Pittsburgh Pirates

Who left Joe Vila in out in the cold?

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baseball_mitt_mud-hdr-webWhen I write my long-promised  Top 10 list of World Series weather games, the 1925 championship finale will certainly rank high on the chart.

It had almost all the makings of a fall weather classic: pounding rain, vision-obstructing fog, mud-caked ballplayers and thousands of rain-drenched foul-weather fans, so to speak. ‘You could cut the mirk with a cleaver,” The Evening Star of Washington, D.C., reported on the gloomy mid-October afternoon in Pittsburgh.

Game 7 also had a fire on the field, a blaze intentionally set by Forbes Field groundskeeper Jack Fogarty in an attempt to dry the uliginous infield. There’s no report, however, of fans roasting marshmallows.

This nutty game, in which the Pirates bested the Senators 9-7, also produced one irritated journalist.

Among the many World Series recap stories The Sporting News published in its Oct. 22 issue, Joe Vila held no punches in expressing his displeasure over the treatment of writers at the ballpark.

“I do not know who was directly responsible for the press accommodations at Forbes Field, but it’s enough to say that they were outrageous,” wrote Vila, who covered baseball for three decades.

“The press box, instead of being located in the grand stand, under cover, was arranged on the ground in front of the ordinary backstop. Reporters and telegraph operators, who had no redress, worked on Tuesday and Thursday in the mud and rain. They had no protection from the storm and were drenched to the skin.

From Vila’s writing, it’s as clear as mud to determine whether he was actually dodging raindrops and slogging through mud at Forbes Field or if he simply was piping up for those writers who were covering the game.

Under the sub-headline of “Press Handled Like Bleacherites,” Vila continued his salty assault, writing, “If the Pittsburgh Club had entertained the proper respect for the newspapers which spent many thousands of dollars to spread to spread the details of the World Series all over the United States and other parts of the civilized world, such uncomfortable conditions under which the writers and keymen tolled would not have existed.”

Digging through various other newspapers has not revealed, so far, any other scribes complaining about improper working conditions at the ballpark.

Ralph Davis wrote in the Pittsburgh Press that he “leaped” from his seat in the “press box at Forbes Field” at the end of the game, not because his pants were soaked, but from the sight of “Old Rube” Oldham firing the third strike past the Senators’ Goose Goslin, who was “standing there flatfooted, for the final out of the game of the world’s baseball series.”

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E5… Blame the groundskeeper

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The Sporting News photo of Jack Fogarty caring for the Forbes Field infield in 1938.

If you scroll through enough baseball newspapers articles from the early 1900s, you’ll inevitably stumble upon an anecdote or two claiming a rogue infield pebble got in the way of a bouncing routine ground ball, causing the ball to take an unexpected hop past a fielder and cost the fielding team a run or two, or maybe even a game.

Heck, Game 7 of the 1924 World Series turned in favor of the Washington Senators when Bucky Harris hit a grounder toward third in the bottom of the eighth that ricocheted off a small rock and squirted past New York Giants’ third baseman Freddie Lindstrom, allowing two Senators to score and tie the game at 3-3. Washington eventually won the series in extra innings.

I’m not sure if Lindstrom took issue with the Griffith Stadium grounds crew, but in a series of profile stories about the profession, Pirates head groundskeeper Jack Fogarty told The Sporting News in 1938 that players, even Hall of Famers, would occasionally blame their miscues on infield pebbles left behind by him and other grounds crew members.

“…Once in a while a player tries to use me for an alibi,” Fogarty said.

“Old Honus Wagner did that once in his active playing days. He used to carry around a bunch of pebbles in his uniform pocket, and if he booted or fumbled, he’d come in and toss one of those pebbles at me, as if to let everybody know I left a stone out there big enough to deflect the course of a roller.

“Other players have tried that trick, too, but it doesn’t get them anywhere. If there’s ever been a pebble half as big as a marble on the skinned part of that infield, I’ve never found it.”

