The message on the scoreboard was quite incongruous with the sunny, cloudless sky above Cleveland’s Progressive Field on April 4. It was 3:10 p.m., the scheduled first-pitch time for the Indians’ home opener against the Twins, and the weather was almost perfect, considering the time of year.
So why, the sellout crowd surely wondered, did the scoreboard read “We Are In a Rain Delay — Thank You for Your Patience”?
“When I see it’s not raining, I’m like, ‘What are we doing?’ ” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “But they come and tell you that [a thunderstorm] is coming — well, OK.”
Gardenhire is getting used to those circumstances, as are fans all over baseball, at least those with outdoor stadiums. The Twins manager recalls taking the field during a rain shower, in hopes of getting a game in, but the trend lately is exactly the opposite. More and more, games are being delayed by rain that isn’t actually falling.
Until the All-Star break, the decision on whether to start a game rests with the home team until the first pitch is thrown, after which decisions on delays or postponements are made by the umpires. But after the All-Star break, umpires have the final say on whether to start a game, a decision that’s generally made with the home team’s input.
“It used to be, when you’re supposed to start, you start. I’ve started games when it was already raining, and you’re like, ‘this makes no sense,’ ” Gardenhire said. “But it’s different now. Our radar is a lot more sophisticated, so you know more about what’s coming, and teams are a lot more careful about burning a pitcher.”
That’s the biggest factor, players, managers and front-office personnel say. In addition to limiting pitch counts and using the bullpen more often, teams are careful about allowing a pitcher to return to a game that’s been delayed by 45 minutes or more. Once a starting pitcher has completed his pregame warmup routine, and especially if he has pitched a couple of innings, teams won’t risk his arm if he’s cooled down again.
And if a starting pitcher is prevented from going more than a couple of innings, it has a domino effect. In this era of increasingly specialized bullpen use, when relief pitchers rarely throw more than an inning at a time, a short start can affect more than that day’s game. “You don’t want to put a [starting] pitcher out there, have the rains come, and now your bullpen is shot for the next four days,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “It’s really walking a high wire [about when to start a game]. If you delay in anticipation [of a storm], your starter doesn’t get heated up.”
But what’s best for the pitchers and their teams isn’t always best for the people who bought tickets. On that April day in Cleveland, the Indians waited more than an hour before the storm clouds even began rolling in, and fans grew impatient. Some booed. Some chanted. Heavy rain finally did arrive, but some in the crowd undoubtedly were irritated.
It’s the same at Target Field, where the Twins still are getting used to dealing with the elements after nearly three decades indoors. The decision to inconvenience fans isn’t taken lightly, team President Dave St. Peter said, but there are times when it makes sense for the good of the team. The Twins have twice delayed starting times this season, waiting more than two hours in dry weather before starting a game with the White Sox on June 19, and in conjunction with the umpires holding off by a half-hour before playing the Royals on Aug. 17.
“It’s a difficult balance, and there are a lot of factors that go into it. We have a responsibility to our baseball team, but also to Major League Baseball to get games in, and clearly to our fan base, too,” St. Peter said. “It’s not an exact science, but you try to weigh all the interests and do the right thing, and you hope your fans understand that.”
Some don’t, or at least, they don’t appreciate it. St. Peter said there were 30,000 fans in the stadium when the June 19 game was supposed to begin, but only 20,000 when it actually did. He received some complaints from fans, especially since it rained very little during the delay, “and we are very sensitive to the fact that one-third were inconvenienced.”
Trouble is, as St. Peter said, “projecting the weather is arguably more difficult than projecting players.”
And that’s even with state-of-the-art equipment to make projections, and a staff meteorologist on site to make predictions not for the city, not for the downtown area, but for that specific city block. The Twins have a weather control room directly behind the visitor’s dugout, where retired Minnesota Public Radio weatherman Craig Edwards monitors three different radars and many other instruments.
When wet weather threatens, Edwards consults with St. Peter, senior operations vice president Matt Hoy, groundskeeper Larry DiVito, General Manager Terry Ryan, both managers and the umpires.
“There’s no doubt the umpires are more aware of saving games and pitchers than ever,” Ryan said. “They know that [with] a long interruption, a guy goes two innings, and now your rotation is in shambles, now your bullpen is overworked.”
“Umpires talk about that all the time — ‘I don’t want you to lose your starting pitcher,’ ” Gardenhire said. “They’re as aware of it as we are. ... But it’s still weather. You can’t always predict it.”