Nothing artificial about benefits of synthetic turf for high school baseball

Michael Leonard
Kent Weeklies
Twinsburg's Gavin McCoy waits for the throw as Jackson's Mike Duncan attempts to steal second base in the second inning of their baseball game at Jackson High School on Friday April 23, 2021. Duncan was out on the play. Jackson beat Twinsburg 9-4.

JACKSON TWP. — Baseball is the ultimate nostalgic sport in America.

Baseball fans often say there's nothing like seeing freshly cut grass on Opening Day. Players love to show their hustle by getting dirt on their uniforms.

Nostalgia, however, often clashes with reality.

The reality for most Northeast Ohio baseball coaches is simple. Mixing grass and dirt fields with typical local weather in March and April —  four inches of snow, anyone? — is a recipe for postponements. A lot of postponements.

In many years, poor field conditions have forced local teams to spend the entire preseason indoors.

To combat this reality, a growing numbers of schools have turned to synthetic turf for their fields.

Although artificial turf has been around in baseball for decades, the new breeds of synthetics incorporate turf on the base paths, at the plate and even on the mound.

"You're seeing more synthetic fields all over Ohio," Jackson baseball coach Bill Gamble said. "They have it at Kent State and at Akron, as well as [the College of] Wooster and Mount Union just put one in. It's becoming the norm."

Jackson's Trent Wertz safely steal second as Twinsburg's Gavin McCoy leaps out of the way after the pick off throw was high and out of reach in the fifth inning of their baseball game at Jackson High School on Friday April 23, 2021. Jackson beat Twinsburg 9-4.

Jackson Baseball Stadium had its synthetic infield installed in 2016, while Louisville's Field of Dreams is full synthetic. The Ballpark at Hudson installed a synthetic infield before the season.

Such transitions are not cheap. Jackson's new infield cost about $250,000 to install. Gamble noted switching to a turf field is "an investment," but one well worth it.

Due to cost reasons, some schools also are taking a hybrid approach. Stow-Munroe Falls has synthetic plate area and base paths with a grass infield.

Baseball purists might cringe, but the new surfaces are getting big endorsements from local coaches.

"There are a lot of traditionalists who prefer to play on grass," Hudson coach Buddy Dice recently said. "In an ideal world, that's what you want. However, living in northeast Ohio, most of the days aren't this nice. ... Northeast Ohio is usually wet, especially this time of year in the spring. We've been able to come out here and play pretty regularly."

"The game-changing difference for us is I'm able to get my team out on the field when other guys can't," Gamble said. "This give us a lot of game time, and that's the best time for coaching.

"What you also don't see is, on Sunday, we can play three games here with our youth programs. All we have to do is have the key and we're ready to play."

Dice also highlighted that high school programs aren't the only ones to benefit.

"On a regular weekend ... we'll also have our youth organizations out there as well using the turf, using the facility," Dice said. "Having lights, too, we're able to get multiple practices in each day of the week, which is nice. Everyone's excited to get out there."

One area that might take some getting used to is the turf pitching mound. However, both starting pitchers Friday at Jackson gave it a big endorsement.

"It's a lot different from dirt, but it lets you be consistent," Bears pitcher Mikey Olivier said.

"The mound is much better," Twinsburg pitcher Jeremy Tonelli said. "There's no hole in it to plant on. The baseball reacts well."

Although Twinsburg still plays on a natural grass at Dodge Field, coach Jeff Luca noted the Tigers had experience on the turf, having played Solon earlier. He noted they needed to adapt to turf, as Hudson will likely be the Tigers' district tournament destination.

Maybe the Tigers were still adapting to turf play but, whatever the reason, Twinsburg endured its worst defensive outing of the season against the Polar Bears.

Four Tigers errors and some aggressive batting by the Polar Bears helped them to run away with a 9-4 win.

"I think we had a great start from Mikey," Gamble said. "Our guys were aggressive at the plate and we looked more like what we want to be today. Putting up a crooked number in the first inning helps."

Jackson jumped on Tonelli (3-1) for three runs in the bottom of the first inning and kept going, banging out 11 hits against Tigers pitching.

Jackson had contributions from all over its lineup, but catcher Alex Snyder led the way, reaching base in all four at-bats and hitting two RBI singles.

"They were just swinging the bat well," Tonelli said. "We made too many mistakes today, and when you do that against Jackson they make you pay."

The run support was more than enough to allow Olivier (1-1) to get his first varsity win. He allowed one run on six hits in five innings.

Tonelli got the Tigers on the board when tripled off the right-field fence and scored on an RBI ground out in the fifth. Pinch hitter Jack Lyden added two-run single in the sixth to cut it to 8-3, but the Tigers got no closer.

"They swung it well," Luca said. "They took charge of every opportunity we gave them. We can't be giving them extra outs and expect to win."

Reporter Ashley Bastock contributed to this story.