Fogarty became Pittsburgh’s head groundskeeper in 1919 and was known to sometimes douse the Forbes Field infield with gasoline and set it ablaze in an attempt to dry the playing surface after a lengthy rain. Days after his death in 1995, the Pittsburgh Press described Fogarty as a man “who devoted his lifetime to the tender care of the grass at Forbes Field and a man who took great pride in his work.”

If a player complained about the smoothness of the infield, “the next morning Fogarty went to work to smooth out the rough spot that caused the player to make his complaint and he wasn’t satisfied until the player approved,” the Press reported.

“Fogarty winced when he read that a ball took a bad hop over a player’s shoulder because he felt like this was a reflection on his ability, although it never was written with that in mind. But John Fogarty was a deeply sensitive and was highly regarded in his field.”

This Week in Baseball Weather – Nationals Edition

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There he was, foot skating across the base, knee grossly folding in the wrong direction, body somersaulting through the misty late night air – hair still looking glorious – and then crashing in pain onto the infield dirt.

Man, it looked awful. It looked like the end.

Just like Adam Eaton months earlier, Bryce Harper’s mishap at first base would, it seemed in the moment, put the Washington Nationals’ star slugger out for the season, further depleting a team that has so many weapons already on the shelf.

“Nationals Park is in a total hush,” Nats radio guy Dave Jageler said as trainers rushed out to Harper.

But the sun did rise the morning after that wet night in the District. An MRI revealed no structural damage, Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo assured us it was only a deep bone bruise on Harp’s left knee.

Nats fans exhaled.

“Thank you, Lord, that Bryce Harper did not shred any ligaments,” Grant Paulsen said on his D.C. sports radio show Monday morning.

The news that Harper was being placed on the 10-day disabled list, with a return projected sometime before the playoffs, was like a total solar eclipse happening on your birthday, which also happens to fall on Thanksgiving Day.

This near tragedy, however, was yet another soggy side note to what otherwise has been a season as bright as the rainbow emblazoned on the team’s new Skittles-themed tarp that had covered the field for three hours before the Harper’s calamity.

As I write, the Nationals stand 14 games ahead of the Miami Marlins in the National League East. Harper is having another MVP season. Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman are fueling a high-powered offense.

They’ve had their fair share of injuries (see: Eaton, Turner, Werth, Strasburg, Glover, Taylor, Drew, Ross and so on) but guys named Difo, Sanchez and Goodwin have surprisingly kept the team moving forward. Not treading water, but building upon the division lead.

And Rizzo’s annual trade deadline wizardry has made the bullpen great (maybe) again.
But when it comes to dealing with rainy days, the Nats play the game like the 1886 version of the Washington ball club.

When it rains, and even when it only threatens to rain but doesn’t, the Nats have issues. Criticism has been plentiful, from fans, media, old clown play-by-play announcers of a division rival… and even from Washington players. Gio Gonzalez let his frustration show when the team delayed a game start for hours even though it barely sprinkled.

And Harper, the day after his slip and spill, took a slight shot at the decision to play Saturday night following a 3-hour delay and rain still drumming the field.

“I don’t like wet bases,” he said between games of a day-night doubleheader Sunday with the San Francisco Giants.

Harper thought about Eaton, he said, while he was rolling on the ground, clutching his knee, giving us all heart attacks.

“Then I thought to myself, it’s 10 o’clock at night and we’re playing the game in the rain,” he recalled. “So, I was really upset about that as well. But you know, it’s just a freak accident, a freak situation.”

True, but was it avoidable?

Scott Boras, Harper’s agent, is asking Major League Baseball what it can do to ensure the safety of its players when rain, falling light enough to continue play, is turning the base bags into a slip and slide.

“In this instance with Bryce’s injury, you step on a base and you cannot have it be that slick and it obviously was caused by precipitation and inclement weather. The safeguards are so simple and immediate,” Boras said.

“You can certainly have people, the umpire checking the bag, even pitch-by-pitch. You can have the grounds crew, certainly, called in, or you can have it done between each field exchange by the teams. So, there’s a number of things that aren’t done that could be done rather simply.”

