Rays have decided to install the new surface this season; company says installation time is not an obstacle.
By MARC TOPKIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2000
KISSIMMEE -- The Devil Rays have decided to install a new synthetic playing surface at Tropicana Field and could make an announcement as soon as today if final contract details can be worked out.
The new turf looks, feels and plays more like natural grass than the current AstroTurf and should have a dramatic impact, according to several players who have tested the surface.
Team officials were in negotiations late Sunday with representatives of FieldTurf and were believed to be close to a deal.
"We've agreed to do it if we can, assuming we can work out a contract, that some of the observations from our experts can be integrated in, and that it can be made in time," managing general partner Vince Naimoli said Sunday afternoon. "Those are the three issues. We're still working on it."
Cost is not considered prohibitive, with the price expected to be around $1-million. Eventually, the Rays likely would recoup some of that by selling the current AstroTurf.
Officials from Major League Baseball and the players association made several suggestions about how to best implement the change, but had no major objections during a visit to St. Petersburg last week. "On first impression it seemed pretty nice," union official Tony Bernazard said.
The biggest question may be the time needed for production and installation since the Rays play their home opener April 7, 25 days from today. "Time is our enemy," Naimoli said. Company officials, however, apparently are confident they can get the job done. General manager Chuck LaMar said previously that if a change is made, it must be done before the Rays begin play at the Trop and not during the season.
With its present AstroTurf, Tropicana Field is considered the fastest, and one of the hardest, playing surfaces in the league.
Shortstop Kevin Stocker, who has tested FieldTurf, said the new surface will be a major improvement.
"It looks like grass, and it's definitely better than what we have, no question," Stocker said. "It slows the ball down a bit, and it's not bouncy at all. It definitely plays more like grass."
Stocker said there still will be some odd hops and spins with balls bouncing from the turf to the dirt basepaths, but there will be obvious improvements. For example, he said, fly balls no longer should bounce over outfielders' heads and bunts will not roll all the way down the baseline.
The new surface is softer and conceivably should reduce wear and tear on players' knees as well as impact-related injuries. At the least, it should make it less hazardous for outfielders to dive for balls.
Several players said that, on first glance, it is hard to realize that the surface is not natural.
FieldTurf is made from a synthetic blend of fibers that are tufted in a pattern similar to natural grass and on a base of sand and rubber (recycled from tires and athletic shoes). The surface is used at more than 150 athletic facilities worldwide, and has gotten good reviews. Some facilities reportedly have even paid to have the surface sprayed to smell like grass.
Outfitting a big-league baseball stadium will be a new venture for the Montreal-based company. The University of Nebraska has the turf at its football stadium, and the Steelers will have it at their indoor practice facility.
Rays officials have been impressed with the new surface for a while, and welcomed input from the baseball and union officials. "They were very helpful and had some very observations which we will incorporate into our strategy," Naimoli said.