Tuesday, February 23, 1999

If you plant it, will stars come?

Reds should rip out Astroturf

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SARASOTA, Fla. — Making allowances for Greg Vaughn's goatee was a small gesture, but a significant policy shift by the Cincinnati Reds. It showed baseball's oldest ballclub in a flattering new light: accommodating, adaptable, hospitable. It said this was a team in touch with the needs of its players, a franchise that could feel your pain.

        But what it really proved was nothing because what it cost was zilch. If the Reds really want to make their new slugger feel welcome, they would start by rescinding their policy on AstroTurf.

        Natural grass at Cinergy Field would be a sight for sore knees. It would make an austere concrete stadium seem more like a cozy ballpark. The change could be made next winter, once the Cincinnati Bengals have vacated the premises, and a real-live lawn could be in place by Opening Day, 2000. It might help persuade Vaughn to sign a long-term contract instead of opting for free agency.

        Pity that it's only a pipe dream.

        “I know (artificial turf) makes some kind of impact,” Vaughn said Monday at the Reds spring training complex. “I could be in San Diego and I could be on the way to, say, Cincinnati or Pittsburgh, and on the plane my body would just start hurting the day before.”

        The newly progressive Reds are concerned for the comfort of their players, and cognizant of their objections to playing on plastic. They are committed to a grass field in their forthcoming ballpark,

        and have considered the case for bringing God's green earth to Cinergy Field.

        Yet for a number of technical reasons — among them sight lines and seating configurations — and an overriding concern about cost, Cinergy Field will almost certainly remain a sod-free zone until it is demolished.

        “As I recall, because of the flood plain, in order to put turf in here you'd have to raise the level of the playing field,” said John Allen, the Reds managing executive. “It's a lot more involved than bringing in 20 dump (truck) loads of dirt and laying some sod and watering it. It's much more complicated than that. There's a lot of technological details we'd be responsible for (funding), and it's not really an alternative.”

        Leave it to the guy responsible for the ledgers to burst a speculative bubble. Reds General Manager Jim Bowden described the move to grass as both possible and preferable Monday afternoon, and less than two hours later Allen rejected the idea as if it were a requisition for caviar.

        “If the Bengals were moving out and we were not getting a new stadium, it would be something we'd have to look at,” Allen said. “But we should have a new ballpark no later than Opening Day, 2003. I just don't see that (grass at Cinergy) as a possibility.”

        Strong arguments exist for the Reds abandoning their synthetic surface, but none of them are easily quantified in terms of dollars.

        Competitively, a slower grass field would better suit the Reds because the team is no longer built primarily for speed. It would make Vaughn and Dmitri Young less dangerous in the corners of the outfield because fewer balls would find their way through the gaps, and it would enhance the value of sure-handed infielders like Barry Larkin by forcing players to contend with unpredictable bounces.

        Strategically, a grass field would help ease the transition to a new ballpark by exposing the Reds to its environment before the ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

        Psychologically, grass might convince players there was more spring in their steps because their joints wouldn't ache so much. “When you look at all the studies that have been done,” Bowden said, “there's no evidence that players have had more injuries on turf than players on grass. But I still think grass is far better.”

        “Turf is hard on your body,” Reds first baseman Hal Morris said. “Aesthetically, grass gives a different feel to the players and in the stands as well.”

        Aesthetic considerations are not always lost on accountants, but their training tells them it is imprudent to put money at risk without a tangible return. (See Field of Dreams). The St. Louis Cardinals have made profound improvements to the interior of Busch Stadium, but they don't intend to tear it down anytime soon. John Allen has yet to see the value of spending millions on major improvements to a property no more than four years away from a wrecking ball.

        Can't say I blame him, really. Can't say Greg Vaughn does, either.

        “As long as they have a lot of ice and a cold whirlpool, I should be OK,” Vaughn said.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.