"Artificial turf limits my defense," says the Orioles' Fred Lynn, a brilliant centerfielder who has had the good fortune to play only for grass teams. "I have to play deeper because the ball bounces so much higher and faster, and I can't dive for a ball the way I do on grass because of the danger of getting hurt. When a ball bounces 30 feet over your head, I don't think that's baseball the way it was meant to be played. I guess I'm a purist."
Infielders play much deeper on turf than they do on grass because the ball goes through much faster. And they needn't fear the unexpected bunt as much because bunts roll about the way grounders do on real grass. The prerequisite for a turf infielder, says National League president Chub Feeney, "is a strong arm." The Reds' Dave Concepcion has invented a special turf throw: On balls hit in the hole between short and third, he will intentionally throw the ball on one hop to first, on the questionable theory that the ball will get there faster this way than it would in the air. And then, to be sure, there is the famous "true hop" to make it all easier. "On turf the ball comes to me and says, 'Catch me,'" says Kansas City utility infielder Greg Pryor. "On grass it says, 'Look out, sucker.' "
In fact, Morgan is convinced that artificial fields have spawned a whole generation of mediocre and overrated fielders. "I think playing on grass puts a premium on good fielding," he says, "and that's why I always preferred it. On grass, you have to learn how to play the ball. On turf all you have to do is get your glove down. I think it's made a lot of mediocre infielders look better than they are. The same in the outfield: A guy with only a fair arm can look good. It used to be that guys with great arms like Willie Mays would make that throw to the plate on one hop. Now all a guy has to do is get the ball a little bit past second, and it'll just skim home that much faster. As for hitting, I don't see where turf helps anybody but chop hitters. You can play pure hitters so much deeper because outfielders can run faster on turf and they get to balls that might have gone through the gap on real grass." Strong-armed, though not necessarily adept, infielders and fair-armed, speedy outfielders—that's the turf game.
In the heat of an Eastern or Midwestern summer the outfielders had better keep on the move or risk incineration, because it gets hotter than Hades down on the fake greensward. "The heat is unbearable," says Brett. "I can remember one time before a night game when it was 140 degrees at five o'clock on our turf. On hot days, we always have a bucket of ice in the dugout so that when we come in off the field, we can just step in it and cool off. You can lose 10 pounds in a game, maybe more if you go 4 for 4 with two triples. A DH might lose only six or seven."
Brett is convinced, as are many other players, that the turf shortens careers. "It's taken its toll," he says. "It's hard out there, and it gets you in the back of the legs, the ankles, the lower back. You hurt all over. Playing on grass is like a paid vacation." The Royals' second baseman, Frank White, who will be 35 in September, says, "When I was in my 20s, I thought turf was the greatest. Now I'd have to say it's not my best friend. When a player gets in his middle 30s, he's got to take days off playing on turf. I think it shortens careers, and if it doesn't do that, it certainly shortens productivity."
Sure, they do keep improving the stuff. The original turf of 20 years ago is no closer to the new carpets they've spread in Kansas City, St. Louis and Toronto than a bath mat is to a bear rug. AstroTurf-8 is, according to Monsanto, "a high-tech engineering marvel" that is "soft, smooth and rain-proof." The new K.C. AstroTurf does have a drainage system so effective that it makes obsolete the heavy machine formerly used to suck up moisture after a rainstorm. That's to the good because the machine tamped the turf down and made it even harder. The old Royals Stadium surface was so unyielding that Dave Lemonds, a former White Sox pitcher, likened a game there to "playing with marbles in a bathtub."
What is most pathetic about these conscientious efforts at improving the product is that they are directed at making the unreal seem real. Consider this blurb from a Monsanto press release on the new $1.7 million Royals Stadium field: "Nitrogen gas inside millions of tiny cells gives the pad cushioning properties that closely match those of a well-maintained grass field." So why didn't they just go ahead and plant grass in the first place? That's precisely what the players wanted. When it was learned last year that the Royals were going to replace their old field, a local newspaper polled the players on whether they wanted grass or turf. The vote was 22-3-1 for grass, the only dissenters being a designated hitter and two subs.
Kansas City sees turf as an absolute necessity, and so does that other "small market" community, Cincinnati. "Forty percent of our fans come from outlying areas," says John Schuerholz, the Royals' general manager. "We have to convince them that when it's raining—and it rains a lot in Kansas City—we'll play. Otherwise they'll stay home, and we'll be hurting. With our new field, water disappears off it as if by magic."
So what do we have here, a necessary evil? Let's hope not. Those who like to smell the grass continue to push for open stadiums built exclusively for baseball, as opposed to domed multipurpose stadiums, and tailored to the game's more intimate dimensions. In San Francisco, for example, there are two proposals before the Giants and city hall calling for a small baseball-only stadium right downtown and with a grass field.
Indeed, the ultimate damage the turf movement has done is to the very look of baseball. That pool-table image doesn't work with a game that should have the look and feel and smell of a summer outing. Part of the joy on entering a ball park is seeing that expanse of freshly mowed lawn. What a jolt it is to view something so obviously bogus as a mat painted to look like grass. Why even bother with green? Why not paint the stuff purple and spray it with eau de cologne? Baseball is ruts and holes, pebbles and, yes, bad hops. Bad hops are lore. Would Freddie Lindstrom still be remembered if he had gotten a true hop in that final game of the '24 Series? The true hop is a sop to the mediocre, the unimaginative, the unresourceful. It takes an artist to read a grounder streaking across irregular terrain. And baseball is artistry.