Baseball's Emerald Plain Is Turned Into Wilderness That Turns a Profit

Times Staff Writer

If you are a purist and agree that the grass field at Anaheim Stadium probably is the best in baseball, the man you are going to want to lynch is Greg Smith.

Smith is the stadium's contact man for "Motor Sports Month," and under his direction, the stadium's emerald plain has been converted into a dirt wilderness, a landscape that looks like a World War I battlefield.

More than 8,000 cubic yards of dirt--350 truck-and-trailer loads--were hauled through the stadium tunnel in January and dumped onto the field to create hills and ridges and bumps and bogs for motocross and "monster truck" racing.

The only remnant of a baseball field left was the infield grass. It was spared during the races but stripped away after the racing was over.

Before the noose is dropped around Smith's neck, however, he would like to explain.

Relax, he says, the new baseball field should be arriving in Anaheim any day now.

If you drove to Camarillo, today, you'd see a huge field covered with verdant Santa Ana hybrid Bermuda grass and and a sign reading "Anaheim Stadium," Smith said.

That grass will be trucked to the stadium, where it will root and become a better infield and outfield than before, he said.

It has been that way since the first motocross race was held in the stadium in 1976, Smith said.

A Sea of Dirt

It's true that when the Angels hold their open house this month their field "will be a sea of dirt," Smith said. But come the opening of the Freeway Series against the Dodgers April 3, the field again will be the best in the major leagues, he promised.

That is, if it doesn't rain at the wrong times, Smith added. The landscaper has only 59 days to restore the field, and heavy, prolonged rain could be a catastrophe.

Why destroy one of the best baseball fields in the world each year and then spend $60,000 each year to restore it? The answer is simple: profit.

"You kind of have to divorce yourself from the sport and devote yourself to the operation of the stadium," Smith explained. "Otherwise you make emotional decisions, not good business decisions."

When motocross promoters approached Anaheim Stadium administrators in 1976 with their proposal for a race, administrators were apprehensive. But they also were running an operation in the red, and despite the nervousness of Angels management, they decided to try.

$1-Million Profit

Now the stadium, which hosts the Angels and the Los Angeles Rams, will make about a $1-million profit this year--and about $600,000 of that comes from the four dirt events held in January.

The four events--an off-road vehicle race, a truck and tractor pull, a "monster truck" meet and a motocross race--had gross ticket sales of $2.5 million. Total attendance was about 207,000, about 70,000 at the motocross event alone.

And while football and baseball games sometimes attract crowds of equal size, the city's share of the motor sport profits is much larger--typically all of the parking revenues, all or the great majority of the concession sales plus the usual 10% of the gate. And the promoters pay for the destruction and restoration of the field.

"The motor sports are our profit," Smith said.

The field, he said, does not suffer from the experience. Plastic sheeting is laid down to prevent the trucked-in dirt from mixing with the sand that is the playing field's foundation.

Preventing Compaction

Then about 8,000 sheets of plywood are laid atop the plastic to prevent compaction of the playing field.

The infield is spared, however. "We don't allow them onto the infield; it's the most sensitive part of the field," Smith said.

When a month later the dirt is hauled away, the plywood taken up and the plastic peeled back, the sight is enough to make a baseball fan weep. The grass is black and smells like a feed lot. Workmen simply skim it up and haul it away.

The field is tilled, graded by machines guided by lasers to insure evenness, then sodded, watered and prayed over.

It is one of the biggest jobs his firm has, said John Tornavacca,owner of Alan Landscape Co. in Norco. "It's a great challenge, it really is."

If All Went Well

At that moment he was standing behind what once was second base, and would be again, if all went well.

"If we don't have any rain, I should have the outfield sodded 28 days after I started (which was Wednesday of last week). That gives it five weeks to grow.

"The infield should be sodded in about a week," he said. "That's the most critical, and I get started on it right away."

In the seven years Tornavacca has worked on this job, he has had no real misfortunes, he said. "Two, three years ago, we had an awful lot of rain, but I had the sod down already, so it was OK. We have the ideal climate here," he said, with an optimistic grin.

But those hard-core, natural-grass baseball fans ought to stay away from the stadium until the Freeway Series, he said, just in case.

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