In Praise of AstroTurf

This Saturday, April 8, will mark the 34th anniversary of the first Major League Baseball game ever played on AstroTurf: Houston vs. Los Angeles, at the Astrodome.

I love AstroTurf. I don’t mean that I love it as an athlete, because I’m not an athlete. And I don’t mean as a baseball fan; I am a baseball fan, and I understand that as a baseball fan, my proper role is as a hater of AstroTurf, which is a bad thing, for baseball, for tradition, for America. But that’s the thing. I’m not from America, I’m from Texas, and what I love about AstroTurf is not so much what it is but what it stands for. Or stood for. AstroTurf was really a symbol of old new money, which was much more entertaining than new new money is.

These days, new money, even in Texas, means Michael Dell, who is a great businessman, but pretty boring. He could basically be from Connecticut. Roy Hofheinz could not have been from Connecticut. The thoroughly self-made son of a laundry-truck driver went back and forth between politics, law, and business, and co-created the Houston Sports Association. Houston, it seems, was just too hot and humid to attract enough fans for a Major League Baseball team. The Hofheinz solution was a scheme to build a huge stadium with a roof, air-conditioned. This was an abomination, of course, but to the you-just-can’t-do-that arguments, the Hofheinz response would’ve been something along the lines of “Weeeeelll, looks to me like we can pay for it, so I figure we can do whatever we want.” Not only that, he declared the Dome to be the Eighth Wonder of the World. Harris County bonds paid for the stadium, and the Houston Sports Association got a long-term lease on the building.

Then, of course, the grass died. What to do? Well, how about we invent a new kind of grass? Grass made of plastic. (Abomination!) (“Weeeelll, looks to me like we can pay for it …”) Turf was ready for opening day in 1966. Add this to the Dome’s other innovations, like its sky boxes and tackily lit scoreboard, and you have not only a monument to bad taste, but a monument to total indifference on judgments based on taste–which was the essence of the old new money.

Now AstroTurf is on the wane. A chief competitor is something called FieldTurf, which apparently leads to fewer injuries. But actual grass is really the rage, the only thing to put in all those new retro ballparks inspired by Camden Yards–such as the Astros’ new stadium, which is named after Enron and of course has natural grass (and a retractable dome). We like our fields a little less coarse, and apparently we like our moguls that way, too. These days, Steve Jobs is what passes for a cantankerous CEO, for showing the temerity to storm off the set at CNBC. So I am nostalgic not for the world represented by Camden Yards, a world that only ever existed in Barry Levinson films anyway, but for AstroTurf, and for the admittedly less tasteful world that it emerged from. Which is ultimately proof, I suppose, that nostalgia itself ain’t what it used to be.