“The Rainout …”

I’ve been in the baseball industry for more than 30 years and nothing causes more anxiety in players, coaches, umpires and fans in this game then to see the groundskeeper walk out of his office by the field(s) and look up at the sky. No sport is at the mercy of Mother Nature more than the games of baseball and softball. Why? Because it is a game played on two very different surfaces – the grass area and the infield dirt area — or “skin” as groundskeepers call it. It is the infield dirt that creates an issue when Mother Nature decides to rain on our baseball parades. At the professional level, we use tarps measuring 175’ x 175’ and weighing up to one ton (not including the weight of water and dirt on it) to protect our fields. The tarp and ground crew are a cheap insurance policy to be sure they get the game in and the 1.5 to 2 million dollars of revenue are secured. But to us at the lower levels of ball, it usually means we have to call games due to unsafe field conditions.

At WMLL, our process begins before the rain even hits. We closely monitor weather forecasts days in advance throughout the season. When wet periods are forecast, we will often adjust our maintenance practices on the fields to help assist the fields to get through the rain event as quickly as possible with as little disturbance to the game schedule as we can affect.   The executive director and league coordinators are often warned a couple days in advance when forecasts indicate a good possibility of schedule interruptions due to wet fields.

WMLL has a policy that at least one board member should be on the premises when weather threatens to interrupt games in progress. When possible, we will have more than one board member there to help with the decisions and actions involved. The decision to stop games in progress are taken very seriously. The board members involved are responsible for decisions that can affect the safety of the players, coaches and fans on the complex. And, like school officials making decisions whether to close schools on a wintery day, the same can be said for the board members deciding to stop games in progress. No matter what the situation, there will be a section of people on-site who won’t be happy with our decision. Sometimes lightning forces us to stop games when no rain is around. Sometimes we can be too quick to call stoppages, others too slow. But the bottom line is these are not always easy decisions to make and we ask that everyone respect the pressure that those making the decisions are under in order to insure everyone’s safety. We don’t want rainouts or delays any more than anyone else but the fact is, it happens.

Games in progress will either go into rain delay depending on conditions at the time or they may be called off if the weather makes the fields unplayable. If they are called off, league coordinators are responsible for the decision as to if and when it will be rescheduled.

When rain occurs overnight or during weekday mornings or afternoons, the grounds crew monitors and updates the executive director on field conditions. To the average Joe, be they a fan, a player or a coach, it is easy to sit at home, see the sun come out after a rain and believe that just because the sun is out, the fields should be ready for play. But here is the shocking truth… Every situation is different. There are many parameters that dictate how fast a field will be ready to resume play after a rain. Here is a list of some of those factors that need to be considered in order to decide when the games can start up again:

  • Amount of rain that fell
  • Length of time the rainfall occurred and intensity
  • The field’s condition going into the rain event
  • Soil makeup of the infield skin
  • The weather expected over the next 4 to 8 hours or so which can effect speed of drying, including:
    • Sky conditions
    • Humidity levels
    • Temperatures
    • Wind speeds and direction
    • Chances for additional precipitation

charliebrown-rain2The grounds crew will make what repairs they can to the fields while drying is occurring such as working on the mound and plate areas that were tarped. Eventually they move to the infields as drying progresses. What we look for in a field that is near ready to play again is “lateral stability” of the infield soil. An infield soil can be dry enough to walk on, but if the lateral movement of the footing sheers easily, then the field is not ready. To many fans and coaches, a field may look dry because of the topdressing material that we use on the surface which dries more quickly than the soil beneath it. So looks can be VERY deceiving, but when you get onto the field and begin to test for stability, you may find things a little different. Allowing kids to play on fields with poor “lateral stability” of the infield soil puts these young athletes at risk of injury. Cleats usually provide little help under these conditions. The older the player, the much greater the risk for injury as their bodies have become more developed and fine-tuned. We at West Madison Little League will not return a field to play until the “lateral stability” of the infield skin is safe over 90% of the infield skin surface.

I have been making decisions like these since the mid 80s, first in Major League Baseball, then for West Madison Little League. One is just as challenging as the other and each situation is different. Seasons like the spring of 2013, which was cool and very wet, make things even more stressful as rainouts tally up quickly. But weather is not an exact science and no one is perfect. When was the last time you saw a weather forecaster consistently be right 100% of the time? Never, because we will never fully understand the dynamics of our atmosphere and the speed at which things can change. What that means is we make mistakes at times, as well, in our judgments of when to start and stop games. But understand that our decisions revolve completely around the safety of all who visit West Madison Little League.

Paul Zwaska
WMLL Board Advisor (former Board Member)
Buildings & Grounds Oversight