When I toured the Hillsboro Hops' new ballpark last week, I was mildly shocked to find very little dirt, and no grass at all. Because the playing surface -- the infield, the outfield, the warning tracks, the basepaths, around the bases -- is all carpeted; there's dirt only on the pitcher's mound, and surrounding home plate.
How uncommon is this? Well, it's actually not so uncommon in Oregon, where two of the state's three affiliated minor-league teams will play in artificial turf this season. But it's quite uncommon everywhere else. Among the very few minor-league ballparks with carpeting, though? Surprisingly (to me, anyway), Coney Island's MCU Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones. Hurricane Sandy destroyed the field last fall, and the Mets -- who own the Cyclones -- opted to replace the natural grass and the dirt basepaths with modern plastics technology. Even though the Cyclones can't be more than a rounding error for the Mets, financially, it seems that ownership has finances in mind:
The hardy new field, built to weather future storms and last up to 12 years, will allow MCU Park to add football, lacrosse and soccer games, concerts and other community events to its calendar while still accommodating Cyclones games and practices.
"So now we can have a 9 o’clock baseball game, a high school game, in the morning, and still have time to turn the field around so that we can practice on it and then have our game at night," Wilpon said. "With no worry about how much wear and tear there is."
Other minor league teams are watching. Not only are the Cyclones the city’s only professional baseball team to play on artificial turf, they are only the fourth such team among the 160 admission-charging clubs in minor league baseball (joining the Hillsboro (Ore.) Hops, Eugene (Ore.) Emeralds, and South Bend (Ind.) Silver Hawks). That number is expected to climb. The Hudson Valley Renegades in Fishkill, N.Y., are going to artificial turf in 2014, and a potential new club at West Virginia University could start playing games on the plastic stuff in 2015.
"It’s very possible that the New York-Penn League will have three stadiums in a couple years with turf," Hayes said. "It makes all sorts of sense."
Alas, I'm afraid it does make all sorts of sense, especially for small operators and municipally owned stadiums Even assuming you actually lose a few fans who hate the carpet, you should easily make up for those Luddites with all those "extra" events, not to mention the groundskeepers you won't be paying to keep a grass field in good shape. Really, the only thing that's going to stop this trend would be Major League Baseball forbidding it. Which seems unlikely, at least at this level. While teams presumably want their prospects learning to field and run on real grass and real dirt, there's plenty of time for that between short-season Class A and the majors.