Rain really is a four-letter word for baseball teams, no matter the league or level.
Whereas soccer and football almost thrive playing in the rain, baseball has no problem calling off or delaying games. Rain can impede players’ vision and grips on the ball, cause injury due to slippery surfaces, and generally compromise the integrity of the game.
This article is not about the actual rules regarding rain delay and postponement procedures, which can be found here, here, and here, or about debating your local team’s policies. This is about the havoc and chaos the threat of rain and actual rain causes for a MiLB franchise. As you can imagine, months of hard work throughout the entire organization could all be for naught if the situation is not handled properly.
In this article, I will take you through a day in the life of a MiLB team for whom a rainout seems possible. Let’s assume the game is scheduled to start at 7:05 pm. It has not been raining the last few days, but rain has been in the forecast for the night. This is not light rain or a drizzle, but hard rain that merits an umbrella and raincoat. The type of rain that changes people’s plans.
I can’t speak for all MiLB GMs, but I can confidently say that most didn’t study meteorology or weather maps in college. That said, many of us have become weather map experts out of necessity.
When the forecast calls for rain on gameday, a GM will typically be glued to the weather map. If it is pouring with no sign of letting up, it might make sense to cancel the game right away in the early afternoon, long before teams, umpires and — most importantly — fans arrive at the ballpark. The earlier a game gets cancelled, the better.
Once cancelled, the box office needs to stay open until game time in case fans arrive, and to communicate with fans on how to use their tickets for other games.
It is sad to see fans arrive from a long trip only to be told their game is cancelled. The earlier that message is out, the better. There will always be a few fans who show up because they aren’t on Twitter or don’t listen to radio. When they arrive, a friendly ticket manager might give a hat to the kids, and over-deliver to make up for the bad experience.
If the game is not cancelled by this point, you are glued to your head groundskeeper to make sure the tarp is put on the field, and that they know what the next 30 minutes look like at all times.
Suites/Groups/Game Night Sponsors
Teams work hard in the offseason to sell groups and suites, so if the game is cancelled early, to NOT deliver stings. Unlike the majority of fans, these companies have been planning this for months. They may have ordered a company bus, beer vouchers, and even closed the office the next morning. Essentially, they use a lot of resources for their trip to the ballpark.
A company whose game gets rained out can pick their next date based on availability, but the next time they have an internal meeting to discuss their summer company function, they will be leery of picking something outdoors where poor weather could ruin things.
Teams, then, actually want the game to go on for groups’ sakes, so they can make it to the park and enjoy the experience. While sitting in a light drizzle isn’t the most comfortable or ‘summer’ thing to do, some fans don’t care, embrace the novelty, and stay throughout the rain.
Game Night Sponsors are also tough because they want the game to go on with the most optimal crowd, and rain ruins that. Not to mention, part of the decision to cancel a game hinges on whether or not there is a gate giveaway planned, especially a popular one.
(Obviously, there is no rationale to play if players’ safety is at risk. We are talking about a steady rainfall here.)
We once had a rainout on a July 4th Fireworks show sponsored by a local union that was bussing in 750 of their members from all over the state. It was an awful conversation because they had to eat the cost of the buses, and we re-scheduled for another date.
Thankfully, they understood, and we gave them additional radio spots for their trouble. If not handled correctly, though, an incident like this one could have damaged a long-term partnership.
It is not always actual rain that scares fans away. Simply seeing rain in the weather forecast can have the same negative effect. The sociologist that discovers at what time during the day fans make a decision to buy single-game tickets or not due to rain will make a lot of money.
For example, does the family of four that has tickets for the 7:05 pm game hear the forecast and cancel at 1:30 pm because they don’t want to risk having the kids getting wet and cold?
If the decision to postpone the game has not been made by mid-afternoon, the team has to consider going through with the game. The message that is communicated throughout the stadium and to media is that the game will begin on time.
Simplified Game Presentation
At this stage, the gameday team has tried to simplify the game presentation as much as possible. That means planning for a game to be four and a half innings — the minimum amount a game has to be played in order for it to be official.
