Real grass sprouts anew on American sports fields

The nation's sports fans may not have artificial turf to kick around that much longer. Not as much of it, at least. For the third time, World Series viewers this year have beheld - suffered, many would say - baseball entirely without grass. Both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Minnesota Twins play on fields carpeted with the artificial variety.

Fans and players alike wince at the absurd bounces and eerie video green, including in the base paths where the dirt should be. Those in a third city, Toronto, are still smarting because several weeks ago, in the thick of a close pennant race, their All Star shortstop was injured when he fell on the frame that holds the carpeting there in place. Readers of the Toronto Star voted 4,515 to 34 in favor of natural grass for a planned domed stadium.

Former Sen. Eugene McCarthy calls the carpet game ``boingball.''

Despite such feelings, it long appeared that the nylon rug was creeping inexorably across the land. Close to half of the major league baseball and football stadiums have artificial turf of some kind. Not long ago, experts were predicting grassless majors by the 1990s - not to mention the colleges and high schools.

``There wasn't much hope,'' says William H. Daniel, a retired professor of agronomy at Purdue University.

Yet, Dr. Daniel and others are seeing a turnaround. Major league ballparks in San Francisco and Chicago have torn up their rugs in favor of bona fide grass, and numerous football stadiums are following suit. The International Soccer Federation has a flat ban on artificial turf. Influential US football coaches such as Joe Paterno of Penn State are against it.

``The trend is going back toward grass,'' says George Allen, chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and former pro football coach. Calling synthetic turf like ``carpeting over cement,'' he adds, ``football wasn't meant to be played on a surface like that.''

The first artificial grass took root, if that's the word, in the Houston Astrodome in the mid-1960s. From there, it spread like kudzu.

For stadium owners, it promised to cut upkeep costs. The brilliant green produced a visual buzz for color TV, unsullied by dirt or mud even in a downpour.

Most important, by the 1960s the name of the stadium game had become ``multi-use.'' To pay off the debt on a multimillion-dollar stadium, management had to fill the down time between baseball and football games with rock concerts, tractor pulls, motorcyle races, and trade shows. A nylon rug could take the abuse.

``Sports are now taking a back seat to entertainment,'' says Steve Wightman, field manager of Mile High Stadium in Denver (which he says puts sports first) and president of the Sports Turf Managers' Association. Administrators generally, he adds, ``don't care who plays on [the artificial turf] or how many injuries there are.''

Injuries are something that did not get much attention in the early days of artificial turf. But that is changing. One of the less-publicized issues in the recent NFL players strike was a demand that all outdoor fields have natural turf by 1989.

There are two basic problems. One, artificial turf is hard, and gets harder with wear. A study at the University of West Virginia found that after five years, the foam pad between the nylon rug and underlying asphalt disintegrates so much that the turf is almost as hard as the bare asphalt itself. Yet stadium managers sometimes put off replacement until it's time for a new carpet, too.``The athletes have to play on a substandard field for two to five years,'' Mr. Wightman says.

A second problem is that artificial turf, unlike the natural kind, doesn't yield to a player's cleats. That means ankles and knees have to yield instead. While baseball players suffer fewer turf injuries because they normally don't hurl themselves into one another, they contend with bodily wear and tear all the same. Veteran outfielders such as Jim Rice of the Boston Red Sox routinely take days off when their teams play successive games on artificial turf. (Caretakers of such fields have been told by management not to comment to the press because of increased litigation over injuries.)

Then too, artificial turf requires more maintenace than was originally thought, on top of installation costs running up to $2 million. Ken Mrock of the Chicago Parks Department, who manages Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears, expects expenses to be ``just about the same'' with the return to natural grass next year.

But the most important development has been advances in natural turf itself. Under the challenge of the synthetic stuff, grass has come of age.

Agronomists today concede that back in the '60s many grass fields were not very good. Even at the professional level, a football game in the rain could resemble mud wrestling. Often, the caretaker was essentially a ``janitor who mowed and watered,'' Wightman says.

Today, by contrast, turf management is ``on the brink of becoming a real profession,'' Wightman adds. And turf systems are becoming more sophisticated, too. Daniel, for example, promotes something called Prescription Athletic Turf, which uses suction pumps and a special porous soil to drain up to four inches of rain an hour. Underground electrical coils prevent freezing. PAT, as it's called, is used in Washington's RFK Stadium (where Mr. Allen was the first to install it) and 19 other fields.

Given such advances, ``there is no reason [pro football] fields couldn't have natural grass,'' says Mike Bladon of the grounds department of the University of Guelph in Ontario and organizer of a Canadian turf managers association.

Mr. Bladon and others caution that while administrators will shell out more than a million dollars for artificial turf, they can be very stingy when it comes to grass. Some concede that artificial turf may be the best answer for indoor stadiums at present, and possibly in other selected applications. Present products, properly maintained, are far superior to what was available at first.

``We think we are at a crossroads,'' says Kent Kurtz, executive director of the Sports Turf Managers Association. ``Lots of people want to go back'' to grass. And turf managers will be glad to trade in their vacuum cleaners for mowers.

``With a living plant, you see the fruits of your labor out there,'' Mrock says.

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