. Granted, the inside-the-parker is exciting. Willie Wilson, the Royals speedster who has played all of his home games on turf, has hit an amazing 10 on artificial surfaces in his career and only three on grass. It's an exciting play, yes, but not when it's laughable. Twins second baseman Tim Teufel hit a real howler on June 24, 1984 in the ninth inning of a game with the White Sox at the Metrodome—a soft, looping fly ball that White Sox rightfielder Harold Baines imprudently came too close to catching. The ball hit the hard surface in front of poor Baines and rebounded to its original altitude. Baines could only retreat in confusion as the ball hopped unattended to the fence. He had tried to field Teufel's ball as if he had been playing on a real grass outfield, and that was his mistake. Charge a ball on turf and you risk never seeing it again. You also risk injury. The worst of it was that Teufel's el cheapo scored three runs and defeated the Sox' Richard Dotson, 3-2, when he was within two outs of a shutout.

"Artificial turf limits my defense," says the Orioles' Fred Lynn, a brilliant centerfielder who has had the good fortune to play only for grass teams. "I have to play deeper because the ball bounces so much higher and faster, and I can't dive for a ball the way I do on grass because of the danger of getting hurt. When a ball bounces 30 feet over your head, I don't think that's baseball the way it was meant to be played. I guess I'm a purist."

Infielders play much deeper on turf than they do on grass because the ball goes through much faster. And they needn't fear the unexpected bunt as much because bunts roll about the way grounders do on real grass. The prerequisite for a turf infielder, says National League president Chub Feeney, "is a strong arm." The Reds' Dave Concepcion has invented a special turf throw: On balls hit in the hole between short and third, he will intentionally throw the ball on one hop to first, on the questionable theory that the ball will get there faster this way than it would in the air. And then, to be sure, there is the famous "true hop" to make it all easier. "On turf the ball comes to me and says, 'Catch me,'" says Kansas City utility infielder Greg Pryor. "On grass it says, 'Look out, sucker.' "

In fact, Morgan is convinced that artificial fields have spawned a whole generation of mediocre and overrated fielders. "I think playing on grass puts a premium on good fielding," he says, "and that's why I always preferred it. On grass, you have to learn how to play the ball. On turf all you have to do is get your glove down. I think it's made a lot of mediocre infielders look better than they are. The same in the outfield: A guy with only a fair arm can look good. It used to be that guys with great arms like Willie Mays would make that throw to the plate on one hop. Now all a guy has to do is get the ball a little bit past second, and it'll just skim home that much faster. As for hitting, I don't see where turf helps anybody but chop hitters. You can play pure hitters so much deeper because outfielders can run faster on turf and they get to balls that might have gone through the gap on real grass." Strong-armed, though not necessarily adept, infielders and fair-armed, speedy outfielders—that's the turf game.

In the heat of an Eastern or Midwestern summer the outfielders had better keep on the move or risk incineration, because it gets hotter than Hades down on the fake greensward. "The heat is unbearable," says Brett. "I can remember one time before a night game when it was 140 degrees at five o'clock on our turf. On hot days, we always have a bucket of ice in the dugout so that when we come in off the field, we can just step in it and cool off. You can lose 10 pounds in a game, maybe more if you go 4 for 4 with two triples. A DH might lose only six or seven."

Brett is convinced, as are many other players, that the turf shortens careers. "It's taken its toll," he says. "It's hard out there, and it gets you in the back of the legs, the ankles, the lower back. You hurt all over. Playing on grass is like a paid vacation." The Royals' second baseman, Frank White, who will be 35 in September, says, "When I was in my 20s, I thought turf was the greatest. Now I'd have to say it's not my best friend. When a player gets in his middle 30s, he's got to take days off playing on turf. I think it shortens careers, and if it doesn't do that, it certainly shortens productivity."

Sure, they do keep improving the stuff. The original turf of 20 years ago is no closer to the new carpets they've spread in Kansas City, St. Louis and Toronto than a bath mat is to a bear rug. AstroTurf-8 is, according to Monsanto, "a high-tech engineering marvel" that is "soft, smooth and rain-proof." The new K.C. AstroTurf does have a drainage system so effective that it makes obsolete the heavy machine formerly used to suck up moisture after a rainstorm. That's to the good because the machine tamped the turf down and made it even harder. The old Royals Stadium surface was so unyielding that Dave Lemonds, a former White Sox pitcher, likened a game there to "playing with marbles in a bathtub."

What is most pathetic about these conscientious efforts at improving the product is that they are directed at making the unreal seem real. Consider this blurb from a Monsanto press release on the new $1.7 million Royals Stadium field: "Nitrogen gas inside millions of tiny cells gives the pad cushioning properties that closely match those of a well-maintained grass field." So why didn't they just go ahead and plant grass in the first place? That's precisely what the players wanted. When it was learned last year that the Royals were going to replace their old field, a local newspaper polled the players on whether they wanted grass or turf. The vote was 22-3-1 for grass, the only dissenters being a designated hitter and two subs.

Kansas City sees turf as an absolute necessity, and so does that other "small market" community, Cincinnati. "Forty percent of our fans come from outlying areas," says John Schuerholz, the Royals' general manager. "We have to convince them that when it's raining—and it rains a lot in Kansas City—we'll play. Otherwise they'll stay home, and we'll be hurting. With our new field, water disappears off it as if by magic."

So what do we have here, a necessary evil? Let's hope not. Those who like to smell the grass continue to push for open stadiums built exclusively for baseball, as opposed to domed multipurpose stadiums, and tailored to the game's more intimate dimensions. In San Francisco, for example, there are two proposals before the Giants and city hall calling for a small baseball-only stadium right downtown and with a grass field.

Indeed, the ultimate damage the turf movement has done is to the very look of baseball. That pool-table image doesn't work with a game that should have the look and feel and smell of a summer outing. Part of the joy on entering a ball park is seeing that expanse of freshly mowed lawn. What a jolt it is to view something so obviously bogus as a mat painted to look like grass. Why even bother with green? Why not paint the stuff purple and spray it with eau de cologne? Baseball is ruts and holes, pebbles and, yes, bad hops. Bad hops are lore. Would Freddie Lindstrom still be remembered if he had gotten a true hop in that final game of the '24 Series? The true hop is a sop to the mediocre, the unimaginative, the unresourceful. It takes an artist to read a grounder streaking across irregular terrain. And baseball is artistry.

The ballplayers themselves sense that something is wrong with their game. "Artificial turf takes away from the beauty of baseball," says Bruce Bochte of the Oakland A's. "This is a pastoral game, a Sunday afternoon at the park. It's a relaxed summer game. Nothing should destroy that."

ILLUSTRATIONED RENFRO ILLUSTRATIONED RENFROTurf's Astrodome debut is not a happy milestone. ILLUSTRATIONED RENFROIt looked as if someone had set a pool table down in the middle of a desert. ILLUSTRATIONED RENFROCharge a ball on artificial turf and you risk never seeing it again.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)