Last week, Tampa Bay Rays owner Stu Sternberg unveiled renderings for their new stadium in Ybor City, Tampa. This new $892 million stadium has a lot of new features, including a roof that would be made of glass rather than rings and steel dome. There would be no retractable roof in the stadium, so all the light would be natural sunlight during the day games. That roof alone would cost $240 million, or 26% of the cost. The stadium would have 28,216 fixed seats with an extended capacity of 30,842. This would make it the smallest in baseball by capacity. However, one other problem appeared in the unveiling: more artificial turf.
There are a grand total of two stadiums left in baseball that uses artificial turf over natural grass. Both are in the American League East. The Trop (Tropicana Field) and Rogers Centre (the home of the Toronto Blue Jays) have artificial turf. While the latter has worked hard in recent years to reduce the amount of turf used, both stadiums are still having problems with keeping players healthy.
In 1965, construction finished on the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. Similar to the future Rays stadium, the Astrodome had a translucent plastic ceiling to let natural grass (known as Tifway 419 Bermuda) grow in the stadium. However, these plastic panes made catching the baseball during day games near impossible. The Astros responded by painting the panels black. This made the grass die due to lack of sunlight. In 1966, the Astrodome was filled with dead grass and painted dirt.
The material Chemgrass came out in 1964 as the first-ever artificial playing surface, developed by the Ford Foundation and Monsanto Industries to help get kids out and fit. This new material would help create new places for them to do so. Despite limited production, the material was brought into the Astrodome and renamed AstroTurf, a term popular to this day. During the 1970s and 1980s, the use of artificial turf in sporting facilities exploded. At one time, MLB had 12 different stadiums with artificial turf in their facilities.
However, there are problems with artificial turf. The 1980s Kansas City Royals, one of baseball’s biggest juggernaut teams, had artificial turf at Kauffman Stadium. This turf would cause bad hops, turning routine outs into base hits. The Royals benefitted from that. The turf was removed and it was no coincidence, if you ask Matthew Boggs of AstroTurf, that play for the Royals went down. This kind of thing still happens at Tropicana Field and Rogers Centre, much to the displeasure of opposing pitchers.
The next problem with artificial turf was the health of players playing on the field. This is not an MLB-only problem. As football stadiums also shared facilities with MLB, football teams commonly played on artificial turf. Legs take serious damage playing on artificial turf. According to Luz Claudio in Environ Health Perspect vol. 116 (3) in March 2008, an NFLPA survey of players in 1995 noted that over 93% of players felt that playing on the turf hurt them. The English Football Association also banished turf in 1988 because of the growing complaints of injuries.
A modern baseball example is CC Sabathia, who the Yankees try once in a while to skip series in Toronto or Tampa to keep his balky knee away from playing on the turf. One of Tampa Bay’s coaches, Tom Foley, told the Los Angeles Times in 2013 that playing on artificial turf was terrible. Foley was a teammate to Hall of Famer Andre Dawson in Montreal while playing for the Expos. Foley told the Times that Dawson needed his knee drained many times while playing in Montreal. Dawson also needed 12 knee operations for playing at Olympic Stadium in Montreal.
There is also one other unconfirmed health issue with AstroTurf and various synthetic material. According to numerous studies that Claudio described, the toxicity of the rubber material in the turf could be hazardous to human health. The rubber infill of synthetic turf would come off the ground in the form of little rubber pellets. This would include on players’ shoes, clothing, etc. This would be able to allow kids to inhale or ingest toxic chemicals. The various materials of the infill would expose children to toxic chemicals. Despite many studies, there is no true confirmation of whether or not artificial turf is leading to health issues.
John Vukovich, Tug McGraw , and Darren Daulton all from brain cancer the theory is astro turf others from that same era from different teams
— ✭🍀Uncle Steve ✭🍀 (@Lambjrstephen) August 7, 2017
However, that has not stopped the problem from arising in baseball. When Darren Daulton passed away on August 6, 2017, the press looked at the relationship between the artificial turf in Philadelphia and glioblastoma. A glioblastoma is an aggressive form of brain cancer that has a short lifespan. Daulton, along with Johnny Oates, Ken Brett, John Vukovich and Tug McGraw all died in their mid-to-late 50s from glioblastoma. All of them played on the turf at Veterans Park.
A Philadelphia Inquirer study in 2013 of former Phillies players (533 from 1971-2003) noted that there was an increased risk of glioblastoma from playing on the turf. A 2011 study from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute and the US Census Bureau were used to measure the rate in which the Phillies players were getting brain cancer versus the national rate. The national rate was 9.8 cases per 100,000 adult males yearly. However, when it came to the 533 players for the Phillies was 30.1 cases per 100,000, a staggering 3.1x more than the national rate. The study analyzed all four of the players (Oates, McGraw, Vukovich and Brett), along with the national rate, for glioblastoma. Similar to the studies in Claudio’s report, there was no way to confirm that this was purely because of the turf at Veterans Park.
All this detail aside, why did MLB approve the concept of a Rays stadium with the glass roof? MLB has worked hard to get most fields all natural grass, in thanks to the retractable roof. Would 54 years of evidence tell the city that things are not going to work out? Not only will the turf be dangerous (even though FieldTurf is better than AstroTurf, the former of which the Rays currently use) for players, it will continue a trend of injuries. Plus, players will likely complain of the same problems with the roof that the Astrodome had. It is setting a dangerous trend and probably the biggest mistake of the project.