This includes limiting the between-inning promotions to ones that are most expensive and least interactive, and leaving time for the PA announcer to make announcements about game times. During a rainy game you will rarely see a Kiss Cam, a car drive around a wet and soggy warning track, or a cannon shooting prizes into less-than-full stands.
You also aren’t likely to see promotions that involve a lot of people. Staff have to be on call to help the groundscrew pour field product to keep the infield dry, or to pull tarp should the umps postpone the game.
More Than One Game Is Ruined
Cancelling a game not only ruins THAT game, but also another game by having to play a doubleheader. To make matters worse, the timing of that other game is not at a team’s discretion. It has to be the next available time when those two teams play in that city.
Often that means the very next day. Nobody will ever say this on the record, but if a team has a key giveaway, a big crowd expected, or a fireworks night on the next day, they are unlikely to be in favor of cancelling the game and ruining another big game.
We once had a rainout and the next available date for a makeup was a night when we had bookd the San Diego Chicken. Instead of a 7:05 pm start for a historic entertainer, we had a doubleheader that began at 5:30 pm. The Chicken came out for Game 2, which started too late for most kids to wait around and see the famous mascot work his magic.
It must have been the shortest post-game autograph session of the Chicken’s career, as the second game ended at midnight. We also had to change a lot of media and messaging for that game, as we had spent a lot of time and money promoting the original date and time.
By this point, the teams have arrived and the coaching staffs have been made aware of the weather patterns. Short-term, that means it might take a pitcher longer then usual to get warmed up, but long-term it could mean planning out their bullpen to not waste arms, or planning to load arms for the doubleheader the next day.
It is now too late to cancel any box office or concession staff to cut costs. The team is in the deep end and committed to starting the game on time.
Neither team takes batting practice, but players work out lightly in the outfield doing long toss and stretching.
All fans calling in have been told the game is going on. Sadly, because of the threat of rain, the team has likely not sold many tickets. They are only assuring fans who have already bought tickets that their game will be played.
Per league rules, once umpires take the field in uniform, it is their decision to call the game, postpone it, or play it out. Effectively, the game is in their hands.
Umpires are former players concerned about the game itself, not the business side. (I will re-iterate, we are not talking about field conditions that put players in danger. We are talking about the grey area.) In my experience, minor league umpires will take these opportunities to leverage their powers to seem more important then they are.
Knowing this, we once had brutal rain the morning of an important game we needed to win to stay alive in the playoff race, and we had a sold-out crowd the next day. A doubleheader the next day with a different game time on 15 hours’ notice would have been awful for us both on and off the field.
Despite my boss telling me otherwise, I called the umpires in the morning to tell them the field was in good shape, we were prepared for upcoming weather, and that we REALLY needed this game to start on time.
The umpires were sympathetic and told me repeatedly they would make the best call for the players only, and not factor anything else in their decision. When they got to the ballpark, they walked the field, saw it was in decent shape, and treated it like a normal game.
The game ended up being called in the bottom of the 6th with us in the lead, and as the umpires left the stadium we glanced at each other, giving a subtle nod of the head as we wished each other a good night.
Most former MiLB GMs will say they miss the people, the game days, and the fun involved with being in a baseball stadium every day. ALL of them will tell you they miss pulling tarp.
This might seem odd — pulling tarp ruins clothing, makes offices smell like damp clothes and shoes, ruins meetings, is a difficult workout, and enhances your vocabulary with salty words. But there is something unifying and urgent about everybody literally pulling together to make sure their prized possession is looked after properly.
Many business and leadership books could learn a lot from the teamwork involved in a team tarp pull. I am not kidding.
When rain is in the forecast, fans are less likely to buy tickets, which decreases team revenue through attendance, merchandise, food, and parking. It’s a stressful situation for a MiLB team, whether the game goes ahead or is postponsed.
At the risk of sounding like a fortune cookie, though, I will say this: Money comes and goes, but the gift of fans having a great time in your ballpark lasts forever. It brings this writer to tears just thinking about it.
Lead Photo © Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports