"It's like playing on a shopping-center parking lot on a hot day," says Brave Manager Luman Harris, who is otherwise uncritical of the synthetic fields. Last spring outfielders at games in St. Louis and San Francisco found that blisters formed on the bottoms of their feet even on cool days. Infielders learned the same lesson later in the season when Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium opened. There even the dirt infield has been eliminated, except for sliding areas around the bases and home plate. At all these fields players now wear innersoles in their spikes, but some, like the Giants' Bobby Bonds, have found they do not protect against blistering. Two Florida inventors have recently begun selling innersoles to the Reds that have built-in intake valves and exhaust vents to circulate cool air under the feet as the wearer walks or runs. Because artificial turf is not as easily pierced as dirt, the Pirates' Willie Stargell and others have switched to wearing ripple-soled shoes for better traction. A greater number of players, including the entire Giant outfield, have gone to wearing soccer-type cleats for the same reason. They must be careful to use shoes fitted with rubber or heat-resistant synthetic cleats, since the plastic fittings manufactured to be worn on grass melt on synthetic surfaces.
The heat problem is barely reduced on warm summer nights. During this year's All-Star Game in Cincinnati, Boston's Carl Yastrzemski, one of two men to play all 12 innings, had to change his sweat-soaked shirt three times.
The speed with which balls carom off the hard surfaces is the other primary source of players' complaints. Three Dodgers—Pitcher Don Sutton, Utility-man Bill Sudakis and Infielder Bill Grabarkewitz—offered typical critiques, even though their fast, spray-hitting team has won 16 of 24 games on artificial turf this year.
"It's like trying to catch rocks as they skip across a lake," said Sutton, who should know. Like other pitchers, he is the only member of the defense who cannot play deeper to allow the fast-moving balls extra room.
"It's faster—like stickball," added Sudakis. "It's like trying to play with a rubber ball on cement."
"No matter where you play in the infield, you're a third baseman. Everything hit is a shot," Grabarkewitz concluded.
Met First Baseman Donn Clendenon gave a casual display of the extra life in synthetic fields during a series last week in St. Louis. After taking a throw for the final out of an inning he dribbled the ball basketball-style to the mound as he returned to the dugout. Giant Coach Jim Davenport no longer says he is leaving for the stadium when he heads to a game at Candlestick Park. Instead, he says, "It's time to go to the basketball court."
Before the artificial turf came into wide use its springiness was well known. Because of it, certain changes in the game were predicted. Two of the most popular forecasts were that many more runs would be scored and that certain batters—like the Reds' Pete Rose and the Pirates' Matty Alou and Roberto Clemente, who are expert ground-ball and line-drive spray hitters—would suddenly revive the era of the .400 hitter. Neither has come true. Of the four teams that moved onto synthetic fields this season, two have averaged fewer runs per game on artificial surfaces than off them. The Pirates show an increase in scoring of seven-tenths of a run per game and the Cardinals only four-tenths. And the spray hitters have yet to turn the surface to their advantage. Alou has averaged .270 in Pittsburgh's new stadium, and Clemente has hit .323. Both figures are well under the players' season averages. Rose has suffered similarly in Cincinnati.
Pitchers are still moaning—"There goes another synthetic single over the bogus blades of the ersatz infield" or something to that effect—every time they see a grounder bounce over the shortstop's head, yet they deserve no sympathy. The higher, speedier bounces and the faster roll that baseballs take on artificial turf have indeed added hits on batted balls that would have been outs in the past. Yet, as the decreased number of runs scored indicates, they have subtracted hits, too. The truer bounce has made the ball easier to grab once it is caught up to. Even with the infielders playing deeper—some of them on the edge of the outfield—balls that formerly would result as forceouts become double plays, even in the case of such fast left-handed batters as the Dodgers' Willie Davis and the Cards' Lou Brock.
In the future smart positioning and quick hands probably will become more important than range for infielders. "Anybody who hits the ball in the air in a park with artificial turf should fine himself," argues San Diego Coach Bob Skinner. "Not only do you have a better chance of beating out the choppers, but the outfielders are going to be playing deeper and catching more of the long flies."