Making a pitch for soccer at Dodger Stadium
The first thing to go was the pitcher’s mound, which was shrouded in black cloth before being jackhammered into fine dust.
Then came the infield, with the grounds crew digging deep into the dirt to create trenches running from foul line to foul line, and filling them in with sod and covering it with grass.
By early Friday morning the transformation was complete and the field at Dodger Stadium, among the most handsome and stately in baseball, had become a soccer pitch.
In its 51-year history, Dodger Stadium has welcomed the Beatles and the Harlem Globetrotters. It was where Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass, where the Three Tenors performed musical miracles and where bullfighters, ski-jumpers and monster trucks competed.
But until Saturday, no one has ever played soccer there.
“This is going to be a challenge,” says Eric Hansen, the Dodgers’ assistant director for turf and grounds. “This is new to us.”
Spain’s Real Madrid and English Premier League club Everton will have the honor of playing the first soccer match in stadium history when they meet at 5 p.m. in the semifinals of the International Champions Cup. Italian titlist Juventus then meets the Major League Soccer champion Galaxy at 7:30 in the second game of the only doubleheader to be played at Dodger Stadium this summer.
The conversion from baseball diamond to soccer field required 12,500 square feet of new sod and Bermuda grass, which took Hansen and his crew of nine two days to place, smooth and outline. The temporary field, which is about 210 feet wide, runs parallel to the right-field line starting just outside the third base coaching box and extending 315 feet to the warning track in right field.
Because the soccer field will encompass the area where the pitcher’s mound and most of the infield sits, the mound was removed and the area below it leveled and covered with grass. The skin of the infield was also topped with grass but only after three-quarter-inch ditches were carved, making the new sod level with the adjoining outfield grass.
The new field, which was rolled with a 11/2-ton roller, isn’t completely level — the area around the former mound has a noticeable slope and much of the usual infield area feels squishy underfoot. The temporary grass is also a much lighter green and has a different cut.
“You do the best you can with the time you have,” says Hansen, who also covered the white foul lines with a green turf colorant.
Installing a soccer field at Dodger Stadium requires digging up the infield to create a level field on which to lay the turf.
But Hansen couldn’t do anything about the configuration of the grandstands, which will leave many fans crowded into a corner or grouped behind one goal rather than fanned out along both sidelines.
“It’s a little bit different,” says the Galaxy’s Sean Franklin, who grew up a Dodgers fan. “To actually play on the field is going to be a pretty cool thing.”
Before Saturday the only link the Dodgers had to world-class soccer was Emilio Butragueno, who scored five goals in the 1986 World Cup for Spain, then became a front-office intern for the team 13 years later.
If the Dodgers have been slow to warm to the sport, though, soccer’s relationship with baseball dates to at least 1894, when six franchise owners, looking to fill their vacant ballparks during the winter, turned to Association Football — a formal title that was, even then, giving way to the colloquial abbreviation “soccer.”
The league folded after six games but not before proving soccer could work on a baseball field. Three decades later a game featuring an all-Jewish team from Vienna drew 46,000 to New York’s Polo Grounds, an attendance record for a U.S. soccer match that stood until the late 1970s when Brazilian legend Pele joined the New York Cosmos in the fledgling North American Soccer League.
But what was once a novelty is now no big deal. In the last two years, soccer matches involving major international teams have been played at nine major league stadiums, including Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium and Busch Stadium.
“There’s a certain charm to a baseball stadium,” says Charlie Stillitano, a fan of both Willie Mays and the Yankees growing up in New Jersey before going on to become chief executive of soccer operations at RSE Ventures, organizer of the International Champions Cup. “We’ve had great success at places like Yankee Stadium and Busch Stadium. We’ve actually enjoyed the configurations. It’s kind of funky.”
And though the cost of transforming a baseball field to a soccer field can run as high as $200,000, Stillitano says the mainstream exposure that comes from working with a baseball team is worth far more than that.
“What the baseball team provides for you, when they’re your partners, is they are in the position of promoting for you every day,” he said. “The Dodgers are really great partners for us.”
As a result, thousands of baseball fans are likely to sample soccer Saturday. Just don’t expect many of the soccer people to return to Dodger Stadium for baseball, says Galaxy midfielder Marcelo Sarvas.
“I went there last year. And that will be my last time,” says the Brazilian-born Sarvas. “I’m not a fan of baseball. I won’t say it’s boring because people like it. I’ve been in the stands and I see people, they talk and drink beer and eat hot dogs [more] than watch the game.
“It’s not the sport for Brazilian people.”
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