ST. LOUIS — At stadiums from coast to coast, a back-to-grass trend is uprooting artificial turf. Fans and athletes alike are rallying behind the call to roll up the rugs and spread out the sod.
After a quarter-century of playing ball on a plastic carpet, the St. Louis Cardinals opened the 1996 baseball season on a natural green field at Busch Stadium. Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium installed a grass field last year. And the new nostalgia parks in Baltimore, Denver, Cleveland, and Arlington, Texas, would stand for nothing less than the real green stuff.
Ever since artificial turf made its debut in 1964 at a high school in Providence, R.I., athletes, coaches, and fans have debated the merits of carpets versus grass. Economics tipped the scales in favor of the nylon rug as managers sought to use their stadiums for concerts and rallies in between events.
AstroTurf provides a more durable base for multi-use facilities, is cheaper to maintain, holds up in all kinds of weather, and provides better traction. But many sports fans consider the synthetic version an ugly intruder, and athletes have long complained about soreness from the harder surface. Many football players are convinced that playing on the harder, higher-traction surface causes more serious injuries.
"The NFL should ban AstroTurf," says Ki-Jana Carter, a Cincinnati Bengal running back who missed his rookie season after a preseason injury on AstroTurf in the Detroit Silverdome.
Surveys show Mr. Carter is not alone in his Astro-angst. Some 70 percent of professional players say playing surface would be a major factor in deciding where to sign on once they become free agents, according to a 1994 survey by the National Football League Players Association. Eighty-five percent of players prefer grass and 93 percent blame turf for causing more injuries.
For the first time in NFL history, officials canceled a game last season because of a bad rug. After both the Houston Oilers and the San Diego Chargers complained about the uneven surface in the Astrodome, the league declared it unsafe and called off the game.
So far, research has not substantiated the safety complaint. But the Centers for Disease Control is working with the NFL on a study of the issue.
Some team owners aren't waiting. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has promised to replace Texas Stadium's AstroTurf with grass by 1997 because, he says, "grass is safer and I like the aura of it." If Dallas switches, that would tip the balance among NFL teams, which currently number 15 carpeted fields and 15 grass.
The back-to-grass movement is also extending to colleges. More than 60 percent of top football-playing schools now have stadiums with grass, and seven more are planting grass for '96.
The International Soccer Federation has banned artificial turf for its sport. Such a total shift would be impossible for the half-dozen domed football and baseball stadiums across the country.
Unless, that is, sod was cultivated outside and moved into covered stadiums for games, as it was during the 1994 World Cup soccer championship. Growing permanent grass in a domed stadium is not a present possibility.
Meanwhile, turf technology is providing some middle ground.
The University of Utah became a pioneer last year when it installed a mixed surface called SportGrass. The invention allows grass to grow through a porous, sand-filled synthetic carpet. SportGrass provides durability while offering a more cushioned surface than all-artificial turf, says its manufacturer.
While such a compromise offers hope, some grass experts are still trying to grow grass in enclosed stadiums.
Steve Cockerham, an agricultural expert at the University of California at Riverside, is helping the Phoenix expansion team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, experiment with planting a grass field under a retractable roof. "People just like to watch teams play on natural grass rather than the synthetic," he says. "It's truer to the sport."