I’m sure many of you in the baseball/softball grounds keeping industry saw what happened earlier this week at PNC Park in Pittsburgh during the Pirates game Tuesday night. Strong winds ahead of an approaching thunderstorm gave the Pirates grounds crew quite the fit as they struggled to get the tarp on the field. Players and office staff had to rush in to help the grounds crew avoid serious injury. Watch the re-cap from YouTube below. Scary! Amazingly, just yesterday, there was a second tarp incident where the baseball players (this time the Rockies) had to jump in to help the grounds crew pull tarp.
What is going on with these baseball tarps?
To fans in the stands or watching on TV, these blowing tarps may seem comical, but as I stated in a blog about tarps earlier this summer, the job groundskeepers do in deploying and removing tarps can be very dangerous. When a crew member gets dragged, wrapped up or swallowed up by a tarp and gusty winds are involved, things can turn dangerous quickly as the wind has the torque to tightly wrap a crew member up in it quickly. There are numerous similar incidents at many different ballparks at many levels of the game chronicled online on YouTube to prove just how dangerous it can be when wind takes control. Preventing field tarp injuries should be a top priority for softball and baseball teams at every level of the sport.
Tarps act like sails
Tarps are nothing more than giant pieces of fabric that act like a sail in stronger winds. It takes an experienced staff, good direction by a leader, teamwork on behalf of the crew, and a little luck to keep situations like this under control. Imagine yourself if you will, being called to put a tarp out in high wind and or heavy rain conditions with intense lightning flashing all around, a ballpark sound system blaring music loudly and a certain level of confusion in the air as you try to deploy this large sail. It’s an adrenalin filled couple minutes to hurry and deploy, arrange and anchor the tarp on the field.
Lighter tarps are harder to control
Laying tarp is job for trained crews in order to keep the risk of injury to a minimum. Today’s infield tarps are not the same as those that I dealt with in the early part of my career. While I was used to tarp materials weighing 10 to 12 oz per sq yd, newer lightweight baseball tarps are about half that at 6 oz per sq yd. This reduction in weight makes it easier for less people to deploy the tarps. However, in windy conditions, a lightweight tarp can be more of an enemy as it doesn’t take as much wind to blow it around. Heavier tarps are easier to control, but still dangerous with the right wind speeds.
Call for tarp deployment sooner
Probably the biggest problem is umpires waiting until rain starts falling to call for the tarp. By that time it can be too late to get the field covered safely. Wind will have already picked up and rain is intensifying. The other night in Pittsburgh, they put the tarp out early ahead of the rain but not ahead of the “gust front” of the storm. While I was not there in Pittsburgh to know the specifics of how the situation developed, if someone can keep a close eye on the radar and know what to look for, the umps can call for the tarps earlier and reduce the danger for the grounds crew.
Let’s move into the weather classroom for a minute. Mature thunderstorms create “outflow boundaries” or “gust fronts” ahead of the storm. The gust front is the rapid advancement of cool, rain chilled air that has been ejected from the thunderstorm cloud via the strong downdraft within the storm. (See the diagram) This gust front is the cooling you feel just ahead of a heavy rain shower or thunderstorm. Depending on the strength of the heavy shower or thunderstorms, these winds have the potential to become very strong. When that happens small dust particles, insects and other particulate is kicked up into the air. Since Doppler radar has come about late in the last century, we are able to see “outflow boundaries” or “gust fronts” on the radar screen. The Doppler is sensitive enough to pick up the dust / insect / particulate cloud that kicks up from the strong wind. Usually you will see it as a thin line emanating out from the storm activity on the radar screen (as seen on the sample radar picture). Just because you see this pattern doesn’t always mean you will see strong winds, but it’s a good possibility, especially if your ballfield is out in the wide open where there is little friction (houses / buildings / trees / etc) to slow the air movement down. The stronger the storm, the stronger the gust front can be. The farther away the gust front gets from the storm over time, the more likely it is to be weaker.
Using Radar to Time the Tarp Pull
How do we as groundskeepers apply that knowledge for tarp deployment safety? Well, if I’m in the groundskeeping office monitoring incoming storms on my computer or phone, and I see an especially strong storm coming, I will look to see if there is any indication of an outflow boundary/gust front. If I see there is a gust front indicated by that thin line ahead of an approaching storm and the gust front is fairly close to the storm, I am likely going to advise to the umps to let the crew get the tarp on ahead of the gust front to avoid the risk of losing control of the tarp as the storm rolls in. The Doppler Radar is just as important a tool for us to do our jobs on the field as it is for weather forecasters to use for their prognostications. Wouldn’t it be nice for Major League Baseball and other levels of the sport to set a policy to allow crews to have a little more control of when to put the tarp out ahead of a storm in game situations in order to protect the crew? If only those governing bodies would give the groundskeepers that kind of respect. When storms threaten, it’s the grounds crew that is called upon to protect the field and save the game. As the fans, players and umps scamper for cover, we are left to battle the elements and risk potential injury for the game. Use every tool you have possible to keep your crew safe and get the job done. Re-read this article on how to safely deploy infield tarps. Good luck. Next week, we’ll be posting a mini-podcast interviewing guests Tom Burns and Ross Kurcab to discuss this topic. Stream from our Diamond Davincis page or download from iTunes!