At Lutherville's Seminary Park, where youngsters play soccer and lacrosse and football, nearly half the field is worn down to bare earth. Parts of it seem as bumpy as a country road. Smudged chalk lines run through the dirt.
It is, some say, a great place to lay some carpet.
Following the lead of Howard County and other jurisdictions across the country, Baltimore County recreation officials will set the stage for amateur athletes to play on a surface fit for Ray Lewis. Seminary Park will be outfitted soon with artificial turf.
"How can you not be excited?" said Larry Shackelford, president of the Lutherville-Timonium Recreation Council, which uses Seminary Park. "The field just gets used and used, and we can't grow grass on it correctly. After years and years of doing that, it's just a rough place to play."
Artificial turf was once largely limited to NFL and college stadiums; more recently, it has come to some high school athletic fields in the Baltimore area. Now local governments are turning to fake grass for youth sports complexes.
They hope to save money on maintenance. And because the fields can be used hour after hour, day after day, they might help address a shortage of playing fields for suburban youngsters, recreation leaders say.
Howard County unveiled synthetic turf fields at Rockburn Branch Park last year and Western Regional Park this year. The county plans to install turf at two more parks.
Baltimore County has launched a pilot program, with plans to put turf on the football field at Catonsville High School and at Seminary Park. County parks officials say they will seek money for more artificial turf fields in next year's budget.
Baltimore County government has paid $1.1 million for a field at Catonsville High, which would be available to rec teams when completed in the spring.
The county is paying a similar amount for turf to be installed at one of three athletic fields at Seminary Park. Construction on that field is expected to be complete next summer.
The Synthetic Turf Council, an industry group, estimates there are 1,000 artificial turf fields across the country - twice as many as there were three years ago. One out of every 10 new fields is built in a public recreational complex, the council estimates.
What's driving the trend, local government officials say, is the need for playing fields in suburban counties. There are too many rec teams to accommodate, but buying more land for parks would be costly.
Officials say natural grass fields present two choices: limiting use to keep them in good condition or having them wear down to dirt and mud.
"We kept reinvesting money into reseeding, resodding, refertilizing, just trying to keep turf on the fields," said Gary J. Arthur, Howard County's recreation and parks director.
A synthetic turf field can cost more than $1 million, but governments say they recover the money in savings on maintenance costs.
Howard County typically spends about $20,000 a year to maintain a natural-grass field, compared with about $5,000 a year for a synthetic turf field, Arthur said.
"Grass fields are great if you have enough of them. You can rest them and keep people off them," said Jack Milani, president of the Howard County Lacrosse Program. "From a realistic standpoint, we have probably a lot more users than we have fields. You can use [synthetic turf fields] 24-7 and know that they're not going to be worn out."
Artificial turf arrived in the professional sports world in the 1960s. Houston's Astrodome installed a carpet after having problems growing grass on the enclosed baseball field.
But as more teams began to use synthetic turf, studies began to link its use with a rise in player injuries. And artificial turf began to fall out of favor.
The product has since evolved, and in the past 10 years, a number of professional and college teams, as well as high schools, have moved to synthetic surfaces.
The newest incarnations of turf can be found at M&T; Bank Stadium, home of the Ravens, as well as a number of high schools in the region, including Polytechnic Institute, Calvert Hall College High School, Baltimore Lutheran School and Broadneck High School in Annapolis.
The latest version of a synthetic field consists of polyethylene blades of grass sprouting out of a base of sand and rubber pellets. The surface is more cushioned than natural turf and requires minimal maintenance, advocates say. It also absorbs rain.
FieldTurf, which appears to have the biggest market share of any of the brands of new synthetic turf, is installing the fields at Seminary Park and Catonsville High School. The company's fields come with an eight-year guarantee. Industry advocates say synthetic fields are no more dangerous than natural grass.
But Andrew Scott McNitt, associate professor of soil science and turf grass at Pennsylvania State University, said there has been no definitive, long-term study to determine the safety of the latest versions of synthetic turf.
He said there are two concerns about artificial turf.
The surface absorbs heat, driving up field temperatures on particularly hot days. And the surface is more abrasive than grass, causing more scrapes.
Many teams water their artificial turf fields to keep temperatures lower on hot days, he said.
McNitt said he has variously recommended synthetic and natural grass to governments or teams, depending on climate, amount of use, budget and other factors.
One study concluded that different types of injuries are associated with each surface. Minor injuries such as muscle strains are more likely to occur on synthetic fields, while serious injuries such as torn knee ligaments are more likely on natural grass, according to the author of the study, published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.
Michael C. Meyers, a kinesiologist and co-author of the study, said cleats are less likely to get stuck in synthetic turf, allowing athletes to pick up more speed. And the cushioning of modern synthetic turf makes for a softer landing, Meyers said.
"You may wind up with more muscle strains and so on, but that's very insignificant when compared with head trauma and knee trauma, which would be career-ending injuries," he said.
Others point out that a player is less likely to turn an ankle on synthetic turf because there are no divots in the ground.
"As a coach of girls, I really feel the turf is safer," said Leslie Heubeck, a field hockey coach at Baltimore Lutheran School in Towson. "You don't have a turned ankle because she hit another hole."
On a recent evening, two local teams of 8- and 9-year-old boys gathered at Seminary Park for a semifinal soccer game.
Large expanses of dirt covered the areas in front of each goal and at the center of the field. The rest of the field was covered with thin green and yellow grass, and clover. Most of the chalk lines were barely visible, and the ground was uneven, strewn with chunks of dirt dug up by cleats.
James Lochte, 34, a goalie and defender for an all-ages soccer rec league in Lutherville, was warming up for his game at a nearby field that doubles as a baseball diamond.
Lochte, whose team plays on all of the park's fields, said he would prefer a sleek field of synthetic turf to the "dust bowl" in front of him.
"I rarely play on a flat field," he said.