So you’ve got a ticket to Opening Day. You’ve already called in sick, and you’re ready to head out to see the Royals 2013 home opener. I assume a lot of fans have been inside Kansas City’s ballpark, but just in case you haven’t — or weren’t paying attention when you were there — here is a guide to watching a ballgame in Kauffman Stadium.
Kauffman is symmetrical ballpark — the right- and left-field corners and outfield gaps match — but it still has its quirks. The first thing you might notice are the rounded corners. If the outfield corners are squared off, balls hit into those corners will rattle around, and an outfielder can go directly into the corner and retrieve the ball.
A ball that is hit into a corner in Kauffman might get under the outfield pads or get caught in the curve like a pinball and shoot out by the bullpen gate. An outfielder who chases a ball directly into a corner in Kansas City might soon find himself chasing the ball in the right- or left-center gap after it shoots by him.
The field-level outfield scoreboards also can offer a challenge. The signs are covered in chain link, and when a ball hits it, a variety of things can happen. The ball might drop straight down, bounce left or bounce right. It all depends on where it hits the chain link.
And if the ball hits one of the pads surrounding the scoreboard, it will come back hard. The same thing can happen with the bullpen gates. If there’s any doubt about what the ball will hit, chain link or pad, the outfielder needs to stay away from the wall. A defender has to play for the hard carom. If the ball drops straight down, the outfielder can then charge forward and pick up the ball. If the outfielder plays for a soft carom by standing too close to the wall, and if the ball hits a pad, the ball can shoot past him.
I got mixed responses when I asked players about the difficulty of picking up the ball when those field-level scoreboards are in the background. Some players said they had no problems seeing the ball. Others said they had lost sight of the ball on occasion.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that the foul poles are 330 feet away from home plate. Lots of parks have something similar. But the wall at Kauffman Stadium drops away sharply after the foul pole, and the fence directly behind left field is farther than 330 feet.
I’ve heard that visiting outfielders might position themselves too deeply at the K. They take their regular positions, look back and see all that space between them and the wall and back up. That allows balls to fall in front of them and encourages them to make throws that have no chance. They are farther away from the infield than usual.
Outfield depth can also fool base-runners. They often decide to advance to the next base on the direction the outfielder is moving when he fields the ball. If the outfielder is moving away from the base the runner is headed for, the runner might advance. If the outfielder is moving toward the base the runner is headed for, the runner might stay put.
In Kauffman Stadium, the runners can be so far away from the infield that the runner can advance even when the outfielder is moving toward the base. But runners will still shut it down. They see the outfielder moving forward, put on the brakes but forget how far away the outfielder is positioned.
The area behind home plate is also a big deal. If a wild pitch hits the stone facing on the backstop, the ball can come right back to home plate. A runner on third base has to think twice about trying to score. If a wild pitch hits the advertising sign behind home plate, the ball will die and a runner on third can score easily.
Base-runners and coaches also need to pay attention to the area behind first base. What will the ball hit on a bad throw from third base? How about a bad throw from short or second? There is a screen protecting a dugout suite, and an overthrown ball can hit the screen and come right back to the first baseman. Runners can have a hard time advancing on an overthrow from an infielder unless it comes from third base and goes down the right-field line.
If you get to the ballpark early and see batting practice, ask yourself how fastballs are getting hit through the infield. I’ve been told Kansas City has a very fast infield, and I’ve also been told it’s in the middle of the pack. The speed of the infield — based on the length and thickness of the grass — will change where the infielders stand.
Now look at the outfield. I’ve got no clue what the grounds crew has in store for Opening Day, but those patterns in the grass are caused by the grass lying in different directions and a ball will snake — zigzaging back and forth very slightly — as it bounces toward the outfielder.
With a 3:10 p.m. start, the sun will be a factor before the day is over. As the sun drops in the later innings, the right fielder might have a hard time picking up a fly ball. Once the shadows come in to play, watch what happens when there is a shadow between home plate and the mound. Hitters will have a hard time picking up the ball when it leaves the sunlight and goes into a shadow.
Pitchers should take advantage of the lighting conditions by working quickly. Taking forever between pitches while you’re losing your advantage is a bad idea. You might also see a team play for a run right before the shadows hit. If scoring is going to be tougher, grab a lead while you can.
And finally, check the flags. If the wind is blowing in, pitchers might get away with letting the batter hit a drive into the teeth of the wind, knowing the ball will get knocked down. If the wind is blowing out, even routine fly balls might fly out of the stadium. The pitcher really needs to keep the ball down.
Pay attention to how the stadium plays and a ballgame becomes much more interesting. And have fun on Opening Day.