A Return To Football's Grass Roots? -- Artificial Turf May Not Make Sense, Even Here

Seahawk center Grant Feasel sighed as he sat down in front of his Kingdome locker, the right pant leg of his uniform literally drenched in blood from where he wiped the dozen or so wounds on his hand, elbow and arm.

Scabs on the dime- and quarter-sized abrasions were cleanly pulled away, from playing a sixth consecutive game on artificial turf.

"Damn," said Bryan Millard, glancing over from his neighboring locker, "the buzzards must be flying around, ready to eat you."

Rescue units are on the way.

Once considered as inevitable as rain in Seattle, artificial turf may no longer be the only playing surface that makes sense here, even for fields that are used a lot or domed.

On the 25th anniversary of the fake stuff's introduction in the United States, grass technology has developed to the point where natural fields often drain better and cost less than artificial surfaces - the primary reasons cited for using plastic fields.

The New England Patriots and several Big Ten Conference schools replaced their turfs this year with grass, a trend that Bruce Shank of Golf & Sportsturf Magazine expects to continue and could eventually find its way into the Kingdome.

"In the next three years, someone will develop grass that will grow indoors," said Shank, executive editor of the industry magazine.

Reasons for the chlorophyll comeback:

-- Drainage systems have been perfected that can absorb 8 to 20 inches of rain per hour, eliminating the puddles and sloppy conditions that mar play, irk coaches, and - nightmare of television network nightmares - force postponements of baseball games.

Most of the new fields have sand bases. The sand allows the water to drain from the surface into tubes, which carry it away from the field.

The traditional field, with grass and soil only, was often capable of absorbing no more than one inch of rain.

After a sand-based field at the Kansas City Royals' spring-training complex withstood the Florida downpours and 375 high-school, college and minor-league games last year, the club replaced the rest of their artificial fields with grass.

"There are no `mud bowls' anymore," Shank said. "You have occasional divots, which you don't get on artificial turf. But it can be either that or waste a kid's knee."

-- More than a half-dozen companies have arisen as competitors to Prescription Athletic Turf (PAT), the original sand-based field, driving the price of a quality grass field down to about $400,000.

Competition in the artificial-turf industry, meanwhile, tapered off as companies went out of business and the rights to AstroTurf were sold by Monsanto in 1988. The Balsam Corp., a German-based group, now owns OmniTurf and AstroTurf, which supplies more than 500 of the 600 fields with artificial turf in this country. With little competition, there is little reason for the price to come down.

George Bowling, contract manager at Balsam, said the typical baseball carpet costs more than $1 million and the typical football rug about $900,000.

-- Groundskeepers and agronomists now know better how to maintain and repair grass, once considered the forgotten sister to infield dirt by those in charge of tending baseball fields.

George Toma, known as the Sultan of Sod for his ability to fix grass problems overnight, said that the cost gap in caring for grass and turf fields has closed with better drainage systems.

"They say grass takes more money to upkeep," said Toma, groundskeeper at the artificial-turf Arrowhead Stadium and a consultant to the NFL. "But I haven't found there's too much difference. You have to replace an AstroTurf every eight years, and that's another $1 million or more to buy a new carpet.

"You could re-sod a field every year and come out ahead in cost."

Bowling, of Balsam, concedes that his company may lose more high-profile customers as grass fields improve. He remains hopeful that AstroTurf will retain its niche among urban schools that use the fields for multiple purposes, and in wet-weather places like Seattle. What is being debated is just how much traffic a field can take before artificial turf is necessary.

The University of Washington and most high-school stadiums in the area use artificial turf, although many were installed before sand-based grass fields were improved so drastically. Back then, Seattle's average annual rainfall of 38.6 inches per year was a messy problem.

"Your part of the world has been very kind to us," Bowling said. "That famous picture of the `mud bowl' in Memorial Stadium was one of the best advertisements ever for AstroTurf."

