By Alan Prendergast
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1. It's cheap--at least for team owners and college athletic departments. According to the manufacturer of AstroTurf, it costs about $5,000 a year to maintain the average synthetic field. The upkeep on real, live grass can run $50,000 or more. Hey. Who doesn't want to save poor Marge Schott a few bucks?
2. It prolongs the careers of iron-gloved shortstops. Because baseballs are said to bounce truer on the rug, Jose Offerman will probably leave the Dodgers, and fans will get to watch him play without a face mask.
3. It allows people in otherwise uninhabitable climates to attend sporting events indoors. Got tickets yet for the International Burglary Championships at the Pontiac Silverdome?
4. It's the same color as your Uncle Elmer's tuxedo.
Once upon a time, there was a debate. When the Houston Astros glued the first acres of green plastic to the floor of the Astrodome thirty years ago, no one knew quite what to expect. Would ground balls shoot through the infield as if fired from rifles? Would tailbacks and wideouts seemingly gain seven or eight miles an hour? Would the texture of sport be enhanced by artificial turf at the dawn of the 1970s?
The eventual answers to these questions were yes, yes and no. But back then, neither the Astros nor the fans nor the attending physicians of America's two major games had any idea what horrors--aesthetic, strategic and medical--would lie ahead. The proliferation of identical, toilet-bowl-shaped stadiums (where are we, Garvey? Three Rivers or the Vet?) and domed Disneylands carpeted with the stuff continued well into the decade of disco, polyester and Watergate. But the problems emerged slowly at first.
"If a horse can't eat it," well-traveled slugger Richie Allen announced early on, "then I don't like it."
Asked if he preferred grass or AstroTurf, relief pitcher Tug McGraw answered: "I don't know. I've never smoked AstroTurf."
That was before anyone outside the Mayo Clinic knew what an anterior cruciate ligament was, before NFL teams visiting Cincinnati's beturfed Riverfront Stadium discovered it was like playing in the parking lot.
That was before the small, whippet-fast St. Louis Cardinals, instructed by wily manager Whitey Herzog to swing down on the ball, spirited the 1982 World Series away from the lumbering Milwaukee Brewers with a barrage of mutant AstroTurf grounders.
That was before Colorado fans asked why arch-rival Nebraska had laid carpet over in Lincoln: Right--to keep the cheerleaders from grazing.
That was also before the San Francisco 49ers successfully campaigned to replace the artificial surface at Candlestick Park with grass, to pamper the aching knees and tender ankles of one famous player set on finishing a great career in his hometown. Guy named O.J. Simpson.
Now the entire jury's back with the verdict on AstroTurf.
Last year the NFL Players Association conducted a poll in which 85.1 percent of the players said they would prefer to play on grass. Just 6.9 percent voted for turf, and 8 percent didn't care. Ninety-three of every one hundred players said turf was more likely to contribute to injury. Still, fifteen of the league's thirty teams play on plastic, and the incidence of blown-out knees, gruesome concussions and "turf toe"--which is far more painful than it sounds--continues to rise.
San Francisco safety Merton Hanks: "It's like going out in front of your house and painting the street green...It just drains the life out of you. For some reason, they say it can't be scientifically proven, but you ask any player who plays on it."
There's more. While turf has always corrupted baseball, it's only lately gotten too sticky for football.
Back in the Year Zero--1965--manufacturers hoped they had come up with a surface that drained quickly, wore like iron and provided great traction. They succeeded on the first count, but some early turf fields--like the notorious slab in Cincy--quickly grew hard and slick, and that contributed to all sorts of impact injuries. Later generations of turf are more durable and their cushions are softer, but that has created a new problem: The adhesion between the nubby rubber sole of a turf football shoe and the rough plastic fibers of the field is sometimes too good. A player like Barry Sanders, the brilliant, limber running back of the Detroit Lions, clearly benefits from the quick, sure cuts he can make on turf: He's got the mediocre grass stats to prove it. But when a foot gets planted on turf and the knee or hip above that foot gets hit, the foot tends to stay planted.
This Velcro effect has put scores of players in the hospital and ended the careers of some. Just ask Koy or Ki-Jana.
While playing Texas A&M in Boulder on September 23, Colorado quarterback Koy Detmer, the nation's leading passer, suffered a complete tear of the anterior cruciate ligament--the dreaded ACL--in his right knee. He could be gone for the season. Afterward, first-year CU coach Rick Neuheisel and team trainer Dave Burton were cagey about the cause of the injury. Neuheisel said he could neither confirm nor deny that the tear was related to Folsom Field's synthetic turf (installed in 1971), and Burton said the same thing might have happened if the quarterback had been wearing half-inch spikes on grass.