Why Major League Baseball needs to update severe weather policy

I am a “baseball guy.”

I played as a youth. I’ve coached for 7 years in the Minnetonka Baseball system. My 17 year old son is a pitcher/infielder on his Senior Babe Ruth team. I love the game and all things baseball.

I am also a meteorologist.

I served as a board member of my local Little League and helped them update and revise severe weather and lightning procedures to help keep kids and families safe while playing the game we all love. I researched and purchased a relatively low cost lightning detection option and installed it at Bennett Family Park in Minnetonka, where I am told it still operates to this day.

As a meteorologist who studies and practices forecasting every day for the past 20+ years, I understand a little bit about the (sometimes hidden) dangers that severe weather and lightning poses to baseball.

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Photo by Craig Edwards

I also have a bit of unique insight into how some Major Leage Baseball (MLB) teams approach severe weather coverage for open air stadiums full of 40,000+ fans, umpires, grounds crew and players who command multi million dollar salaries. I have filled in for Craig Edwards as the team meterologist at Target Field and provided prefessional weather support during Twins games.

The winter before Target Field opened, Craig Edwards and I approached the Minnesota Twins and discussed a proposal for weather support as the Twins the moved to outdoor baseball in Minnesota in 2010. Ultimately the Twins (wisely) decided to have a qualified, experienced meteorologist in house on game days, and for big events such as Sunday’s first ever concert at Target Field.

In my opinion, it’s time for all MLB teams to do the same.

Sunday: Tragedy narrowly averted in Texas

My post last night/this morning discussed the near miss from what appears to have been a direct lightning strike on the Ballpark at Arlington during the 4th inning if the Twins-Rangers game.

The lightning data I received from Tony Dello at Telvent-DTN supports the conclusion that it was a direct hit. The Cloud-to-Ground (CG) “discharge” occurred at 7:11pm CDT, and packed a punch of 70 kA according to data that likely originated from the National Lightning Detection Network (NLDN) based at Vaisala Corp. in Tucson, AZ.

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Source: Telvent DTN

The primary stroke appears to have hit the upper canopy above the 3rd deck along the 3rd base line. A second arm may have hit an object very near the center field wall, within a few feet of fans and the center fielder for the Rangers.

Had the strike been more powerful or landed just a few feet away from either location, we might very well have been reporting on fatalities and injuries today.

First strike minutes earlier?

There are reports from fans in the ballpark (including one comment I’ve received directly on Updraft) and from Twins broadcasters during the telecast that there was a nearby lightning strike with audible thunder a few minutes before the strike that hit the stadium.

Apparently that first strike sparked a round of applause from fans, unaware that minutes later another bolt would hiss and hit the park directly.

Here are the details in my exchange this morning with Randall who was sitting in the 3rd deck at the game last night.


I was at this game. Sitting in Section 311, row 19, seat 13. I feel very certain my section and seat fall within the yellow box detailed in the Telvent pic you show in this article.

I can tell you it was an amazing sound. The air made hissing and crackling sounds a split second before this strike occurred over our heads. Wicked!

Posted by Randall | July 9, 2012 2:15 AM

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Thanks Randall:

You and everybody else in the stadium were very lucky last night. I’m glad it turned out as well as it did.

The Twins announcers indicated in the clip that there was another strike close by a few minutes before this one, did you hear it? Was it audible in the stadium?

PH

Posted by Paul Huttner | July 9, 2012 7:57 AM

I agree.

There was one minutes before that was audible as well off to the east of the stadium. In fact, it drew an ovation of cheers and claps from the crowd when it occurred. We should have held our applause for the encore minutes later. Ha. Much louder and much closer to home.

Randall

Keep in mind that the game was in full swing at the time of the second strike.

Therein lies the problem with what happened in Texas Sunday. Let me say this clearly.

The game should have been under suspension at 7:11pm when the second strike hit the stadium.

Players, umpires and grounds crew should have been off the field, and fans should have been directed under cover as best possible.

All rules of common sense and basic severe weather safety dictate that when you can hear thunder, storms are close enough to produce lightning strikes that can hit you. As meteorologists we drill this into listeners heads over and over again. There are many accounts of lightning striking the ground (and producing fatalities) 5, 10, even 20+ miles from thunderstorms.

The NWS has entire pages and brochures on lightning safety. The 30-30 rule is the generally agreed upon best practice for safety outdoors when thunderstorms approach. When you hear thunder, you should immediately go inside, and wait 30 minutes until after the last audible thunder is heard.

