Grass or turf?
Tim Corbin lost sleep thinking about it.
As a New Englander bred on baseball, playing on anything except grass was sacrilegious. As Vanderbilt’s baseball coach, though, the pros began to outweigh the cons.
“There are some older gentlemen who might look at me sideways and go, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Corbin said. “But when I’m sitting in my office in January and it is 30 degrees, and we’ve got to get out there and practice and we can’t, there are some thoughts that go into that. It didn’t come easy. The decision wasn’t easy.”
Last week, Vanderbilt sold off parts of Hawkins Field to fans for $25 for a 1-by-1-foot section of grass and $10 for a gallon of dirt from the infield. The following day, a bulldozer arrived and began the nine-week process.
Except for the pitcher’s mound, the entire field will be AstroTurf, which is expected to be installed by the end of September, just in time for fall baseball practices and scrimmages.
In April, at the request of second-year football coach James Franklin, the natural grass that had been on Dudley Field since 1999 was removed from Vanderbilt Stadium. Shaw Sports Turf has installed 89,500 square feet of synthetic turf, and it will be ready for use by the end of the month. The turf, along with a new lighting system, video board and hillside seating, will receive some national exposure when the Commodores open against South Carolina at 6 p.m. Aug. 30 on ESPN.
That both Vanderbilt teams are switching from grass to a synthetic surface at the same time is a coincidence, athletics director David Williams said.
“The decision rests with the coach,” Williams said. “I would never turf a field if I had an existing coach that didn’t want turf. You can’t always go back and forth — it’s an investment. It’s an investment in our coaches too. This is what both of them wanted.”
The installation of each new surface cost Vanderbilt a $1 million a field. That price includes removing the grass, prepping and laying down the artificial turf and adding the “infield” mix of sand and ground tire rubber.
“That’s what gives you your traction and protects the players,” associate director of student athletics Brock Williams said. “When you hit the field, you’re minimizing the impact. Studies have shown less injuries on these fields.”
Concerned about the ever-evolving turf industry, Williams and Vanderbilt have an agreement with the two companies that the surface will be replaced if a better product comes on the market.
Brock Williams, who oversees facilities, described the annual cost benefits as “fairly substantial.”
“You don’t have to fertilize it. You don’t have to water it. You don’t have to mow it,” Williams said. “You don’t have to go out there and pet it every day and say, ‘Please grow.’"
Instead of spending on upkeep, the Commodores hope the new surface reels in profit.
Local soccer teams have expressed interest in playing at Vanderbilt Stadium, and David Williams wants to bid on hosting future TSSAA state championship football games. In fact, he said officials were “seriously talking” about hosting a couple high school football games next month. But they didn’t want to rush the installation process and risk setting things back for the Commodores’ season opener.
Vanderbilt also wants to bring in more concerts. When U2 plopped their four-legged steel claw stage at Vanderbilt Stadium in July 2011, the band agreed to re-sod the grass in time for the Commodores’ first game eight weeks later. Now, timing will be less of an issue.
“We’ve had to sprig that field in May, and nobody could use that field until the end of August so that grass could grow and fill in,” Brock Williams said. “That’s a bonus because we can use the field 365 days out of the year.”
That’s music to Corbin’s ears.
His biggest gripe with grass was that if it rained or the temperatures reached below freezing, he’d lose practice time and, without a practice field, his team was confined to the batting cages.
“From the time I’ve gotten here [in 2002] to now, the development on the field has been an issue,” said Corbin, who last year visited the turf fields at Wichita State, Ohio State and Wake Forest. “I think the ability to decrease the maintenance, decrease the cost … it is recruiting-ready every day. It looks good. There is a transition from ryegrass to Bermuda that doesn’t make your field look very recruitable.”
Belmont coach Dave Jarvis was skeptical when the Bruins partnered with Metro Parks to upgrade Rose Park for the new home of their track, baseball, softball and soccer fields. He wasn’t a proponent of turf, but after 15 months of the weight-specific UBU Sports Turf, his stance has changed.
He has been astonished how the turf minimizes the weather factor, and though the ball bounces differently, the bounces are more consistent than off dirt and grass.
“There are fewer bad hops,” Jarvis said. “I’m a real strong traditionalist, and it’s hard for me to say that moving away from the natural grass surface has been a positive thing, but it absolutely has been a positive thing for our program. [Belmont president] Dr. [Robert] Fisher had tremendous foresight in being able to see that with this field being used by so many other entities, especially during the offseason and summer, [turf] really allows us to continue to have a first-class facility.”
While more and more college football teams are making the move to turf, grass is still king in baseball.
In the Ohio Valley Conference, only Belmont and Eastern Kentucky have turf surfaces, while Vanderbilt will be the only Southeastern Conference team without grass.
“I love grass and I’m not a turf guy, but I think turf is a whole lot different than five years ago,” Corbin said. “This comes with a whole lot of investigation. … It is one of those things I felt suits Vanderbilt.”