Update on synthetic turf for baseball

While professional baseball has seen a steep decline in synthetic turf use over the past two or three decades, there has been a significant movement in recent years on the high school and collegiate levels to install synthetic turf on its baseball and softball fields for one simple reason.

“A lot of it comes down to playability,” says Mike Snyder, Director of Athletics at Illinois College in Jacksonville, IL. “Going synthetic will allow you to play more games when the weather isn’t cooperating with you.”

Snyder is well accustomed to the weather challenges that impact baseball teams in the northern half of the US. He previously served as the Director of Athletic Facilities and Associate Athletics Director at Oberlin College in Ohio, where weather created constant headaches. “Having a spring sport, when you get rain and frost, it can create a big mess,” he says. “I would estimate that 9 out of 10 times when we would have playability issues that jeopardized being able to actually play a game, it was related to the infield.”

Minerva (Ohio) High School Athletic Administrator Don Spinell can sympathize. “We have a small window in Northeast Ohio to play a baseball game,” he says. “We wouldn’t cancel any games because the outfield is a little wet, we would cancel games because the infield is unplayable.” For Spinell’s school and many others in the region, rainouts can happen as frequently as 5 days in a row, forcing schools to squeeze in seven games in 5 days, which, according to Spinell, “nobody in the world has pitching to go through like that.”

Lacking the necessary personnel and financial resources that professional teams boast to keep their grass fields in pristine condition, Snyder and Spinell, like many of their athletics administrator counterparts, opted to pursue another playing surface option: synthetic turf.

When evaluating the installation of synthetic turf at Oberlin College and later Illinois College, Snyder considered the maintenance cost savings that came with switching to a synthetic turf surface. “At Illinois College, we have a much smaller grounds crew than we had at Oberlin, and (turf) really plays in our favor because we don’t have the numbers that we would need to have if it was a grass field,” says Snyder.

Spinell agrees. “By putting in turf, we’re able to cut down immensely on the amount of maintenance we would spend on dragging,” he says. “The only thing we rake now is the clay on the mound.”

Once a school decides on synthetic turf, the next question is cost. “When you look at the cost of natural versus synthetic, synthetic is going to be a little more up front but you get payback in the ability to get out there and play sooner and more often,” Snyder says, who also encourages athletics administrators to closely examine how much synthetic turf they want to install as well. “The cost going into the outfield is a lot more expensive. Ideally, we’d love to have turf everywhere but you want to make sure your money is being spent in the right spot and that you’re getting the biggest bang for your buck.”

Funding can be more difficult on the high school level, but for Spinell and Minerva, part of their financial success behind this project involved rallying the community behind the immense value of a synthetic turf baseball field. “The overwhelming support in our community was the difference,” he says, noting that Minerva took a similar fundraising approach to its football field that will be paid off in its fourth year. “We just finished our first year on the baseball field and we’re on the same pace (as the football field) with the amount of people that donated for it up front.”

The decision to switch to synthetic turf is much easier in comparison to selecting the vendor that best meets that project’s respective needs. Snyder, who currently serves as the Vice President of the Collegiate Event Facility Managers Association (CEFMA) and will assume the position of President in June, turned to Downers Grove, IL-based UBU Sports. After a successful installation at Oberlin — “the baseball team was thrilled with the surface,” according to Snyder — he once again turned to UBU Sports upon his arrival at Illinois College.

“Based on the information I received from (UBU Sports CEO) Mark Nicholls in regards to studies that have shown the ball coming off the turf on a truer speed and angle, we opted for an all rubber infill versus a mixed,” Snyder says.

Unpredictable and sometimes chaotic weather elements are not exclusive to the northern half of the US. Four baseball fields in Mississippi, for example, are being completed renovated this season due to the consistent spring afternoon storms that Mississippi endures every spring. The project will see the grass dug up and replaced with a new drainage system and turf fields. Factoring in the smaller financial requirements of a baseball infield versus a full football field, the expectation is that there will continue to be a very strong increase in synthetic turf systems for baseball and softball fields, not only on the high school and collegiate athletics level, but on the recreational sports level as well.

And what about those baseball purists that argue America’s pastime shouldn’t include synthetic turf? “I understand that there’s tradition but I also understand that there’s progress,” says Spinell.