Judging the Royals

Unintended consequences of ballpark design, from the players’ perspective

When fully lit, field-level scoreboards like this one at Kauffman Stadium can make a baseball difficult to see from the infield.
When fully lit, field-level scoreboards like this one at Kauffman Stadium can make a baseball difficult to see from the infield. jsleezer@kcstar.com

According to a recent story in The Star, the Kansas City Council was unpleasantly surprised when they found out the city manager paid a pretty good chunk of money for a study of possible sites for a downtown ballpark.

An ordinance that would sharply reduce the city manager’s ability to spend taxpayer money without council approval was suggested and the city manager has said, in effect, the council can fire him if they want to.

This City Hall squabble put a downtown ballpark back in the news, at least tangentially, and gave me an excuse to write about the subject.

If you like the idea of a downtown ballpark, here’s a story you might find interesting:

When current Royals coach and former Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Jason Kendall played in PNC Park he said the glare of the setting sun off the skyscrapers in the background made it hard for the catcher, hitter and umpire to see the ball in the early innings of a Pirates home game.

Those buildings in the background of downtown ballparks might look cool to fans, but players might feel differently.

So before we build a downtown ballpark we ought to think about what direction that park would face and what would be in the background.

Ballplayers think about ballparks differently

Ask a fan what he thinks of a ballpark and he or she will probably think about parking, the price of concessions, seating and how a ballpark looks.

For the most part, players don’t care about any of that.

Players think about the clubhouse, the dugout, how close the equipment room, indoor batting cage and video room are to that dugout and what it’s like to play a game in that park.

Fans don’t care if it’s hard to see a fly ball because they don’t have to catch one; players have a different point of view.

The Truman Sports Complex rolling roof

In 2006 voters rejected a rolling roof that would have been able to move back and forth on rails and cover either Arrowhead or Kauffman Stadium.

Drawings of the project showed the rolling roof would be made of white fabric, which is not an ideal color if you’re a ballplayer trying to track a baseball in flight. Backers of the rolling roof project said that problem would be solved by adding a gray liner to the inside of the roof.

Maybe.

The old Metrodome in Minneapolis had a similar problem, made worse by the addition of little round white lights. Outfielders had to identify the round white object that was moving against a background of white fabric and stationary round white objects; it was baseball’s version of Where’s Waldo?

They played around with the Metrodome lighting, but it was still difficult to see and track a baseball.

The Kauffman Stadium field-level scoreboards

A while back, as part of a Kauffman Stadium upgrade, field-level scoreboards were added to left and right-center field.

The brightly lit scoreboards can show out-of-town scores and advertising, but have the unintended consequence of making it hard to see what happens directly in front of them.

Third-base coaches sometimes have to wait to make a decision on sending or holding a runner until they can figure out where the ball is. Umpires can have a hard time deciding whether a ball has been caught.

A lot of words have been written about Alex Gordon’s trip around the bases in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series and here are a few more:

Immediately after the game Gordon said it was hard to see what was happening with the ball because it was happening in front of the field-level scoreboard in left center.

Other parks and other unintended consequences

For a long time Houston’s Minute Maid Park featured Tal’s Hill, an incline that rose to meet the center-field wall. Center fielders didn’t like it because if you run full speed while looking up at a baseball, then hit an incline, there’s a good chance you’ll do a face plant.

In Toronto the warning track is a different color, but made of the same material as the outfield turf. Players know they’re about to hit the wall because a warning track feels different when they step on it, but in Rogers Centre the players get no warning that the wall is two or three steps away.

In Colorado’s Coors Field the sun sets directly into the first baseman’s eyes. In the early innings of a night game pitchers have to remember to keep any pickoff throw low or their first baseman might not see it.

Tropicana Field is a domed stadium and has catwalks that are low enough to be hit by fly balls.

So what’s the difference between a ballpark quirk and bad design?

That’s a really good question and I’m very sorry you asked it. After yet another cup of coffee and 15 minutes of thought, here’s what I came up with:

Kauffman Stadium has rounded corners and if you intend to play outfield in Kansas City you better know it’s a mistake to chase a ground ball into one of those corners. Instead, outfielders need to run to the bullpen gate and wait there for the ball to curve around the corner and come to them.

That’s a ballpark quirk and it rewards the players to who put in the effort to understand how to play balls hit into the corner. And if a visiting outfielder doesn’t do his homework, it becomes a home-field advantage.

Kauffman’s field-level scoreboards make it hard for both teams to play the game to the best of their ability and can have an effect on a game’s outcome.

That’s bad design.

Players and coaches say they want a park that plays fair and lets a player’s talent and knowledge decide the results. Nobody wants to lose a game because a fly ball hit a catwalk.

If you’re going to build or change a stadium, here’s some advice

I don’t think anyone set out to blind third-base coaches with scoreboards, or risk injuries to center fielders with outfield inclines or thought it would be fun to install round, white lights in a white roof and then watch outfielders try to catch fly balls.

I think all those things happened because the people who built those things weren’t ballplayers and didn’t think like ballplayers. So if we ever do get around to spending millions on a downtown ballpark, here’s a piece of advice:

Before we build it, we should talk to a ballplayer.

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