Greg Garber
 Wednesday, December 22
The tragic carpet
 
By Greg Garber
Special to ESPN.com

 Three hundred years from now, an earnest archaeologist will brush aside the dirt in someplace like Pittsburgh or Cincinnati or Philadelphia. He will be leaning forward in anticipation when the first flash of green hits him.

"What the hell is this?" he will mutter to himself.

In a word, Astroturf. Artificial turf. The fake stuff, as former major league manager Whitey Herzog called it. In the 21st century, one can be assured there will be less of it than there was in the 20th century.

Three Rivers Stadium
Aack! History will not look kindly upon the fake grass at places like Three Rivers Stadium.

Thank goodness.

When AstroTurf was first rolled out, as it were, in the Houston Astrodome in 1966, Phillies slugger Dick Allen was not impressed. "I don't want to play on any grass a cow wouldn't eat," he said.

In the context of history, artificial turf will be viewed as a fad of sorts, an ungroovy phase that sports, from the high schools to the pros, went through toward the end of the 1900s. Still, artificial turf was no fleeting fancy like, say, Pokemon.

"In the last 30 years, artificial turf has had a huge impact on our game," Colts president Bill Polian says. "It made it much more of a speed game. You suddenly had to find people who could stay with the people that other teams were drafting."

Polian took copious notes. The first (and only) team to reach the Super Bowl four straight times was Polian's Buffalo Bills, from 1990-93. Those Bills were lean, mean and fast -- the better to exploit the stone-cold, lightning quick carpet at Rich Stadium.

Similarly, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys dominated the 1970s with the combination of home artificial surfaces and innovative drafting. They were the first teams to focus on the small predominantly black schools from the south. Fact was, the speed of their players made them superior to other NFL teams.

Twenty years after the two teams met in Super Bowl X, their back-to-the-future fortunes collided in Super Bowl XXX. A dome team has never won the Super Bowl, but turf teams litter the NFL record book.

Baseball, too, has been influenced.

"Two things changed baseball," Polian says. "The use of the aluminum bat -- everybody's afraid to pitch inside now because you're going to get your teeth knocked out. And artificial turf. You go get some guys who slap the ball down and can run like crazy, get some outfielders with great arms, and you're going to win some games. Whitey Herzog understood that. He wrote about it in his book."

Indeed, the manager of the Royals, Cardinals and Rangers who got to three World Series fondly remembers trying to turn a young would-be slugger named Willie Wilson into a slap hitter in Kansas City.

"What Willie did have was speed and a home ballpark that favored speed," Herzog wrote in the 1999 book You're Missin' a Great Game.

"Royals Stadium had big dimensions, which made it even harder to hit the ball out and fake turf that turned ground balls into states of emergency.

"With the wheels he had, if Willie'd just learn to switch-hit, beat the ball into the ground and take off running, he'd be on base more often than Babe Ruth ate hot dogs."

Eventually, Wilson agreed to re-tool his game. The Royals won their division three straight years, from 1976-78. In 1982, Wilson led the American League with 15 triples and won the batting title (.332). By that time, Herzog was managing in St. Louis, where he put together another terrific turf team. The Cardinals won the 1982 World Series with speedsters Lonnie Smith and Willie McGee and slick-fielding Ozzie Smith. The Cards reached the Series in 1985 and again in 1987, but lost -- to the Royals and Twins, two other turf teams.

Artificial turf doesn't require sunlight to live and offers consistent bounces; maintenance is confined to regular vacuumings. But, of course, there is a downside.

Players hate it, and with good reason. Lying under the fake grass and an inch or so of padding is a slab of asphalt or concrete. That wrecks havoc with knees and ankles. Studies are inconclusive, but athletes are convinced it robs years from their careers. Smart NFL teams who play on artificial turf have been practicing on grass for some time, in an attempt to extend their players' effectiveness.

You can blame Dr. Harold Gores. The New York City educator, looking for a way to develop a playground surface more forgiving than -- ironic surprise of surprises -- asphalt, conspired with the Monsanto Company to invent ChemGrass. It was first installed in the field house at Moses Brown School in Providence in 1964. Two years later, AstroTurf surfaced in Houston. Soon, outdoor multipurpose stadiums across the country went to turf as a cost-saving measure.

Thirty years later, artificial turf is starting to die, after all.

In recent years, the Chicago Bears, Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots, thinking about their high-priced rosters, have torn up their artificial turf and gone back to grass roots. The Giants and Jets will play on grass next season at Giants Stadium, in what has become an official movement.

By 2002, only nine of the NFL's 32 teams will play on turf. Six of those teams play in domes. Soon, we are told, the technology for indoor natural grass will appproach cost-effective.

By the middle of the next century, hopefully, artificial fields will have gone the way of the brontosaurus and the saber-toothed tiger. Some day, the faux turf merely will be an NFL Films staple, like the 1958 championship game and Tom Landry's hat.

Greg Garber is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

 



ALSO SEE
ESPN.com's 10 important innovations

Message Board