Memorial Stadium testing football 'field of the future' New surface to unite softness of real grass, strength of artificial

June 25, 1996|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

It's not really grass. It's not really artificial turf. You might want to call it natural AstroTurf.

Nearly half a century old, Memorial Stadium will be home to a new technology -- a playing field that combines natural Bermuda grass and artificial turf. The first of about 25 flatbed trucks are on their way to Baltimore from Florida today to deliver sod for the stadium, the first professional sports complex to use a grass-and-turf hybrid.

"It's going to have the qualities of AstroTurf and Mother Nature, which makes it quite unique," said Chuck Cusick, the facilities manager for the Baltimore Ravens, which will play its NFL schedule at the stadium this year and next.

"We have high hopes that it will be the field of the future," Cusick said.

The experimental hybrid, called SportGrass, will cost roughly $600,000 to $800,000, and is being paid for by the Ravens. The state is spending another $1.2 million on the stadium's second life, adding 12,000 seats, repairing the scoreboard and improving the lighting.

"It won't be new, but it'll be better than it has been in the last several years," said Edward E. Cline, deputy director of the Maryland Stadium Authority. "People will still have to keep in mind that it's a 45-year-old building, but it's going to have a state-of-the-art field."

State officials plan to have the Ravens play at Memorial Stadium for the next two football seasons while a new stadium is built for the team adjacent to Camden Yards. Workers said yesterday they hope to have Memorial Stadium ready for the team's first exhibition game Aug. 3.

If the SportGrass goes over well with team officials, it will be installed in the new stadium, said Ross C. Little, president of SportGrass Inc. of McLean, Va. The football stadium at the University of Utah is the only other major sports facility in the country that uses the grass-and-turf hybrid, Little said.

All other stadiums use grass or artificial turf. SportGrass is promoted as a safer, softer and more durable athletic field, with real grass growing out of a synthetic base.

"Basically what you have is natural grass flowing through the synthetic fiber," Little said. "The real advantage is that it will hold up better and it's a more stable, consistent surface."

A woven-fabric base

The synthetic base of SportGrass is a woven fabric in which the grass roots are embedded. According to the maker of SportGrass, the root system grows through the fibers and backing, protecting and anchoring the vulnerable parts of the grass blade from damage.

"It makes the finest field around. We think it's going to look great," said Baltimore Ravens groundskeeper Vince Paterozzi.

He said the field will be kept warm in the winter by plastic tubes carrying hot water under the grass, which will keep the grass at 55 degrees Fahrenheit even in zero-degree weather.

A sand bed has been laid for the grass and about a dozen workers have been putting the tubing in place. Little said he harvested eight truckloads of sod -- about 75,000 square feet worth -- yesterday in Avon Park, Fla.

Stadium officials hope the grass will be in place by July 2. NFL officials have long wanted a softer alternative to artificial turf and grass, and are optimistic that SportGrass -- pending study -- could be the answer.

The new field, extra seats and renovations at the stadium are part of the state's lofty goals for the Ravens. The new seats, most of which will be near the north end zone, will push the stadium's capacity to nearly 65,000.

Sales brisk

Despite an unpopular licensing agreement and above-average prices, the Ravens and Memorial Stadium seem to be attracting support.

Season tickets -- which average just over $400 for 10 games -- require an additional $100 deposit per season ticket on a seat license for the team's new downtown sta- dium, making them the most expensive football tickets in Baltimore history.

But the team began accepting season-ticket orders by mail last month and by telephone 10 days ago, and quickly processed orders for more than 50,000 season tickets -- many more than team officials said they were expecting.

Once the field and renovations are finished, state officials said they will give the stadium a pressure-wash cleaning.

"Our goal is to get the place looking pretty much as it looked when the Colts were there," said Maryland Stadium Authority Director John A. Moag Jr. "With a few improvements."

Pub Date: 6/25/96

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