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November 14, 2003

Breaking Balls

The Thrill of the Grass

by Derek Zumsteg

I'm annoyed, as always, at the Rookie of the Year voting, where voters are unwilling to vote on the issue at hand and instead pursue their own agendas (Japanese players aren't rookies, Angel Berroa isn't a rookie to compensate for those voters, etc.), and they'll be allowed to cast ballots next year anyway.

I was thinking about something else, though--baseball is the only major sport in America where the players are guaranteed to get dirty. Twenty-six fields are some variety of grass (see chart, below), and outfielders who make diving grabs come up smeared in green, just like we do when we play at our local fields. Slide into second in shorts and you look like Pigpen, and that's the same in every ballpark in baseball.

They play on Astroturf in Minnesota, and dirt around the bases. Tropicana Field's got Astroturf and a whole dirt infield. SkyDome in Toronto has AstroGrass, while Olympic Stadium in Montreal is waiting on a new fake surface for next year.

But every field has dirt. Football wants to be a down and dirty game, but there are more teams with artificial surfaces. Players in those stadiums walk away from every game without contact with anything natural, no matter how many times they tackle someone to the plastic, or dive to make a stunning catch.

OK, there might be some blood on the uniform, but then where's the dirt to rub on your cut? Dirt, as anyone who played baseball in less-enlightened times knows, is some sort of miracle antibiotic and pain reliever. Scrape yourself up sliding into second? Rub some dirt on it. Ground ball take a sharp hop into your nose? Dirt. If A.J. Burnett's elbow had actually exploded on the mound, Torborg would have told him to suck it up and rub some dirt on it.

Anyway, Bret Boone might play a couple of games a year where he doesn't have to slide or make a defensive stop on infield dirt. The rest of the game, he's getting dirty. Jim Edmonds is the clubhouse washing machine's nightmare: heavy, diving for balls at full-tilt and skidding across the blue grass...it makes me grin thinking about it.

Type of Surface                       Teams
Bluegrass (single type or blend)*       14
Grass, unknown**                         5
Artificial turf                          5***
Other grasses                            6

* includes mixes where blue grass is the majority of blend

** information not available on MLB.com or other readily available resources

*** includes Philly

So it's the off-season, which means I get a little longer leash to do things like:

Win percentage by playing surface:

Type of Surface   Win Percentage, 2003**
Bluegrass*           .515
Blends               .497
Grass, unknown*      .444
Artificial turf      .504
Other grasses        .513

* pure bluegrass, includes blends of different bluegrass varieties but not blends of bluegrass with, say, ryegrass

** because I'm averaging win percentages, I know these can't be put back together correctly, and no, I'm not sorry

You want to build a winning team? Clearly, you can toss out player development, free agents, and choosing between run-and-gun and station-to-station. All you really need is bluegrass.

Major league fields are beautifully kept, which brings out the qualities of the grass--spongy or forgiving, fast or slow. Even beyond grass height, think about how the grooming of the field, the choice of grass, the mix in the blend, it all in some small way affects every ball put into play, from the way a ground ball plays or the color of the chlorophyll on a center fielder's uniform.

I love playing on grass, and sliding into the dirt, just like the players I watch and admire do. This connection with dirt and sand and grass that exists in every park is part of baseball's charm, and it brings me great joy that as the multipurpose parks are replaced, they're being replaced with natural playing surfaces.

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MORE BY DEREK ZUMSTEG
2003-12-01 - Premium Article Breaking Balls: Making Better Use of A-Rod
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2003-11-14 - Breaking Balls: The Thrill of the Grass
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MORE BREAKING BALLS
2003-12-01 - Premium Article Breaking Balls: Making Better Use of A-Rod
2003-11-25 - Breaking Balls: Patience
2003-11-17 - Premium Article Breaking Balls: Cooler Heads
2003-11-14 - Breaking Balls: The Thrill of the Grass
2003-11-10 - Premium Article Breaking Balls: Draft Slotting
2003-10-30 - Breaking Balls: Free Agent Season
2003-10-28 - Premium Article Breaking Balls: The Curse of Yankee Fandom
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