Blue Jays plans for natural grass don’t looking encouraging

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The Toronto Blue Jays play the game of baseball on artificial turf, and have for their 26 years at the Rogers Centre.  This turf is a constant source of controversy for the Blue Jays, as many current players and potential free agents have expressed the physical disadvantages of playing on the unforgiving surface.

Hope for a natural grass surface has finally grown legs over the past few seasons, with Toronto Blue Jays president Paul Beeston speaking publicly about the team’s desire to make the switch.  The targeted timeline was to begin playing on natural grass by 2018, as the Jays will install new AstroTurf in February that is scheduled to be in place through the end of 2017.  I wish I was surprised, but that date appears to be losing certainty.

John Lott of the National Post details the challenges that face the Toronto Blue Jays in this process.  At the heart of the issue is that the Rogers Centre was simply not built to support a natural grass environment.  The concrete behemoth houses MLB and CFL games along with large concerts and multi-use events throughout the offseason.  The entire venue would need to be reverse-engineered.  The old dog would need to be taught new tricks.  

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Focusing on the Rogers Centre alone, the Blue Jays would need to dig up a great deal of concrete and install plumbing and irrigation systems to support the grass playing surface.  This will need to be done with great care and attention to detail, because the Rogers Centre is not a traditional ball park.  The grass will need to survive often without any natural light, instead relying on tracks of “grow lights”, which sit 10ft from the ground and would need to be wheeled around the playing field between games to regulate growth.

Then comes the grass.  I’m not a scientist, nor do I play one on television, but I’ve come to understand that the work that must go into the selection, growth and maintenance of the grass is complex and demanding.  The Blue Jays began discussions with the University of Guelph in December of 2013 to handle this area of research, but at this point, no formal agreement has been made.  That stretch of 14 months without movement doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence.

Guelph associate professor Eric Lyons details the issues related to grass in John Lott’s piece, the foremost of which is humidity.  Anyone who has been to a closed-dome game at the Rogers Centre knows that the humidity can be overwhelming.  Add in an entire playing surface of natural grass producing water vapours into the air, and that could produce an even less enjoyable viewing experience for fans.

The growth of the grass is important to consider, too.  The Toronto Blue Jays cannot just sprinkle grass seeds onto dirt and wait until Opening Day, this process instead requires them to grow the turf off-site and import it throughout the season.  Most MLB teams change their natural grass surfaces at least one time per season.  Lyons notes that a warmer climate in the southern U.S. would be ideal, but the full day required to drive it to Toronto on a truck, not to mention potential complications at the border, could be very damaging to the turf.  The other option is to engineer facilities at an Ontario growing location to produce the turf, but given the climate, that would come with significantly increased costs.

Cost: that’s what this mess truly comes down to.  If this were a cheap fix, the wheels would be turning already.  “We’re targeting 2018. Could that change? As we go through this process, things could change. We don’t know just yet” said Stephen Brooks, the Blue Jays VP of Business Operations.

Trying to pin down the Toronto Blue Jays baseball payroll is enough of a fools game, so it’s anybody’s guess what Rogers is willing to spend on an operation like this.  Such an undertaking is very difficult to quantify.  Will every $1M spent on this natural grass surface produce an equal or greater return on the investment, either through improved free agent signings or attendance?

Baseball is the great game of measurements.  Each movement, outcome and probability is tracked, calculated and projected.  This is what makes the great turf controversy in Toronto so frustrating for fans.  How does one measure the impact that the artificial turf has?  For every 1,000 games played on artificial turf, does a player miss a higher number of games on average than he would playing on a natural surface?  How many?  If a free agent is hesitant to play on the Rogers Centre turf, how much greater of an investment does it take for the Toronto Blue Jays to sign that player compared to if they had grass?  The variables are endless.

Baseball’s advanced statistics can spoil us at times, making immeasurable moments such as this difficult to deal with.  Whether one believes the turf to be a real issue or not in Toronto, it’s clear that players are not drawn to it.  They do not flock to Toronto for a chance to play on the fabled green concrete.  The Blue Jays must already face the reality of being the only non-American franchise, which can be a disadvantage at times, but that isn’t an issue the Blue Jays can control.  Alex Anthopolous cannot trade Steven Tolleson and a PTBNL for a more desirable free agent destination, despite my wishes.

The turf, however, is controllable.  Rogers has the money required, so now the team must begin to work with researchers and academics sooner rather than later to develop a quality approach to this issue that works both logistically and financially for the club.  “We can do this,” Eric Lyons said of the project. “I am certain that we can. It’s just whether or not it’s feasible for the Blue Jays to want to do it.”

A commitment to installing a natural grass playing surface in Toronto not only signifies a long-term commitment to the success and prosperity of baseball at the Rogers Centre, it brings a true sense of traditional baseball to the stadium, something that the concrete convertible can, at times, be missing.

If there does ever come a day when the Blue Jays hoist the World Series trophy once again, it should be done with grass stains on the pant legs of their uniforms, not turf burns.