University of Guelph takes lead to find natural grass solution for Blue Jays and Rogers Centre

Artificial turf used to be all the rage in Major League Baseball. Not anymore. Now there are just two teams in the big leagues not playing on natural grass – the Tampa Bay Rays and the Toronto Blue Jays. The Jays, according to the team’s senior vice-president of business operations Stephen Brooks, don’t want to be the last team playing on synthetic grass. Tampa Bay is looking to build a new stadium with real grass. The Jays are aiming to install real grass by 2018.

“We could find ourselves in the position of being the only team without a natural grass playing facility,” Brooks said. “We have to be competitive with the other teams, and have the playing surface like every other club.”

For about a year, the Jays and the University of Guelph have discussing how to switch over the artificial surface at the domed Rogers Centre to natural grass. A $600,000 agreement was finalized this month that will see U of G researchers embark on a year-long study to examine all the angles involved in the transition – from the type of turf best suited, to the lighting, drainage, humidity levels required. It is a complex, multi-facetted undertaking.

“We’ve been told that grasses can grow indoors, but there is a lot of investigation that we have to do to really come to any type of conclusion on the technical feasibility and the cost feasibility of all of this,” Brooks added. “We are going to see where the experts take us in terms of the science behind this.”

Brooks said U of G leads the country in expertise on turf grass and was a natural, homegrown choice as a partner in the undertaking.

Rene Van Acker, associate dean (external affairs) with the Ontario Agricultural College, said U of G researchers are confident the transition can be done.

“The question is how, and what does that require in terms of the building and the logistics of managing what is a multi-use facility, and to what extend there needs to be unique infrastructure or novel innovation to make that happen,” Van Acker said.

Van Acker said there is no precedent for this kind of changeover. It is not a simple matter of cutting and pasting a solution. The project will be lead by U of G’s Eric Lyons, a baseball lover, turf grass expert, and professor in the department of plant agriculture.

The university has the research facilities in place to carry out the project, Van Acker said. Some infrastructure additions will be made to the space.

Some major league ball players, Brooks said, complain about playing on artificial turf, and some even refuse to do so. There is a belief, whether founded or unfounded, that there is more wear-and-tear on the body playing on artificial turf.

Brooks said fans prefer the aesthetic of natural grass, and it is now considered a competitive disadvantage to have an artificial surface.

Last year the Jays rejuvenated the existing surface through a painstaking process of removing the old, worn out infill material and replacing it with all-rubber infill. But it was a temporary measure to extend the surface’s life until a natural alternative can take root.

The challenges to installing a natural surface at Rogers Centre are numerous. The multi-purpose stadium was not built with the type of drainage system needed for natural grass.

“That obviously needs to be looked at,” he said, adding that adequate humidity levels and ensuring enough light gets in for growing purposes are also a critical factors in growing natural grass. He conceded that it could be a very costly undertaking.

Van Acker said the year-long study will provide the information needed to do a further feasibility study that will look at what type of retrofitting is required at Rogers Centre to make the transition.- By Rob O’Flanagan, Waterloo Region Record