Auburn innovation: Tigers open 2022 season on MLB turf with Auburn roots
AUBURN, Alabama – When the Los Angeles Dodgers recorded the 2020 World Series Finals, they celebrated on a playing surface developed and tested at Auburn University.
The game was played at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, but the turf started at Auburn University’s Sports Surface Field Laboratory near the intersection of South College Street and Shug Jordan Parkway.
“The Texas Rangers were building a brand new stadium that would also be a place of entertainment,” said Eric Kleypas, director of turf and landscape services for Auburn Athletics. “They didn’t know if the natural grass could survive in the stadium.”
This is because the pitch of the new Rangers stadium is 58 feet below street level and the roof of the stadium is higher than other stadiums with retractable roofs, which limits the prospects for grass growth. quality that would last a six-month baseball season with 81 home games. .
“They wanted to see if you could develop an artificial turf system that played like natural grass,” Kleypas said. “Could we pull a real jump off an artificial turf pitch?”
Enter Dr. Philipe Aldahir, who earned his Ph.D. from Auburn University and worked as Director of Turf and Innovation for Shaw Sports Turf.
“A luxury we have at Auburn with a turf program is that we can cater to research here on campus,” Kleypas said. “If there’s a new turf variety or a new product that we want to look at, instead of using a field as a guinea pig, we can research it here and have real data to show whether that product is working or not.”
When Aldahir was a graduate student under Dr. Scott McElroy, he conducted a study of shade-tolerant varieties of Bermuda grass and football traffic.
In 2017, while the Rangers were designing their stadium, Aldahir returned to Auburn’s lab to try and create an artificial surface that looked more like the real thing.
“Can we quantify the data to show why natural grass is preferred, and then use that data to mimic the results on artificial grass?” Kleypas said, summarizing the project.
How the playing surface approximated the roll and jump of natural grass was only part of the equation. The other part was the toll that artificial surfaces can impose on athletes. That’s where kinesiology professor Dr. Wendi Weimar came in.
“It was pretty cool,” said Weimar, who directs Auburn University’s sports biomechanics lab. “We have carried out projects on the influence of different artificial surfaces on the body. One of my doctoral students did his thesis on these different surfaces.”
Over an 18-month period, Jamie Reed, senior director of medical operations for the Texas Rangers, visited Auburn eight times.
“It was a fascinating experience,” said Reed, sometimes accompanied by the Rangers minor league manager and members of the major league coaching staff. “I tried to get someone different every time I went to get their thoughts, to make sure I wasn’t biased in what I saw and felt.”
By blending pads, split films and monofilament fibers and fillers, Shaw Sports Turf has developed the natural B1K system. Geofill – what is to artificial surfaces what thatch is to natural grass – is made of coconut shells and fibers.
“With the data collected, Shaw was able to say, ‘This is what a natural grass pitch looks like. Here are the measurements,'” Kleypas said. “‘Here is an artificial turf system that best mimics this natural grass pitch.'”
Rangers were sold, setting up the surface for the stadium’s inaugural season in 2020.
“It was a great experience and what we got was a really fantastic product,” Reed said. “Our infielders absolutely loved it, they said it was real roll, consistent speeds, and our outfielders really liked it too. They said it was like grass and that hops were like grass.”
More importantly for Reed and Rangers, players, especially outfielders, preferred their home pitch to other artificial surfaces which led to lower back strain and hamstring and tendon pain. patellar.
“We haven’t had any instances of that this year,” Reed said after the 2020 season. “It was truly a remarkable achievement to get through that.”
After Rangers’ experience with Auburn, other MLB teams reached out to Weimar in the kinesiology department, trying to find the right surface for their stadiums.
“It was really, really exciting and interesting to be a part of all of this,” she said. “It started a whole line of research for us where we’re really looking at the influence of how the body reacts to different surfaces and different shoes on different surfaces. It’s been a lot of fun.”
When the pandemic altered the 2020 season, Major League Baseball opted to play its Fall Classic at a neutral site, putting Auburn University’s research on an unexpected global stage.
It’s only fitting that the Auburn baseball team is starting its 2022 season on a playing surface that got its start on the road to Plainsman Park.
“There’s no question Auburn influenced Shaw Turf and ultimately the Texas Rangers in this decision and there’s absolutely no looking back,” Reed said. “We won’t hesitate to do it again.”
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jeff_shearer