Blue Jays want natural grass, ask Guelph's Eric Lyons for help

The Toronto Blue Jays want to know if it is possible to install natural grass at Rogers Centre for 2018, so the MLB team is spending $600,000 on research by a University of Guelph expert to see if they can switch from artificial turf.

Toronto spending $600K for Guelph university to see if Rogers Centre can convert from artificial turf

Kevin Pillar, left, of the Toronto Blue Jays slides in safely ahead of the throw to catcher Welington Castillo in 2014. The Blue Jays are looking into whether they can install natural grass in the Rogers Centre, which now has artificial turf. (John E. Sokolowski/Reuters)

The Toronto Blue Jays want to know if it is possible to install natural grass at Rogers Centre for 2018, something the stadium was never designed for.

So the MLB franchise has enlisted turf-grass expert Eric Lyons from the University of Guelph's department of plant agriculture to help them figure out if it's doable. 

The Jays are spending $600,000 on the research.

"One of the largest hurdles they have to overcome is dealing with the humidity plants push into the atmosphere," Lyons told Craig Norris in an interview on CBC's The Morning Edition on Tuesday. 

"The Rogers Centre, while it's meant to deal with 55,000 fans and the humidity that humans create with their breath and their sweat, it's not meant to deal with that plus the humidity from the grass," he said.

Lyons says he will aim to figure out just how much humidity the grass will contribute, and how that will affect other sources of humidity. He can then take the problem to the building engineers, who will work to see if they can disperse that moisture from the Rogers Centre.

The stadium's retractable roof also presents a unique challenge. It was designed to stay closed, and open on nice days. 

"If your building was always meant to be closed when it's raining outside or as a standard configuration, they didn't prepare for things like rainfall inside the stadium which could do damage to the electronics, the video board and stuff like that. The way the Rogers Centre is set up right now, it's not meant to take the elements day in, day out." 

Grass types

Lyon says he is confident he will be able to recommend installing grass, and make recommendations for 2018, but he says meeting that goal will depend on how fast the engineering and construction companies are able to work. 

The team will need to put in a root zone area, which would involve digging out the cement slab under the field. The grass cannot be planted on top of the cement slab, because that would affect sight lines, he said.

"Initially I have a good feeling they're going to go with a Kentucky Blue Grass-perennial rye grass blend," he said, though he was uncertain about which cultivars they would chose from those grass types. A cultivar is a sub-type of plant that has desirable characteristics that are selected for — think of rose breeders trying for specific colours for example. 

Lyons says that picking cultivars that are disease resistant is important, as well as how the colour of the grass appears on TV screens.

"The fans don't want to turn on the TV and see a lime green field; they want to see the field that looks like all the other fields in major-league baseball." 

Most MLB teams have natural grass

"In the major leagues, at the current time, there's only two stadiums that have synthetic. Natural grass is the norm for baseball stadiums in North America," said Lyons.

The Jays and the Tampa Bay Rays are the only MLB teams with stadiums with artificial turf

Lyons says the Milwaukee Brewers are the northernmost team, aside from the Jays, who play in a stadium that can close, but even so, there are significant differences between the two. 

"The Brewers play in a stadium that is an open-air stadium that can close, whereas the Jays play in a closed stadium that can open. And that's a huge difference when you talk about the engineering of the building and the ability to grow plants in it." 


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