The Blue Jays' home field is undergoing a tremendous transformation this offseason, with the infield dirt cutouts around the bases being replaced by a more traditional filled-in infield. This is also the end of an era for Major League Baseball as the 2016 will be the first season since 1969 to have no ballparks with dirt "sliding pits." (Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium was the first to install dirt cutouts in 1970 and was met with praise from infielders at the time.)
The general feeling among fans is that the traditional dirt infield is more pleasing to the eye and is also likely better for visiting players. Early last season, Rays infielder Asdrubal Cabrera complained that a piece of rubber from the base of the Rogers Centre turf had bounced into his eye, and later Orioles manager Buck Showalter threatened to forfeit games in Toronto because of the way balls bounce off the infield turf. The Major League Baseball Players' Association is believed to be currently looking into the health effects of the rubber infill in artificial turf stadiums.
It is to be seen how Blue Jays players will react to the new configuration. Josh Donaldson told the media on Thursday that he did not like Tropicana Field's dirt infield, so he is a bit anxious about the change at home. The Blue Jays might also lose a bit of home field advantage with the change--former Blue Jays infielder Steve Tolleson commented about how Jays infielders would know exactly how balls bounce on the turf, while it takes a while for visitors to determine how the seams affect baseballs. Both Donaldson and Tolleson mentioned how the infield at Tropicana feels different compared to "real" dirt infields at parks with grass. That's probably because the dirt at Tropicana is only five inches deep, according to Rogers Centre's head groundskeeper Tom Farrell to VICE Sports' John Lott.
The new infield in Toronto will be more than twice as deep at 12 inches and will be filled with multiple layers of gravel, sand, clay, and a soil conditioner both to make it feel right and to hold moisture. I am not an expert in dirt, but I would expect that a foot of soil would mean that players wouldn't feel the concrete underneath at all--unless they have the sensitivity of The Princess and the Pea.
On Friday, the Blue Jays' senior vice president of business operations Stephen Brooks tweeted out an update of the construction, showing that the infield trench has been properly shaped now after fresh concrete was poured around the edges.
Update. Concrete poured and forms removed. Gravel layer down and now sand layer going in on top. Taking shape. pic.twitter.com/XIqj2rlfLv— Stephen R Brooks (@sbrooksbaseball) February 26, 2016
At Seneca College last Saturday, Brooks revealed that the initial chipping of the concrete caused some damage to some pipes underneath ("we broke a lot of stuff" was his exact quote) but those problems have been fixed. The edges of the concrete trench looks sharp now, but Brooks mentioned that there will be some bevelling at the edges to allow for the turf strips to hang over the edge, and the dirt will be brought up to the same height as the turf in hopes to smooth out the transition between the two surfaces.
Brooks mentioned that the top clay mix layer of the infield will be imported from a "clay farm" in New Jersey, like most other parks in Major League Baseball. It will be up to the groundscrew to try different proportions of clay, sand, silt to get the surface to the right feel. The very top layer will be a Turface-branded dirt conditioner that is designed to smooth out the surface and to act as a moisture absorbent.
The switch to the dirt infield also means that the "World's Fastest Groundscrew" will have to be out on the field twice, after the third and sixth innings, rather than just once after the fifth, to groom the Turface. They will also be coming out from the infield media bays instead of running in from beyond the left field wall.
For non-baseball events at Rogers Centre, the top Turface will be scraped off, plates will be installed above the dirt, and finally a turf cover will be placed on top of that. Previously, stadium staff would have to dig out all of the dirt in each base pod. Beyonce will be having a concert at Rogers Centre in the evening of May 25, two days before the Jays return to play and it will be the conversion crew's first big challenge.
The tight schedule between spring training in Florida, the exhibition games in Montreal (which will still be played with dirt cutouts), and flying back to Florida for the regular season opening series against the Rays, Blue Jays players won't get too much time to try out the new infield. The club will instead bring in elite amateur players from the Toronto area to go in and take ground balls as a trial run. There isn't much slack time before the home opener so hopefully these elite amateurs don't find anything wrong.