In another interview earlier in the week, Boras made comparisons to the NBA, where action is quickly stopped to wipe up sweat, or whatever, from the court.

Is that a practical solution? Should it be a job for the umpires to periodically wipe off the bases? Every few pitches? How often, I guess, depends on how steadily the rain is falling.
Since Harper’s injury, much discussion has been focused on improving base technology, giving the bag more traction as runners make contact.

“When you have an elite athlete touching in the very middle of the bag and just sliding across, it’s like ice on cement,” Boras said. “So, it’s really something we need more clarification and standards and study to ensure player safety.”

Maybe Boras is on to something. If there’s a base technology that can be used that would allow the bag remain relatively dry throughout a steady rain and not cause players to slip like they were in the shower, as Harper said he felt Saturday night, then the simple logistics of replacing bases is well worth it to save a player’s health, his season and potentially his career.

San Francisco Giants v Washington Nationals

Are the Nationals the baseball weather story of the year?
Each year, I think about writing a post listing the top 10 baseball weather stories of the year. I haven’t done it yet, but maybe this is the year. Last year’s top story developed during the final game of the season, the World Series Game 7 rain delay that allowed the Cubs to regroup and capture the team’s first title in 108 years. Hands down, that was the baseball weather story of the year.

Not nearly as significant and captivating is this year’s top story… so far: the Nationals struggles with weather delays. Are the Nats really this bad at dealing with the weather, or have they simply had a run of bad luck this year?

I’d like to think it’s the latter. However, after tracking the events of Friday night, it’s difficult to not believe the team just can’t get its stuff together.

After a long rain delay of the series opener with the San Francisco Giants that night, the game was finally called and postponed more than two hours after the scheduled start. Players were seen leaving the ballpark. Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy was called in to chat with media around 9:15 p.m., according to the Washington Post. There was only one problem: Someone forgot to tell the fans at the ballpark until about 30 minutes later.

Oops!

Rain Delay Theater… on Twitter
During Friday night’s lengthy rain delay, Nationals TV play-by-play announcer Bob Carpenter answered questions on Twitter. Of course, I had to jump in with a weather-related question, but nothing hard-hitting about the Nats’ weather problems. On short notice, the best I question I could think of was: What’s your most memorable rain delay moment?
Yeah, I know. I could have done better. But to my surprise, Carpenter quickly answered with this witty gem:

Picturesque PNC Park

The week’s post can’t be all about the Nats, so to close, let’s go out the PNC Park where, rain or shine, it’s always postcard-perfect. The Pirates posted this photo on Twitter Thursday night to announce the team’s game with the Cardinals would be briefly delayed by rain.

And later, this:

Extra underwear can’t be comfortable

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Judging by the Tweet below, Pirates third base coach Rick Sofield has had it with the Pittsburgh weather.

Tonight, his club will host the Atlanta Braves at PNC Park were temperatures are forecasted to be around 59 at first pitch and fall to the low 50s by the time the Bucs wrap up a win over the last-place, manager-firing-for-no-good-reason Braves. There’s a small chance of precipitation during the game – very small – with a slight breeze blowing in from center field.

The weather looks a little better for Thursday night with temps in the low 60s for the Bucs/Braves series finale.

Is that a little more encouraging Rick?

Rangers storm from behind, soak Sox

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Heaving rain, strong winds and fierce lightning stormed through Arlington, Texas, Tuesday night, delaying the game between the Rangers and Chicago White Sox for an hour and 18 minutes.

The Rangers led the first-place White Sox 2-1 when the storm interrupted the game as the third inning was set to begin. In the below video from the Dallas Morning News, you can the grounds crew scurrying to stretch the tarp over the field as rain and wind blew throughout Globe Life Park and fans sought shelter.


As for the game, the White Sox put nine runs on the board over the third and fourth innings to take a 10-5 lead. With that score, you couldn’t blame the Rangers if they did a little rain dance in hopes of nixing the game altogether.

But the home team rallied with seven runs in the eighth inning, winning 13-11.

With the rain delay and tons of scoring, the game ended four hours and 40 minutes after the first pitch was tossed.

