Oklahoma baseball: Sooners transition to turf in 2016
Baseball is a sport steeped in tradition, but the college version of the game is heading steadily down a less traditional path.
To become better suited for a season that begins in February, teams are more frequently moving away from natural grass and dirt toward installing synthetic playing surfaces. This offseason, Oklahoma joined that group, enlisting AstroTurf to reinvent the field at L. Dale Mitchell Park.
What was once grass is now a one and five-eighths inch tall synthetic surface made up of a particular balance of sand and rubber. Where there used to be dirt, there now lays a half-and-half mixture of nylon and a polyethylene product.
And the Sooners could not be more excited.
“I really fought for it,” OU baseball coach Pete Hughes said. “We’re lucky to have an administration that has an open ear and an open mind to those things, especially at such a traditional athletic department. To bring in artificial turf is a big leap of faith.”
OU is the sixth Big 12 program to switch to an artificial surface, leaving Oklahoma State, TCU and Baylor as the remaining conference holdouts. One of the primary reasons for the widespread shift is the start of the college season in mid-February, when cold and wet weather can force teams inside to avoid tearing up a natural field.
With a synthetic surface, that worry disappears.
“Now that Division I college baseball is being played at such an early time frame, it really gives an advantage to the schools that have synthetic for a number of reasons,” said Doug White, AstroTurf’s director of baseball operations for the Western states. “With synthetic you get a lot more outdoor, on-the-field practice time which leads to more repetitions on ground balls and live BP and whatnot.”
Those extra repetitions are no small matter for an Oklahoma team that is attempting to integrate 21 new players in 2016.
“With so many kids — 21 new faces out there — you need the weather to cooperate to evaluate,” Hughes said. “And fortunately, now we have a new facility that allows us to practice every single day.”
The new turf also gives Hughes more control over the way the game is played on the Sooners’ home field. The mix of sand and rubber in the artificial grass is adjustable to make the surface play slower or faster.
The surface at OU is mixed to play a hair slower, and as the games get going, Hughes and his squad will adjust the balance to find the perfect recipe.
The new surface isn’t only for the athletes already at OU though. Its aesthetic is just as important as its playability.
The grass will stay green all year, and the crimson interlocking logo in the outfield will remain bold and colorful throughout the season’s 25 home games. Most importantly for Hughes, the wear and tear the field receives from intense summer camps and tournaments won’t tarnish its image for potential recruits.
“So many people that come to our games in the spring, they don’t see this field in the summertime, when we run a thousand campers through here, when we have five travel-team tournaments when they play four games a day for four days on it. And then you bring your best recruits around, and they see a field that’s just worn out,” Hughes said. “From a recruiting standpoint, it was a no brainer.”
All of this doesn’t mean the transition will be seamless, however.
There are some adjustments to be made, particularly for the fielders. The consistency of the turf eliminates bad hops, there is no lip on the edge of the infield dirt for the ball to bounce off, and the outfield will be springier than natural grass. Despite recent improvements to add some friction to the infield surface, White said the slides will be longer than what is typical on a natural surface.
Hughes said those adjustments just come with understanding your home field, and his players seem to agree.
“It’s not a lot different, honestly,” junior shortstop Sheldon Neuse said. “Some spots are a little bouncier than others, but you get used to it with the repetition. It’s nothing crazy.”
The only issue White could think of comes off the field — from traditional-minded MLB scouts who don’t relish the idea of a prospect transitioning from an artificial surface to natural grass, which adorns all but two major league stadiums.
But junior right-handed pitcher Alec Hansen, who is listed as the No. 2 college prospect in the country by Baseball America, isn’t concerned.
“When we throw inside in the indoor (facility), that’s obviously turf. So the turf mound is not really much difference really,” Hansen said. “I don’t think for pitchers it’s really that much difference.”
The turf mound is perhaps the most unusual sight to baseball purists, but the pitchers who have to use it have no problems with the surface.
“Our pitchers love it,” Hughes said. “There are no holes. You know, sometimes you get the kid who’s 5-foot-8 and then you get the guy who’s 6-foot-9 and there are holes everywhere, and it messes up their strides. That problem’s been eliminated.”
The turf will begin to be tested when the Sooners’ season kicks off Friday afternoon, but so far, it has been a hit with those whom it will directly affect. According to White, there’s one other group who will benefit from the new digs.
“The people that have to clean their uniforms don’t have to worry about trying to clean out the red clay,” White said.