“You can tell the sun in his jealous sky
When we walked in fields of gold”
Soccer, like American football and baseball, is a sport designed to be played on grass. But football and baseball expanded into professional stadia where the weather was inclement and grass could not grow. The Astrodome was one of the first covered stadia and the grass in it died. And artificial turf, re-labeled “Astroturf” was born in 1966.
Turf’s incursion into soccer has been slower. English clubs like Luton Town tried it but ended up removing it due to concerns about injuries and unfair disadvantage to the home side.
The biggest differentiator here is that the playing surface in soccer is hugely important because that is where the ball tends to stay. In baseball, the surface doesn’t matter for pitching, catching, or hitting. It only comes into play for fielding ground balls and somewhat for running. American football is the same: usually if the ball hits the ground, the play is dead. But soccer depends on a good surface that is level and receptive to the ball. And turf still cannot match grass in this regard. On turf the ball bounces higher, rolls further, and it’s harder to get it airborne because you can’t get your foot under it like you can on grass.
I have a lifelong scrapbook of memories of grass fields. As a goalkeeper I was always diving and could hear the grass give way as I landed. In the mornings when the field was wet I could smell the grass as I landed. It would stain my clothes and the moisture got into my uniform. Sight, smell, sound, and touch.
But it wasn’t always jake. The goal area is the first spot on the field to erode because people love to shoot on goal, and the center of the goal area quickly loses grass, and the dirt can even become concave. Sometimes the crossbar is several inches higher that regulation because I’d basically be standing in a hole. Diving on packed earth is less fun, scabs and blood replace the herbal scents and green stains.
One morning I was running around a grass field at West Sunset to warm up. As I passed behind the goal, an errant shot bounced near me and came to me at head height. I raised one hand and cradled it, feeling its topspin slowly die as the dew from the ball ran through my fingers. When the ball had come to rest I tossed it back to the coach who’d kicked it. He said, “Thanks, keeper.” I realized the way I caught it showed where I played on the pitch. On a turf field this wouldn’t have happened. The bounce would have been different, and my hand would have been full of little rubber pellets.
“Cast my memory back there, Lord,
Sometime I’m overcome thinking about
Making love in the green grass artificial turf
Behind the stadium” — Van Morrison, Brown Eyed Girl
This week San Francisco voted on whether to go ahead with the planned conversion of Beach Chalet fields to artificial turf. I have made a separate post regarding the election here. I supported the measure because we already voted on it a couple of years ago and I believe those opposing are now acting in an obstructionist manner, one that goes beyond reasonable democratic process. The city officials have decided, the voters have decided, let’s go forward.
But I will miss the grass. We are replacing something that is organic and alive with something manufactured and dead. When we stand barefoot, sit, lie on it, we will not touch the planet, and soil, but instead polymers and ground-up tires. There will be no scent of chlorophyll in the air and no grass stains to wash out. It won’t be romantic or sexy to recline there – can you imagine love scenes from movies on turf?
Ultimately the attraction in a grass field is like what Maya (Virginia Madsen) says about wine in the movie “Sideways”: A soccer field is alive, it changes every day, it links us to those who played on it before us. And it feels so fucking good.
“How (wine is) a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your ’61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline. And it tastes so fucking good”