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Losing ground

By Jonathan Rowe / November 20, 1987



THE recent World Series did bear a certain resemblance to baseball. There were shortstops and double plays, boneheaded calls by umpires, moments of glory for journeymen players who will now slip gentle into that good baseball night. But in crucial respects, baseball - the game, not what team owners call the ``product'' - was missing. Leave aside for the moment the ``designated hitter'' rule and Minnesota's domed stadium, of which the less said the better. Something even more fundamental was wrong with this year's Series: grass, or rather, the lack of it.

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For the third time in history (the first was in 1980), all the games were played on green nylon carpeting called ``artificial turf,'' or ``AstroTurf.'' Not once, during all seven games, did a baseball touch a single blade of grass.

Nowhere is the affection of pro sports owners for artificial playing surfaces more regrettable than in baseball. In no other sport is the field itself so much a part of the game.

Old time ballparks (note that word) entwine themselves into the proceedings, like the eccentric streets of old European cities. Yankee Stadium's diminutive right-field line, built for Babe Ruth, or even San Francisco's Candlestick Park, where the wind actually ripples the grass. As often as not, the park itself separates home runs from fly outs, winners from losers.

The contact between ball and field - a bad infield hop, for example - figures more largely than in many other sports. And who could forget the confrontations between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers in the '50s, the way the late afternoon sun, declining behind the grandstand, threw majestic shadows across Yankee Stadium or Ebbets Field below? In the batter's box, Duke Snider and Jackie Robinson were enshrouded in darkness, rendering all the more dramatic their efforts to master Whitey Ford's elusive curves.

The ways artificial surfaces interrupt such dramas have become almost a litany. Routine grounders scoot across the infield to become cheap base hits. Fly balls bounce over outfielders' heads, making a surreal slapstick of this most dignified of games.

Grass, by contrast, softens hard liners and helps the outfielder set up for a long throw to the plate. The home team can cut it long or short, adding an element of strategy and intrigue to the game.

Artificial grass is, literally, an asphalt parking lot with a rug on top, and looks it. But the worst violation, I think, is the way manufactured fields tear the game from its history, and from its function as connective tissue in our national mind. One might as well try to separate the Mississippi from Mark Twain as to call a game ``baseball'' that isn't played on real grass.

In my earliest baseball memories, I am tumbling after balls in the front yard grass, freshly cut and like a fragrant cushion. Falling on it was part of the delight. Grass stains became badges of honor on P.F. Flyers and chino pants - the badges Jimmy Piersall, the daredevil Red Sox centerfielder of the '50s, collected on his uniform after yet another amazing catch.

Mowing the grass wasn't quite as bad when you knew you could perform this kind of heroics on it afterward.