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South Bend benefits from new surface04/29/2011 11:30 AM ET
By Curt Rallo / Special to MLB.com
Gone are the snake designs cut into the rich green turf by South Bend groundskeeper Joel Reinebold, who once crafted the American flag onto the grass at Coveleski Stadium and an Arizona Diamondbacks logo when the Major League club came for an exhibition game.
But also gone are the rainouts due to soggy turf, epic battles with the tarp and bad hops.
Coveleski Stadium, home of the Class A Silver Hawks, boasts a brand-new synthetic surface produced by UBU Sports and installed as part of an offseason overhaul of the 24-year-old ballpark. Only the Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays play on artificial turf in the Majors, and officials with Minor League Baseball said there are only a couple of artificial surfaces in play in the Minors.
"We did a lot of research and knew we were breaking, to a degree, with tradition," said Silver Hawks owner Joe Kernan of the $950,000 surface. "First, it means we'll get in more games. The turf drains so much better, and with our climate, it makes more sense. Second, it's more durable and allows us to have more community-based activities on the field. And it reduces the chance of injury for our players, because if the grass would get torn up, we would re-sod, but in the early months, the sod doesn't take."
According to Reinebold, the field can handle the wear and tear of a variety of events and take a pounding from the weather.
"This field can handle 50 inches of rain in one hour," said Reinebold, adding, "If we get 50 inches of rain in one hour, we've got a lot more to worry about than baseball. "We're just as busy with this field, but it's a different kind of busy," Reinebold noted. "You're not cutting grass, watering or aerating. You're raking, sweeping and doing a number of other things specific to caring for the turf."
South Bend infielder Zach Walters, who's played second base, shortstop and third for the Silver Hawks this season, said the artificial surface has benefits and drawbacks.
"It can be your friend or your foe," Walters said. "Fielding, this turf gives you all the confidence in the world. You can rely on a good hop. There are no excuses. But as a hitter, it's going to take away some hits. It kind of slows the game down, but I like it. You can run fast. As a fielder, you feel like Ozzie Smith. But as a hitter, I don't even want to talk about it.
"I think it will encourage development," Walters continued. "The confidence you get will be a spark to becoming a good infielder. You can rely on a good hop, so you're working more on your feet and your hands, because you're not thinking about that ball off the lip, or the ball hits some dirt or catches a cleat mark. You're focusing on what you're doing."
Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers said he doesn't have a problem with his Class A farm team playing on a surface different than the one at Chase Field in Phoenix.
"To me, you're going to play on different surfaces when you get to the big league level, even though you play 81 games at home," Towers said. "Every surface is different, regardless of where you play.
"Based on weather, the key thing is being able to play games and not have injuries," Towers said. "Turf is easier on guys' legs and allows you to play more games and not have as many rainouts. At least you're going to get true hops, and aesthetically, it looks nice."
South Bend manager Mark Haley said the turf, which features dirt around the bases and home plate only, will help player development.
"Ideally, you want to have the same field you have in the big leagues, but we're at a level where the amount of work you get in is more important," Haley said. "At a young level, you want the best fielding surface you can have, because you're teaching. If the ball is taking bad hops, it discourages their confidence. The field is a little slow, but it's getting faster as it compacts. I know they say the turf is going to get hot, but baseball is geared for the heat. We're ready for that."
A major concern is that there is no textural difference between the turf and the warning track. Players patrolling Coveleski's outfield are well aware that the warning track is merely a change in color from green to a red clay color. That means they can't feel the warning track as they approach the wall chasing a fly ball.
"We have to rely on our fellow outfielders to talk to us and let us know if we're getting close to the wall," said South Bend left fielder Bobby Stone. "You don't have time to look down and then pick the ball back up. You have to go for it. We have to use each other to play the wall right.
"On a real field, when you're going back, and your outfielder is calling 'wall, wall, wall,' you're paying attention to where you're at and you can feel when you're on the warning track," Stone said. "You can't feel that on this surface."
Haley said his staff discussed the warning track situation as soon as Hawks players arrived in town.
"It's a concern," Haley said. "The outfielders don't feel the change in texture, so you hope they're communicating and helping each other out. We may put red gravel out there, so that when the outfielders step on it, it's a different texture. Right now, there's a learning curve for everything. We're trying to figure out what's best."
Former Major Leaguer Ben Oglivie, now West Michigan's hitting coach, prefers the new surface in South Bend compared to the hard surfaces of his playing days.
"I think it's easy on the knee," Oglivie said. "I had knee surgery, and I can run on this. I can't run on other turfs. This is a good cushion for your knee. This isn't like any other turfs I've been on."