Joe Girardi played 15 seasons in the majors, all but one of which for teams that played their home games on natural grass. For that, the Phillies manager is thankful: He knew what the artificial turf at venues like Veterans Stadium could do to a player.
“It chewed players up,” Girardi said Saturday, the 50th anniversary of the Phillies’ first game at the Vet. “The one that comes to mind the most is Andre Dawson because I saw what he went through every day to play and it seemed like he would get an oil change on his knees every other year. A little surgery. A little cleanup. It was really tough to watch at times.”
Girardi and Dawson were teammates in Chicago, but Wrigley Field’s natural grass could only help so much after Dawson played 11 seasons on AstroTurf in Montreal. The Vet’s turf wasn’t much better as former Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon once wrote, “It is not much different than spraying I-95 green and holding games there.”
Football and baseball players regularly complained about the Vet’s surface and blamed it for knee and ankle injuries. When Girardi reached the majors in 1989, seven of the 12 National League ballparks used artificial turf.
Baseball teams first installed the turf in the ’60s and ’70s during the craze of concrete multipurpose stadiums like the Vet. But it wasn’t a surprise that the surface became such a problem. Jim Bunning, who threw the first pitch at the Vet, said a year before the stadium opened that AstroTurf was a terrible idea.
“It’s tougher to run on cement than it is on dirt, and that’s blacktopped asphalt under the artificial turf,” Bunning said in 1970. “I don’t think the owners realize the significance of playing on it, how it will cut careers short.”
Just two of the 15 National League teams now use artificial turf, which is an improved surface from the carpet the Phillies played on in South Philly.
“Physically it was much rougher on your body on a daily basis,” Girardi said. “We’ve gotten away from that and I’m actually happy that we’ve gotten away from that.”
Along with the pain, Girardi remembers how artificial turf enticed players to keep the ball on the ground as hits could skip quickly to the outfield. Teams relied more on speed when playing on turf, Girardi said, and the games always seemed hotter as the heat clung to the playing surface.
He played 29 games at the Vet, none more memorable than the game in 1991 when John Kruk broke the catcher’s nose on a collision at home plate and then visited him in the hospital.
“That’s probably the memory that serves me the most,” Girardi said. “I just remember it was a fun place to play in those years. It was Krukky and Daulton and Dykstra and Hollins and all those guys. They were a good team. It seemed like the turf was always wet and balls were sliding through the outfield. Day games, if I remember, were really tough to see there because of the background in center field. And the bullpen could be a little rough area back in those days behind left field in the little cage that we were in.”
Andrew Knapp caught Zach Eflin on Friday night for the second straight time, but Girardi said J.T. Realmuto will catch Eflin at times, too. Knapp and Eflin were a frequent pair last season. ... Matt Moore will face former Phillies left-hander Drew Smyly in Sunday night’s series finale in Atlanta.