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MLB failed to use basic severe weather and NWS lightning safety rules for large outdoor venues Sunday. The result was players, umpires and fans scrambling for cover, and the situation could have easily produced injuries and fatalities.

Texiera Mauer Morneau & A-Rod.JPG

Source: Paul Huttner-MPR News

Proposed MLB severe weather policy changes:

It is my understanding from talking to multiple officials inside the Minnesota Twins organization that MLB policy states decisions about potential weather delays are controlled by the home team up until the first pitch is thrown.

After the first pitch is thrown in a game, the umpires control decisions about weather delays and severe weather safety.

It is my strong opinion that needs to change.

Here’s why:

-MLB Umpires have plenty to focus on during a baseball game. They are not able to devote the necessary attention to approaching weather conditions that may affect fan/player safety.

-Even though MLB umpires may coordinate weather info with home team officials during a game, they are not weather experts. They are not trained to recognize subtle radar signatures that may indicate severe gust fronts that appear well ahead of storms, or satellite signatures that may indicate rapid development of lighting producing storms overhead or nearby.

-Stadiums have high structures that limit visibility of umpires to approaching weather threats. At Target Field for example the views to the west (the primary direction storms approach from) are totally obscured. Fans, players and umpires cannot even see a storm until it’s right on top of the stadium. By that time, everyone in the stadium has been in danger of a stray lighting strike or approaching damaging winds or hail for several minutes.

A “solutions based” approach:

I have been working on this piece for a few weeks now in my head.

The events in Texas Sunday did not initiate my belief that MLB needs to update severe weather policy and procedures, but they are the last straw that prompted me to speak out today. I sincerely hope Sunday’s events in Texas and voices like mine may play some small role in getting MLB to take a fresh look at severe weather policy during games.

There have been many other instances where severe weather has been dangerously close to injuring or killing fans or players in stadiums. Many fatalities have occurred on baseball fields, especially from lightning.

Here is what I propose MLB do to improve safety in stadiums as potential severe weather approaches MLB games.

1) Require all MLB home teams to have a trained, experienced meteorologist in house during all MLB games. One trained meteorologist, watching the radar and lightning detection networks can save lives and prevent a tragedy that MLB can avoid before it happens.

-MLB, you have valuable players making millions each season on the field. You have fans that pay significant dollars to support your team in the seats. You have high profile guests in the seats like MLB Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan (and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson?) as we saw in Sunday’s video. For a few hundred bucks a game you can have a “weather MVP” in your weather lab that can help make the call to get players and fans to a place of safety before an incident like Sunday sends people scrambling for cover.

-The Minnesota Twins have set the bar for weather coverage in MLB. Follow the Twins model for having an in-house meteorologist on game days.

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Twins meteorologist Craig Edwards on the Roof Deck

Photo by Paul Huttner-MPR News

2) Make the home team responsible for weather delays during the game.

-Umpires have too much to do and are not weather experts. Make the home team responsible for calling weather delays during play, with input from the team’s meteorologist who is trained to monitor the latest severe weather warnings, radar and lightning data.

3) Require all MLB teams to have a state of the art “weather lab” in house that has dedicated access to current radar, real-time lightning data in house, and the latest NWS severe weather warnings.

4) Immediately notify all fans via scoreboard and stadium PA systems that a weather delay is in progress, what the specific threat is, and what they should do to (calmly) seek cover.

5) Implement a consistent, common sense severe weather safety plan that applies al all MLB teams, and train all teams’ staff on a consistent, common sense best practices procedure that employs current NWS.

The events in Texas Sunday could have easily been avoided, and could have easily been much worse. Let’s hope MLB will take notice and act quickly to move to an updated severe weather policy that improves the safety of everyone present at MLB games.

Here are some more resources about lightning safety otudoors.

-Ron Holle (lightning expert) chat with the AZ Daily Star

-NWS lightning safety page

PH

  • http://www.stormchaserschwartz.com Ryan Schwartz

    Paul,

    Really good piece on lightning safety reform that is needed in baseball before someone gets killed. Agree with the majority of what was written. Where I differ is having an MLB observer that is also a weather expert that can call the game if a thunderstorm approaches. This takes it out of the home team’s hands to minimize any controversy should the home team gain a greater advantage than the visitors with the stoppage (i.e. Home team calls the game before opponent’s power hitter gets an at bat that could tie or give opponents the lead.)

    Ryan

  • http://struckbylightning.org michael utleuy

    As usual, lightning was spotted in the distance before this event. People wait too long to take action and the federal agencies such as NOAA, FEMA, etc have outdated and dangerous info on their web sites.

