Toronto Blue Jays search for supergrass to replace artificial turf in Rogers Centre
Stephanie Findlay Staff Reporter thestar.com Feb 03 2012
We can make Dolly and ask Siri but we cannot grow grass in the shade.
At the Rogers Centre, and just about every other big stadium, the grass won’t survive.
None of them work. Not the rugged Celebration Bermudagrass, the classic Kentucky bluegrass, or the resilient seashore paspalum.
The ballpark’s walls are too high, the sun can’t shine in.
Why then, did the Blue Jays team president and CEO Paul Beeston say the Rogers Centre could sustain plant life, exciting fans yearning for a lush green field and players tired of rug burn?
“Theoretically and practically, it can be done,” he told season ticket holders on Monday.
As it turns out, Beeston is kind of right. You can provide lights for the grass (to compensate for the shade) or invest in either a modular field or rail system (to move it away from the shade).
What you can’t do is simply grow the stuff.
Apparently, shade-grown grass is the athletic groundskeeper’s Holy Grail.
“This is the kind of thing I always tell the students on the first day,” said John Rogers, turf science professor at Michigan State University. “There’s no perfect grass for all situations. If there was I wouldn’t have a job.”
Since Astro Turf’s 1966 debut in the Houston Astrodome, real grass fell out of vogue, unable to withstand the traffic of a multi-purpose facility like the Rogers Centre, one just as likely to host an Argos game or Disney On Ice as it is a Jays game.
In the past decade, however, there has been a grass revival. Today, the Jays are just one of two teams in Major League Baseball, along with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, that continue to use, in the words of New York Times columnist Dave Anderson, a “chemist’s carpet.”
Earlier this week in Florida, the Miami Marlins installed a grass field for their ballpark, which has a retractable roof.
The retractable roof will remain open until opening day in order to get plenty of sun.
“They’re using a Bermuda called ‘Celebration,’ ” said George Toma, a veteran groundskeeper described as the world’s best.
“It takes the shade better than some of the other Bermudas.”
Toma, who has just turned 83, is readying the artificial turf at the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis where he’s painting, brushing and putting in the crumb rubber for Sunday’s Super Bowl.
His fields, the natural kind, are made of coarse sand from American and Canadian riverbeds, peat from fields in Wisconsin, the Dakotas and Minnesota and the latest strain of supergrass.
“In the early days we only had three or four grasses: One or two bluegrass, one or two rye grass,” said Toma. “Now we have 100 varieties of bluegrass, 100 varieties of rye grass.”
Still, no amount of genetic manipulation has yielded a shade-resistant blade.
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, is one of the agronomy leaders in North America. It began working with turf grasses in the 1920s as a result of golf’s growing popularity.
Rutgers scientists represent a small group of breeders researching the top shade-resistant grasses, Kentucky bluegrasses, perennial rye grasses and tall and fine fescues.
“There’s early reports of this kind of work decades ago, but it hasn’t been until recently, the last 10 to 15 years, that you’ve seen more emphasis to develop techniques to study this,” said James Murphy, head of the turfgrass management research program.
“Now, a lot of our suburban and urban developments are getting pretty mature, the trees are getting much larger,” he said, “people are noticing shade problems now that they didn’t notice 20 years ago when their trees were much smaller.”
Yet there hasn’t been a breakthrough, so groundskeepers continue to find workarounds.
Lambeau Field, the home of the Green Bay Packers, is heated below and serviced by lights, designed by a Dutch firm, which hang 2 metres above the grass and extend the growing season by months. The Houston Astros have a similar set-up.
“There’s new technology coming out now with these grow lights,” said Toma. “They’re mechanical, they’re self-propelled, they move through the night.”
Sadly for Jays fans, it’s unlikely such technology will be coming to Toronto soon.
“It would need a buy-in from the stadium people,” said Steve Schiedel, co-owner of Greenhorizons Group of Farms Ltd., a company hired by the Rogers Centre to temporarily sod the field for soccer matches.
Such an endorsement may be unlikely, says Schiedel, but that doesn’t stop him from dreaming.
“I’d love to see the Jays play on real turf, natural turf,” he said, adding that “the turf type tall fescue is a little more shade tolerant and would work.”
In the meantime, scientists and groundskeepers alike continue their quest for grass that can grow in the shade.
“Every once in a while we’ll find something that looks like it’s done really, really well in a low light area,” said Rogers, the Michigan scientist, “but that’s because no one’s been stepping on it.”