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Give up the idea of grass in the Rogers Centre in 2018

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#GetUseToIt

That's how thin last year's turf was. Non-Canadians, the $2 coin shown for reference is 2.8 cm in diameter.
That's how thin last year's turf was. Non-Canadians, the $2 coin shown for reference is 2.8 cm in diameter.
Minor Leaguer photo

If you still had any hope that you may be hired to mow the grass at Rogers Centre in 2018, you might want to alter your career plans (for more reasons than one). The home of the Blue Jays will probably not have a natural grass field installed by Opening Day in 2018. There are just too many scientific, engineering, and financial hurdles in the way.

On Tuesday evening, the National Post's John Lott posted a piece updating fans on the progress (or rather, lack thereof) of the plans to get grass into the Rogers Centre. For every paragraph I read in that article, I pushed back the earliest completion date this renovation project by two months.

First, despite all the talk from Blue Jays' still-president Paul Beeston about wanting grass by 2018, the club has been slow to get the science portion of the project off the ground. According to a fan's Freedom of Information request, the club and the University of Guelph (a public university located in a town west of Toronto) have been seriously discussing a collaborative research project since December 2013. Heavily redacted emails obtained in the FOI request showed that officials on Guelph's side tried to chase down the Blue Jays to formalize the agreement five times throughout 2014.

Collaborative research agreements between private corporations and public universities can be complex. They involve not only the matter of the amount of funds the university stands to receive from the sponsoring corporation and defining the exact parameters and goals of the research, but much more hairier matters such as intellectual property transfer, and what information is proprietary and what is publishable. However, Guelph, having strong roots in agricultural research, should have sufficient experience in these types of collaborations to get their end of things done quickly. But that hasn't happened (looking at you, Blue Jays) and it has been a year since the first draft was written.

Of course, the contract-signing part of contract research projects, which the Blue Jays state should be done in a week-ish, is the easy part. The hard part—actual science research—has not begun.

Lott spoke with the university's turf researcher Eric Lyons who gave an end-date of May 2016 for the first stage of the research project, which is to select (or create?) the right strain of grass for indoor growth. Two things to note about that date: a) scientific researchers are generally optimistic about timelines (and end results) when writing grant proposals, and b) that May 2016 end-date was given without reference to a start date. Does May 2016 assume that something will be signed in January 2015? Does every month's delay in signing push back the end-date by a month?

Let's assume that the Blue Jays and the University of Guelph announces their collaboration this afternoon and that Lyons and his research team manages to be lucky and finds the right species in his laboratory by May next year. Then I assume that he will need to scale-up the lab grass into something that is field-sized, which according to Lyons, will be harvest-ready in 2017 if everything goes well. (And what if the signing or research is further delayed? Are there only certain points in late summer/early fall when grass can be grown?) Only then would Lyons be able to test the grass in a simulated Rogers Centre environment to see whether it will actually survive indoors under artificial light.

Assuming all of that works out, the perfect sod would still need to be installed on a surface that is not grey concrete. So while the grass research is being conducted, engineers and architects would have to find a way to completely blast out the concrete base of the stadium, dig down to install drainage pipes as well as to allow for something like six inches of soil, as well as figure out how to change the HVAC system in the park to create necessary air currents and to dehumidify 1.6 million cubic metres of air. And once those plans (and likely more) are all drawn out, it would have to be executed by a team of contractors in about five months (between November and April) without serious disruptions to the end of one baseball season (playoffs??!??) and/or the beginning of the next.

Oh, and of course, all of this is assuming that the Toronto Argonauts actually move out after their 2017 season as planned.

While I have faith that scientists and engineers will eventually figure out how this massive project can be accomplished, I just don't see how this could be completed by April 2018.

What will be done in the Rogers Centre in the meantime is the installation of a new self-styled "temporary" AstroTurf in time for this upcoming season, as first confirmed here on Bluebird Banter last year. Sportsnet's Shi Davidi gave us more details regarding the new, (hopefully) softer artificial turf back in December.

Another huge factor is cost of this 21,650-square metre project. Back in 2013, Paul Beeston gave a quarter of a billion dollars as the figure that he has budgeted for stadium retrofits and renovations. With the cost of carving out the centrefield porch, the new AstroTurf, and other smaller items accounted for already, I don't see how whatever's remaining can fully cover this grass installation project all the way from research and development to the actual roll-out.

Unfortunately this whole thing sounds too much like a lot of the Blue Jays teams since 1993 in that it will take everything to break right for a chance at success.

UPDATE

Thanks (in part) to Andrew Stoeten as well as the requester Dave Dowe, we now have easy access to the Freedom of Information document containing the redacted emails.

Here are a few notes:

  • Email from 2014-04-28: Looks like the May 2016 date for the selection of the grass strain was based on a May 2014 project start as Lyons suggested allowing two years for "phase 1" of the project. So on the same timeline, we are probably looking at a February 2017 completion of that phase.
  • Call Report from 2014-04-22: It appears that Paul Beeston was ready to sign the agreement "in 3 weeks" but needed to wait for Rogers' CEO's (Guy Laurence) approval.
  • Call Report from 2014-09-04: Beeston and the president of the University of Guelph had a meeting organized by advancement to discuss a "GIft Agreement", meaning that the Blue Jays might be making a donation to the university in exchange for the research services, rather than a straight sponsored research contract. I don't think there's much implication to this, just interesting to note.