Blue Jays mull installing grass surface
Range of other events at Rogers Centre may halt project
TORONTO -- Arguably the biggest news to come out of this week's State of the Franchise in Toronto was the potential for the Blue Jays to install a natural-grass surface at Rogers Centre.
The Blue Jays have examined the possibility of replacing the current AstroTurf surface with real grass. The hope would be to have a more player-friendly field that limits the wear and tear on athletes and makes Toronto a more desirable location for free agents.
There are still plenty of roadblocks holding back the initiative, and it may never come to fruition, but the Blue Jays have been looking into it and know it has a realistic chance of working.
"We're actually examining the ability of bringing grass in here," Blue Jays president Paul Beeston said earlier this week in response to a fan's complaint about the turf. "This is a multi-purpose facility -- it doesn't mean we're going to do it, but we're looking into the possibility of doing it.
"We've brought grass in here before for soccer, so it can work. We can bring grass in here if it was just [for the] baseball season and we did not have football, we did not have concerts, we didn't have those other things."
The debate about natural grass began within the Blue Jays' front office more than 10 years ago. The club has recently become more serious in its pursuit of a grass surface and found out what the approximate cost would be, but Beeston declined to provide financial numbers.
The Blue Jays would prefer to play on grass, but the wide variety of events that take place at Rogers Centre is currently the biggest stumbling block. Rogers Centre is the home stadium for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, while other events such as concerts and monster-truck shows frequently take place at the stadium.
Each time the field is converted from baseball to another event, some of the seats inside Rogers Centre have to be moved. That's a relatively easy task when dealing with AstroTurf because the field can easily be altered to accommodate the new plan.
A natural-grass surface would prohibit such easy transitions. It would also create a loss of revenue for Rogers Communications, the company that owns and operates the Blue Jays and Rogers Centre. Those appear to be the only obstacles, because the other logistics can be worked out.
"The real issue is that we have other events here ... and the seats have to move," Beeston said. "When the seats have to move, that grass which you put in there doesn't work. We can open the roof, and strangely enough, with the fertilizers that are around now, you can put it in once and keep it for the year."
Rogers Centre temporarily installed a natural-grass surface in 2010 to accommodate a pair of European soccer matches. Manchester United took on Glasgow Celtic, and Greece Panathinaikos played Italy's Inter Milan for a pair of friendly matches that went off without a hitch, despite the new sod.
A company based in Ontario -- Greenhorizons Group of Farms Ltd. -- was tasked with installing the grass. A team of 30 people was used to complete the job and faced relatively few obstacles along the way.
The biggest benefit of installing natural grass would be to accommodate the players on the field. The Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays are the only two teams in baseball that use artificial turf, which is considered more hazardous for athletes than grass.
Some players opt against signing with the Blue Jays because they think the unforgiving surface will cause health problems down the road. A perfect example of that took place this offseason, when free-agent outfielder Carlos Beltran declined the Blue Jays' offer to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals.
"With a lot of players, at times, some of them don't want to play on turf, no matter what money," Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos said earlier this week, when asked why his team was unable to sign Beltran. "Some of them don't want to DH, no matter [the] money, and some of them have health concerns from the medical staff that the club may feel they have to DH, and if they have to DH, they're unwilling to sign, no matter what the dollars are."
In the meantime, one thing the Blue Jays definitely won't be doing is installing a dirt infield like the one Tampa Bay currently uses at Tropicana Field. The Rays' turf is a permanent fixture because the facility is used for baseball only, and as a result, the playing surface remains in place all year.
The constant uprooting of the turf in Toronto to accommodate other events is one of the main culprits for the sometimes haggard-looking field. That's something that can't be changed, unless the turf is completely removed.
"Our field goes up and down, and naturally, you have to assume there's going to be some wear and tear," Beeston said. "I don't mean to use this as a weak analogy, but it's like taking your clothes to the dry cleaners. If you take it too many times, they don't look the same as something that's fresh."
The fate of natural grass at Rogers Centre could be closely tied to the future of the Argos. The CFL team's lease at Rogers Centre will expire following the 2012 season, and the organization is reportedly exploring the possibility of playing its home games at nearby BMO Field.
The loss of its second-biggest tenant would saddle Rogers Centre with a dip in revenue, but it would also provide more flexibility for the Blue Jays to make drastic changes to the playing surface. The change can't be done right now, but it has yet to be ruled out for 2013 and beyond.
"Right now, we couldn't do it," Beeston said. "We have the Argos in here, we have rock events in here; strangely enough, we might have a couple of soccer games in here. If you have the soccer, then you have to move the seats. If you move the seats, then you move the turf. It almost has to be permanent, especially for the dirt.
"Whether we can actually pull it off will be a question, but the point is it's something we would like to do."