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GRAS-TYME IS DOON, MY FODDER IS NOW FORAGE....
IF A HORSE CAN'T EAT IT, I DON'T WANT TO PLAY ON IT.
Grass, the old-fashioned, common, green growing stuff, is dying out, a lamentable death wrought of ambiguity and polyestered progress. In most cities more of it is found on air controllers' radar scopes than on the ground. Some people spend their time smoking it rather than mowing it, while others busily try to weed out the smokers instead of dandelions. Grass in America, it seems, has had its heyday, and no place is it less in clover than in one of its oldest strongholds, baseball.
This season ball parks in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and San Francisco have gone the way of Houston's Astrodome and Chicago's White Sox Park by sewing synthetic playing surfaces. Fake fields are easier and cheaper to maintain, say their owners, most of whom are steely traditionalists on other matters pertaining to the game. Players and managers, who do not approach the question of field conditions by first checking a five-year depreciation schedule, are at best ambivalent about the new surfaces and how they will affect the playing of baseball. Groundkeepers are unambiguous. They, like the purists among the fans, abhor artificial fields. In fact, the only thing that everyone can agree upon about the new diamonds is that soon there will be more of them.
Philadelphia will open its new park complete with an AstroTurf surface next season, and, although the stadium-building boom seems to have now run its course, many older parks, especially ones in which football and baseball are played, have already been surveyed for rugs.
With the exception of Houston, where the original synthetic field was installed when it was discovered, to no one's great surprise, that grass is difficult to grow indoors, the laying of artificial baseball fields has been guided by economics. It is estimated that, on an average, a surface pays for itself in reduced maintenance costs in seven years.
Impressive for stockholders or city councilmen but unconvincing to the players, if Cardinal Shortstop Dal Maxvill is any indication. Maxvill is the lone player representative on the Baseball Commissioner's artificial-turf committee, and he prefaced his remarks on the new fields with an obscenity. "I don't think any of us like it, deep down," he continued. "Oh, some guys may say they like it because they know it's here to stay, but, really, I don't think they do."
A SPORTS ILLUSTRATED sampling of player opinion on all major league teams reveals strong support for Maxvill's view. Very few players wholeheartedly approve of the new fields, although most can count some advantages for their personal strengths or their teams'. A significant minority, including Managers Ted Williams and Leo Durocher, are outspokenly against artificial turf.
Most of the complaints involve the heat on the playing surfaces and the hardness of their asphalt bases. The stiff foundations cause batted balls to travel at higher velocities and have given some players, mostly older ones, sore legs. Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, which is covered with Tartan Turf instead of the AstroTurf used at the other parks, generally receives better comments from National League players. They feel its slower surface makes the ball travel at more reasonable speeds, and its better underpadding allows more comfortable running.
Houston's five-year-old AstroTurf field, the first installation of the sort anywhere in the world, is the most widely criticized except when the players talk of heat. (The air-conditioned Astrodome is always 72°.) Cooking thermometers have become a standard part of baseball equipment this season as managers, trainers and sportswriters have engaged in measuring the effects of the midday sun on field-level climate. Temperatures as high as 160° on the surface and 134° just above it have been reported in Cincinnati. On a 90° day in St. Louis, the temperature was 123° at the surface, and 114° six feet above it. The heat conditions are caused by the baking asphalt under the turf, which, unlike grass and dirt fields, does not give off cooling, evaporating moisture.