The day before Troy Tulowitzki got hurt on the very real grass at Yankee Stadium, he said he hadn’t noticed any problem yet with the fake stuff at Toronto’s Rogers Centre.
“Obviously, the turf is slow,” he said. “But playing on it doesn’t seem bad.”
Playing on it this season has been bad enough and controversial enough that the Blue Jays are exploring other options for next year and into the future. They’ve strongly considered switching to a dirt infield for 2016 (similar to Tropicana Field), and they have hopes of going all-natural (grass and dirt) by 2018.
Stephen Brooks, the Jays’ senior vice president of business operations, told John Lott of the National Post the team is “currently evaluating the logistics and costs” of making the switch, which was made possible by the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts moving to BMO Field but is made more complicated by the concrete under the current AstroTurf.
I don’t know about logistics, but the biggest cost I can think of is the cost of getting it wrong.
The turf didn’t cause Tulowitzki’s latest injury, the cracked left shoulder blade that has him on the shelf for what will likely be the rest of the regular season. He was hurt on the very real grass at Yankee Stadium in a collision with center fielder Kevin Pillar that could have happened anywhere.
But in Tulowitzki and Josh Donaldson, the Jays have the most valuable left side of the infield in baseball. Tulowitzki is signed through 2020. Donaldson is under control through 2018.
Quite obviously, they need to keep these guys as healthy as possible. But how do they do it?
Interviews with players and coaches on four of the five American League East teams revealed a general dissatisfaction with the current playing surface in Toronto but no consensus about whether moving to a dirt infield would help.
Blue Jays infielder Ryan Goins said even a move to grass wouldn’t necessarily solve all of the issues.
“The grass might be on concrete,” he said. “The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.”
That said, players generally favor real grass, and most see the Tropicana dirt-infield compromise as no improvement at all on the current all-turf (with cutouts for the bases) setup in Toronto.
“I’m still as sore after a three-game series in Tampa as I am in Toronto,” Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy said. “It’s like concrete.”
It is concrete, with six inches of soil on top of it, Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said.
“You don’t really get used to it,” said Longoria, who has played all 545 of his major league home games at Tropicana Field. “I feel a difference when we play on the road for a while. I think grass makes a significant difference. I know it feels different and plays different.”
Many of the concerns about the Toronto turf, which is new this year, have centered more around how it plays than how it feels. As Tulowitzki said, the turf is extremely slow, making it very difficult to hit a ground ball through the infield. It’s also inconsistent, subject to odd bounces that some contend have given the Blue Jays an unfair home-field advantage.
The problems were most pronounced early in the season, and when Orioles infielder Jimmy Paredes was hit in the face by a bad-hop grounder, the O’s contacted Major League Baseball and even considered boycotting a game, according to Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun.
The Blue Jays said shortly after the field would improve as it settled with time, and some players agree it has. Orioles manager Buck Showalter, though, said he didn’t like the field any more on his third visit than he did the first time he was there.
Showalter, who managed in a retractable-roof stadium in Arizona, is skeptical the Blue Jays will be able to maintain a quality grass field under the retractable roof at the Rogers Centre even if they’re able to install one. Other retractable-roof parks now have grass fields (including Houston, Seattle and Milwaukee), but the roof structures can keep parts of the field from ever getting enough sunlight.
At Tropicana Field, where the roof is not retractable, even the dirt doesn’t feel natural. The concrete under it is one problem, but the Rays say the air-conditioning system also keeps the dirt too dry and too hard.
According to the National Post, the Jays have commissioned the University of Guelph to work on finding an array of grass species that can thrive in the conditions that exist at the Rogers Centre. Even under the best case, though, a grass field is still three years down the road.
“Whatever they decide is fine,” Tulowitzki said.
Tulowitzki has only played 23 games at the Rogers Centre so far this season and only 26 games on turf in his entire career. Whatever injury problems he has had—he hasn’t played 150 games in a season since 2009—came when he played on grass.
When they traded for him, the Blue Jays said the health history wasn’t an issue. They weren’t worried about moving him to turf.
“That wasn’t a big part [of the debate],” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said.
Tulowitzki’s future health should be part of the debate now. Donaldson’s, too.
The Blue Jays have a good thing going and should have a good thing going forward.
They need to do whatever possible to keep these guys happy and healthy. The cost of getting it wrong is far too high.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand.