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In terms of cost, the grass is always greener for Blue Jays

R.A. Dickey, wearing his new jersey, is photographed heading out after attending a a press conference at the Rogers Centre on Jan 8 2013. Dickey is the Toronto Blue Jay's latest acquisition to the pitching roster.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Since the Toronto Blue Jays landed speedy Jose Reyes in the mega-deal with the Miami Marlins, calls for the club to install real grass at Rogers Centre have intensified.

Team officials say they are sensitive to the pent-up demands of the fans and have every intention of eventually laying down sod. But the organization is now saying it will likely be at least five years before grass will replace artificial turf.

There are several hurdles that first have to be cleared, including the relocation of the Toronto Argonauts, who have been tenants in the building since it opened in 1989.

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Until the Canadian Football League club, which has yet to sign a new lease at Rogers Centre, decides on a new home, Blue Jays president and chief executive officer Paul Beeston said the baseball team's plans for a new natural field cannot move forward.

The baseball and football seasons of both teams overlap and in order to sustain a grass field the seats at Rogers Centre could not be reconfigured for football games without destroying a large portion of the surface.

"I guess at some point in time, we're going to have to work with them, to tell them we'd like a baseball-only stadium," Beeston told The Globe and Mail earlier this week. "That's the only way it works for grass, and we clearly want grass."

The last of the big, multi-purpose sports facilities to be built in North America, Rogers Centre is maligned by many for being an inhospitable baseball venue.

A number of seats have poor sightlines and the atmosphere within the cavernous facility, especially with the retractable roof pulled shut, is hardly what could be described as a homey.

But as Beeston points out, 7:07 p.m. games start right at 7:07 p.m., no matter what extreme weather conditions might be raging outside at the downtown Toronto venue.

"It's taken for granted and it's maligned too often for me," Beeston said. "For the amount of use that it gets, whether it's Bruce Springsteen or the tractor pulls where we'll get 40,000 people over two days, it gets good use because it's got that roof.

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"And the location is a pretty good location."

Beeston and the Blue Jays understand that the installation of grass would be a huge aesthetic improvement for the aging facility, not to mention they would be following a trend in major-league baseball away from synthetic surfaces. Rogers Centre and Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay, the home of the Rays, remain the only two facilities that don't have grass laid down.

Not only does real grass look nicer but players enjoy playing on it better as it is a softer, more forgiving surface, and is easier on the legs and back.

That would be a boon for the likes of Reyes, whose great speed is one of his greatest assets and whose continued good health will be a key to the Blue Jays success in 2013.

But there are other impediments, other than the Argos, to putting in a grass surface.

"Specifically, the building has no drainage," said Stephen Brooks, the Blue Jays' senior vice-president of business operations. "It's an indoor facility that can be opened as opposed to an outdoor facility that can be closed, if you can get the distinction."

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A concrete floor, which lies beneath the synthetic Astroturf carpet that the baseball team currently plays on, would have to be taken out. In its place some sort of a drainage system would have to be installed along with about 12 inches of soil upon which the grass sod would be placed.

Then there is the question of getting enough sunlight onto the grass surface to be able to sustain it.

"It won't be easy, but it can be done," Stephen Cockerham, the superintendent of agricultural operations at the University of California, Riverside, said in an interview. Cockerham is one of the leading experts in the development and use of grass at sports facilities. He was the team leader for the development of the playing field at Chase Field in Phoenix, the first retractable roof facility to install a grass surface.

It is one thing to be able to do that in the warm-weather climate of Arizona where the roof can be left open all the time. It's another thing to pull it off in a seasonally-challenged northern climate.

Cockerham said there are certain strains of grass that are now being grown that do much better in areas where the sunlight is not that strong.

And should the sunlight be insufficient, there are large incandescent lighting systems available to provide a substitute.

"But it's an expensive process for the lighting and then the associated energy costs," he said. Robert MacLeod

Rogers Centre has been outfitted with grass before.

In July of 2012, a temporary grass surface was laid on the field when Liverpool came over to play Toronto FC in a soccer friendly at a cost to Rogers Centre of over $100,000.

The installation took about three days and was carried out by Compact Sod and Greenhorizons, whose business originated in Cambridge, Ont.

Steve Schiedel, vice-president of the company, getting grass to grow year-round at Rogers Centre would be challenging.

He was asked if he through it was possible.

"I don't know," he said. "It needs to be explored."

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