The two teams play a 1:05 p.m. local time matinee Wednesday with only a 15 percent chance of rain and game-time temperatures hovering around 84 degrees. Nice!

Elsewhere… heavy rain got the best of the Reds and Pirates Tuesday night. A make-up game has not been announced, and the Reds said there will not be a doubleheader on Wednesday or Thursday.

Icy Coors

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As the Colorado Rockies were preparing for their series finale with the Pittsburgh Pirates Thursday, a light snow was falling on Coors Field.

It was 38 degrees with more precipitation in the forecast. That’s not baseball weather. That’s winter.

As a result, the get-away-day matinee has been postponed. No makeup date has been announced.

It’s raining. It’s pouring. But Rain Delay Theater is never boring

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“Cecil in Brookeville, you’re on Rain Delay Theater.”

No answer.

“Cecil, are you there?” repeats the radio host.

With countless people listening in on terrestrial and satellite radios and online, the dead air is only interrupted by intermittent heavy breathing.

Finally, after a few more heaves, a voice cracks through.

“I’m sorry, guys.”

“Why are you out of breath?” the host politely questions.

Cecil is a longtime Pirates fan. On this rainy night at the ballpark, he takes the opportunity to call the show from his farm about 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, to chat with “Rain Delay Theater” host Dan Zangrilli and his co-host Kevin Orie as they wait for the weather to clear.

The reason for Cecil’s belabored breathing and delayed response?

“While Cecil was waiting on hold to talk to us about whatever it is with the Pirates, he had a little calf get lose and crawl underneath the fence,” Zangrilli says, laughing as he tells the story. “He’s running through the fields of Brookeville, trying to flag down a calf. And meanwhile, to his credit, he’s been able to keep the phone to his ear.”

It all happened on live radio.

“That’s why we call it ‘Rain Delay Theater,’ because sometimes it’s kind of a sideshow,” Zangrilli says.

 

Weather, particularly in the spring and early summer, has a tendency to wreak havoc on the Major League Baseball schedule. A spate of rain here or a crash of thunder there can delay a game long enough for a 10-minute trip to the concession stand or to suspend the game altogether, depending on Mother Nature’s mood. That’s when broadcasters like Zangrilli spring to the mic, filling airtime with off-the-cuff banter while waiting out the clouds or the grounds crew’s efforts to clean up the mess on the field.

When Zangrilli and I spoke over the phone this past summer, he and his cohorts had endured a pair of rain delays the previous night, and thus were called upon to pull “Rain Delay Theater” double duty.

It was a long night. For everyone. A downpour stopped the game for 28 minutes in the bottom of the fourth and then again — this time for an hour and 45 minutes — as the eighth inning began. To make matters worse for Zangrilli, the Pirates, and their fans, the hometown team eventually lost 2–0 to the Milwaukee Brewers.

At that point in the season, the Pirates stood in second place in the National League Central with a 31–25 record, and had yet to look like the 98-win force they’d eventually become. As such, Bucs fans had plenty to talk about. In a sense, maybe they needed these long delays — two call-in shows worth — to get some still-lingering questions off their chests. You’ve heard sports-radio shows before. Every caller, it so often seems, is a general manager in waiting.

During the first delay, one caller naively asks, “What would it take for us to get Johnny Cueto?”

Classic.

“Everyone has a solution,” says a chuckling Zangrilli, who admits he genuinely enjoys interacting with callers. “There are varying levels of baseball acumen across the spectrum.”

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Pete McCarthy echoes those thoughts. He anchors Mets pre-pregame and post-postgame shows on the team’s flagship station, WOR, hosting his own version of Rain Delay Theater when weather deigns to shuffle the players back into the clubhouse.

There are always four or five guys, McCarthy said back in June, that Mets fans always bring up.

“They’ll be callers who talk about a player and say, ‘We absolutely have to have this guy,’ and minutes later someone will call and say ‘no, he’s too expensive or he gets injured too often,” McCarthy quips. “There’s always something to be hashed out during a rain delay.”