    How can you expect major league baseball to get it right if all these others can’t.

  • Bill

    Great article. Between our litigious society and the sheer money involved in the game, it’s hard to believe that something like that could have happened, particularly given the obvious proximity of the first strike.

  • Randy in Champliln, MN

    Paul:

    Kudos on this blog, it was right on.

    Most of the public (including myself until a couple of years ago,) are trained to look at the lower level scan of the radar as this is what the TV mets show. However that is horribly misleading. In order to see the strength of the storm one has to look higher. Most radar sites have 5 different scans that show the reflectivity (the strength of the precip) as you move up through the atmosphere, than the last thing you can look at it composite reflectivity that shows the depth of the storm form the surface to the higher altitudes.

    I saw one post somewhere that said they were looking at the radar on their phone and the storm seemed to be 12 miles from the stadium, that I am sure was base reflectivity. What would they have seen if they could have looked higher?? My guess is that the storm at the higher altitudes was much closer than people think it was.

    I hope you can find the different height reflectivity scans just before the lightning stuck, I would be willing to bet that the storm was much closer than most people think. If you can find them I hope you would show them on your blog.

    If you can find them please post them in your blog, if the public can understand the danger, than maybe they will force MLB to make the changes you are asking for.

  • Paul Huttner

    Ryan:

    Good point.

    I would hope the teams would not play games with safety, but maybe I’m being naive. That said, even if a team did pull a stunt like that, the hitter would still be up again if/when play resumed. I would think people would see through that too.

    Perhaps there is a better mechanism.

    I don’t have all the answers, but I think a team of MLB people and meteorologists smarter than me could come up with some great solutions.

    PH

  • Paul Huttner

    Hi Randy:

    I will look for some archived images.

    With or without them, you may know there numerous are documented instances of fatalities from lightning strikes more than 5-10 miles away from storms.

    I’ve interviewed and spoken with Ron Holle (formerly with NSSL and now with Vaisala Inc. in Tucson) who is considered one of the worlds leading lightning researchers numerous times. He has told me there are documented CG strikes as far as 35 miles away from supercell T-Storms.

    PH

  • Duke Powell

    This subject is a pet peeve of mine as well.

    If one were to create a list of the most foolish things to do, standing in the middle of a field with lightning in the area would probably rank near the top.

    Here’s a few additional thoughts

    1. A baseball player doesn’t need anybody’s permission to run off the field if he fears for his safety. In fact, a manager can just order his players off the field – its been done in the past when unruly fans start throwing objects (like batteries).

    2. In 1996 Major League umpire John McSherry died of a cardiac arrest at Cincinnati on opening day. It took 35 minutes for paramedics to come to his aid.

    The umpires union sprang into action and insisted that a section be inserted to their contract with Major League Baseball that paramedics be present in the ballpark.

    Since then, every major sport in this country has this requirement.

    Paul, maybe you need to speak with the unions.

    3.It occurred to me that while everybody was running off the field inTexas, the ground’s crew was running get the tarp on….

    … Well, to heck with the tarp….

  • anonymous

    Having worked at Target Field for 3 seasons now, I can tell you they have yet to put a Severe weather plan into place. The staff has been asking every game “if violent weather should start, where should we seek shelter?” The response has always been “in the event of severe weather decisions will be made and we will let you know where to go”. Makes me feel REALLY safe…

  • Heather Simon

    In principle I agree, but it needs to be a regional thing. I grew up in California and the only weather changes were was there going to be fog or not. So I think that your ideas are right on for places that have severe weather and a little unnecessary for other geographic locations.

  • Sandra A

    Great article. USAF had a weather policy that all sporting activities ceased if thunder was heard. This included golf, softball, and swimming. And this was over 30 years ago. I was also at a KC baseball game with severe weather in the vicinity – we heard the roar of straight line winds. We were sort of herded under cover until the game was called off because of rain. Open air stadiums need good lightening protection and as you said a policy to delay or call off due to weather.

  • Paul Ruscher

    Even the NCAA policy is inadequate, but at least it is something. How do you empty a stadium with 80,000+fans and participants in the 30 minutes?

    You’ve done a nice service here regarding public safety needs, and I hope that MLB, MLS, NFL, Track and Field venues, golf championships, etc., are all paying attention.

    Personally, as a meteorologist, parent and former little league coach myself, I did not hesitate to pull my kids off the field, regardless of what the umpire or opposing coach said (usually in bewilderment) – it happened several times in Florida. And now with on the hip technologies for everyone, there is really no excuse. You’ve made a nice start with your post.