The Toronto Blue Jays are in the process of having a dirt infield installed at the Rogers Centre. Will it be a huge improvement over the turf?
Things are going strong at Spring Training with everyone arriving full of excitement and anticipation for the upcoming season. The first full squad game is set for March 1. Everything is set up at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in the warm Dunedin air, and the outdoor field is a very different atmosphere from where the boys will start out their season in Toronto.
Not only is there no chance the roof will be open at the Rogers Centre for the first weeks (or months) of the season, they lose the soft real grass and return to the lovely playing surface known as Astro Turf, rolled over a cement floor. Should we give a turf about this? Is it really that big of a deal?
Renovations at Rogers Centre have begun to install a dirt infield. This includes excavating the cement, digging down more than 12 inches to lay the groundwork and drainage for such a project. Aesthetically, it will look great but what kind of difference does that make to the players and how they play the game?
The current turf at the Rogers Centre was laid down in 2015. The Jays’ new version of AstroTurf, AstroTurf 3D Xtreme, which when removed is about 145 rolls, replaced the AstroTurf GameDay Grass 3D surface that debuted in 2010. It is rolled out for games and has to be rolled up for other events held at the Rogers centre.
The turf installed for the 2015 season debuted to a lot of criticism. It was called slow and charged with causing irregular bounces. The upside of that was it was noticeably softer. Jose Bautista spoke to Scott Stinson of The National Post about it in April of 2015. “It is definitely a lot slower than it was in the past and a lot slower than any other artificial turf I’ve ever laid my feet on.”
There were also issues with the rubber pellets at the base of the turf flying up, one piece hitting Tampa’s Asdrubal Cabrera in the eye as he was fielding a ball in last year’s season opening series.
It seems the flying rubber pellets were the basis of most complaints as the new turf was settling last year. The all-rubber pellets were to make the surface softer, therefore easier on the players in the field. It is expected that the use last season and the rolling up process will correct most of these issues as the pellets settle from the top into the bottom of the surface, hopefully lessening their impact.
As far as studies on the impact to players who are on an artificial surface, very little has been done in the baseball world. The impact on soccer and football players has been studied, and for the most part found little difference in injury rates among players with the new generation of turf. There was however, a slightly higher incidence of ACL injuries in football for players playing on an artificial surface.
This new generation of turf is closing the gap it seems on player impact. Is that enough? Even a small doubt among players can impact their playing style. Cue the dirt infield. A compromise of sorts.
The work involves excavating the cement floor in the base path and infield areas 12 inches deep and it impacts 12,000 square feet. The base layered with gravel, sand and
clay. Keeping the moisture content is important, and the mix hopes to mimic the relatively slow playing surface of the turf.
Problems can arise if the ball changes speed and bounces going from one surface to the other. The charge is to maintain consistency. There will however be a trial and error period with the addition of the dirt infield and achieving that consistency. It is somewhat of a science to make sure the drainage, mixture and moisture content all work together. Having the clay dry out during a game, a problem Tropicana Field has dealt with in the past, has to be closely monitored and tweaked. The Jays have been in close contact with the Tampa Bay Rays, learning techniques and learning from past mistakes in the hopes to avoid any previously seen issues. Dan Moeller, head groundskeeper for the Rays spoke of the importance of consistency with John Lott on Vice Sports,
“You’ve got to get your clay basically the same speed as your turf. If your infield is fast or slow, you want your clay to be the same. Most infielders, all they’re asking for is consistency. They want to know what the ball is going to do.”
To that end, Tom Ferrell, the Blue Jays head groundskeeper plans on finding that consistency.
“Our plan is to keep it soft so it matches the texture of the turf. You control that by how much nail-dragging you do during the day, how much water you add and avoiding over-compaction.”
The rehearsal, as Ferrell calls it, will come once the infield is installed. This is set to be completed only a short time before the season home opener in April. It is then that they will test sand, silt and clay ratios and experiment with various levels of water to see the different drying times. They will also use a machine to fire balls to test how the balls will bounce on the two surfaces.
The Jays organization seems confident in their ability to handle these factors, and that this will be welcomed favourably by both players and fans. According to Blue Jays SVP Stephen Brooks’ press release, “This will both improve the surface for the players and also enhance the atmosphere of the stadium for our fans.”
Considering the cost of going all natural at the Rogers centre, this might be the only way to go. The University of Guelph is reportedly studying the feasibility of a natural grass installation, but it would involve so many areas it might not ever be a possibility at this facility. A new roof that is translucent to let light in — and open in cooler temps –and the ability to excavate and provide drainage in a place that has a parking facility underneath are only two of the areas to consider. Those two projects are massive in scope on their own. Considering the age of the Rogers Centre and the upgrades needed to the facility itself, not to mention the upgrades needed in Dunedin, this very well could be the compromise both players and fans will (have to) accept.
*Featured Image Credit: S Doyle- Jays From the Couch
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