In Pittsburgh, the show isn’t always about offering free advice to general manager Neal Huntington. Sometimes callers simply want to shoot the ish like they would with any other friend.

“We typically talk about the game or whatever news is going on that day,” Zangrilli says. “It’s more of a freestyle, free-standing type of format, because you have a lot of calls and you don’t know where the calls are going to go and what’s on the minds of the listeners. And you sort of let that dictate which direction the show is going to go.”

According to Jerry Schemmel, one half of the Colorado Rockies’ rain delay radio crew, the length of the hiatus will typically determine the show’s content. This season, the Rockies withstood more than 22 hours of weather delays at Coors Field.

“There was one weekend where we had four games, including a doubleheader on Saturday, and we had a rain delay in all four games,” Schemmel recalls. “The doubleheader had a total of four and half hours of rain delays. That was one very long weekend.”

That’s a lot of talking. So, what do Schemmel and broadcast partner Jack Corrigan talk about to make time fly by a bit faster?

“We seem to cover all kinds of different topics during rain delays,” Schemmel said. “It all depends on how the team is playing or what the situation weather-wise might be, as to what we talk about. Many times we will talk about the state of the team for a while and then go to pre-recorded shows. It all depends on the situation.”

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Photo: Denver Post

No matter the length of the stoppage, these hosts rarely worry about receiving enough calls to fill the air time. There are many, and they ring in from all over. In the case of Zangrilli, Pirates games are on 35 to 40 terrestrial radio stations through its flagship station, 93.7 The Fan.

“Once we’re on the Pirates network, we’re getting calls from West Virginia, Ohio, New York, Maryland and North Carolina,” he said.

And, with the advent of satellite radio and the popular MLB At Bat app, Bucs fans from all over the world can call to put their two cents in.

“When we talk into that microphone, people could be listening to us in outer space for all I know,” Zangrilli jokes. “We’ve gotten calls from a number of states and from people in other countries. It’s always fun to see where people are calling from, and the rain delay theater show is their opportunity.”

And a fading one at that. Indeed, radio baseball doesn’t curry near the cultural clout it once did, before the days when games became readily available in moving pictures and — later — on computers and phones. But for many, there remains a raw appeal to listening to the hometown announcers weave the play-by-play action, with colorful tales woven throughout the three-hour narrative as the crowd soothingly hums in the background.

Rain delay shows exist, primarily, to keep the audience tuned in. Still, show producers and broadcasters must provide their audiences a good reason to stick around when a storm rolls through. And for who knows how long. That can be quite the challenge — particularly in the summer, when there are so many entertainment options available.

In its own, off-the-wall ways, “Rain Delay Theater” answers the challenge by bridging the gap in the action and giving fans a chance, through simply listening or calling in, to feel more connected to the teams and players they love. While there’s never a shortage of callers or topics to keep the broadcast moving along, eventually — often hours later — everyone just wants to get on with the game already. The impatience becomes so palpable, in fact, that keeping on eye on the weather radar becomes part of the pastime.

“I like to play amateur meteorologist,” McCarthy says, just a few hours before a game in which there’s a 20 percent chance of rain. “I’m going to look at the Doppler, and I’m going to figure it out. I’m going to see which direction those things (storms) are moving, and I’m going to make my guess. But ultimately it doesn’t matter because … when I go on, I go on, and when I go off, I go off. It’s not my decision, but I do try to forecast it.”

Tracking radar normally gives the radio guys a good idea about when storms will move out, but there’s still work to be done — on the field and in the broadcast booth. It’s what Zangrilli calls the “second layer” of play stoppage: the field preparation.

“You don’t know how bad the field is and how much maintenance needs to be done to get the mound playable, to get the baselines and batter’s box in proper order,” he says. “After it rains, you could be looking at 15 to 45 minutes of prep to get the field ready again for guys to resume play, depending on how bad the storm was.”

With even more time to kill, thank goodness there are armchair GMs and dedicated fans willing to hold on through minor inconveniences, such as livestock barn breaks.

“Hello? Cecil? Are you with us?”