The Kingdome installed separate new baseball and football AstroTurf surfaces this year at the request of the Seahawks and Mariners, at a cost of $2.56 million. The previous carpet lasted seven years, so faux grass should line the stadium through most of the decade.

But come time for the next new surface, Seahawk and Mariner officials may have the choice of going natural.

A quarter century after the first game on artificial turf - in the Houston Astrodome, where grass failed to thrive under an acrylic roof - agronomists claim to have developed grass systems that can be used in domes.

In Flint, Mich., the world's first indoor golf course with natural grass opened this year. The nine-hole, par-three course was created after 15 years of experimentation with grass types, fertilizer and growing conditions, but the key was developing a two-layer plastic dome that allows ultraviolet light to reach the grass, shrubs and trees.

More relevant to the Kingdome, which has a concrete dome, is a new project from Greenway, a Pennsylvania-based company that allows an efficient way for grass to be moved in and out. Placed on rails, the grass surface consists of 3,500 four-foot squares that would rest in an adjacent greenhouse until they were needed.

"If you have too much wear and tear in one area, you just replace that area," said Tom Ripley, group coordinator for Greenway. "So you always have a first-class playing field at all times."

Assembling the entire field takes 24 hours. As a result, the system has high labor costs compared with those of artificial turf.

Vying to host games in the 1994 World Cup, representatives from the Astrodome, Detroit's Silverdome and New Orleans' Superdome inquired about the system last spring. They later gained approval as sites from FIFA, the world governing body for soccer, after showing they could maintain a temporary grass field for the month-long event.

Luring the World Cup was a primary reason Foxboro Stadium, home of the Patriots, replaced its artificial turf with grass this year. The switch gave the NFL an even number of grass and artificial turf fields, with 14 each.

The national move back to grass does not seem the product of any one factor.

In Baltimore, grass matches the nostalgic feel of the new stadium the Orioles will move into next season. At Ohio State, Coach John Cooper reportedly decided to cancel a replacement turf and put in grass in order to lure prep running back Robert Smith, who would have gone to USC otherwise.

Dee Glueck, associate director of facilities at the University of Washington, said the school is inclined to stay with its AstroTurf because of its all-purpose use among the varsity and recreational teams. But, he said, "if someone can develop a (grass) that withstands all that, we'll look at it."

Despite conflicting studies on the relative dangers of artificial turf, players still complain about the hard stuff, with nothing but a half-inch rug and 5/8-inch pad between them and asphalt. Among the players affected by turf this year were Los Angeles Raider running back Marcus Allen, who twisted a knee at the Astrodome, and Cincinnati Reds outfielder Eric Davis, who is limited to playing 120 days a season because of wear and tear on his knees at Riverfront Stadium.

"The owners have a lot of money invested in these players," Toma said. "The cheapest insurance is natural grass."

------------------------------ STADIUM SURFACES: TURF VS. SOD ------------------------------

Improved maintenance and concern for player safety have caused many stadiums with artificial turf surfaces to switch back to grass.

GRASS: Cushions falls better than turf, except when ground is frozen. Some stadiums are surfaced with the patented PAT system, a natural-grass surface that uses pumps to drain the field.

TURF: As it ages, it loses its resiliency and has less "give."


One of the disadvantages of artificial turf is its short lifespan. It usually requires replacement every eight to ten years, with certain injuries related to each stage of turf wear and tear. Turf burn occurs at all stages.


The Prescription Athletic Turf system uses moisture sensors in root zone to indicate if the surface is too wet or too dry. Irrigation or suction automatically is initiated.


-- Stage 1: New turf surface is sticky, causing foot to get stuck, especially when player decelerates or changes direction. Injury tendencies: "Turf toe," ligament, cartilage strains or tears in knees and ankles.

-- Stage 2: Surface is less sticky, improving footing, but padding is wearing down. Injury tendencies: Impact injuries to knee and shoulders.

-- Stage 3: Surface becomes more smooth and slippery and padding has worn down considerably. Injury tendencies: Impact injuries to shoulder, shoulder blades and elbows.

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