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Ballpark Directions – Beyond GPS

If I had talked about ballpark directions twenty-five years ago, the reader would have been thinking in terms of learning the route to the stadium.  The directions to the ballpark to which I refer here relate to the layout or orientation of stadiums with respect to points on the compass.  This is so important that a Major League rule (not always observed) addresses this issue.  Why is it important?  The answer may affect your choice of seats next time you attend a baseball game!

The effects of the sun, evident in this aerial view, can affect your ability to follow the baseball visually during day games. Image credit = Rob Potvin on unsplash.com

Shadows Cast Predictable Effects on Viewing

The sun in the sky at the start of early afternoon games is slightly south or southwest of being directly overhead with a short shadow cast toward the north-northeast.  For evening games, the sun sinks lower and lower in the west and at mid-season, the northwestern sky.  As this happens, shadows lengthen toward the east and southeast.  Most stadiums are oriented so that the batter standing at home plate faces north, northeast, or east.  That minimizes glare from the sun which when looking toward the pitcher’s mound.  This is especially important in the late weeks of the season when the afternoon sun is at a lower angle.  For fans, awareness of the stadium layout can help you predict whether your seat will be in the sun or the shade.  The effects of the sun will also affect your visual ability to follow the ball during the game.

There can be a lot of reasons why a given baseball stadium is laid out differently than the recommended direction.  For instance, as pointed out in this article, PNC Park Pittsburgh looks east-southeast probably to provide the best view of the downtown skyline.  The article also points out that, in stadiums with a typical orientation to the compass points, right field is the last area to receive the shade from the grandstand.  That’s where teams often place a more experienced or skilled outfielder.  Think of Bryce Harper of the Phillies or Mookie Betts with the Dodgers striving to meet fans’ high expectations along with battling the sun.

Especially if you are sensitive to the sun shining in your eyes or the heat of the sun beating down on your body, you can check out this Baseball Almanac page showing the compass orientations of the major league ballparks. As noted previously, most parks look toward the north, northeast, or east but I found one outlier. Comerica Field in Detroit looks toward the south-southeast when viewing from home plate!  It seems that the glare of the sun could be hazardous to batters during day games in the fall!  There is a hazy look that occurs with a lower sun angle, especially in the more humid or dusty conditions of late summer or fall.

Sun Angle Varies with the Calendar

The sun angle varies with the calendar date and is most directly overhead at mid-day during the month of June.  Similar months in which the sun is almost as high are the adjoining months of May and July.   April and August are similar, both having days that are notably shorter and the shadows somewhat longer than what June brings.   Though having similar sun angles, April and August feel starkly different for outdoor fans because April is usually a lot colder and August can be extremely humid.  September and October are unique, with the sun at lower angles similar to what February and March would produce.   The intensity of the sun is quickly weakening, and the lower sun angle can have significant effects.  To dive more deeply into details of shadowing effects based on your location and the calendar date, look here!

High humidity or even dust in the air wil enhance the glare produced by low sun angles. (Photo credit = David Marcu on unsplash.com)

The Bright Side of Sun Angles

Let’s look on the bright side of sun angles and consider this in a positive light for Midwestern sports fans.   The intensity and position of the early afternoon sun during March in Arizona and Florida is similar to that seen in May for Denver, Saint Louis or Cincinnati.  Average high temperatures, approaching 80 degrees, are often similar as well.  So if you weren’t able to escape to Florida for spring training action in March, you can enjoy similar conditions in the Midwest by just waiting a few more weeks until the middle or late part of May!

Three Lessons from Opening Week

2021 Season Off to a Good Start

History doesn’t always repeat in baseball, but it often rhymes.  There were three lessons from the opening week of the 2021 season that really should come as no surprise.  It seems we re-learn these lessons every season!

Playing in the Cold is Challenging

The first lesson from opening week:  Playing cold weather baseball is challenging!  Four opening day games on Thursday, April 1st were played in chilly conditions, with one game postponed a day due to threat of rain.  The first home run of the 2021 season was hit in Detroit during a snow shower and the player who hit it, unable to see where it landed, slid into second base when the ball bounced back onto the field after just clearing the fence. 

Challenging conditions in the cold and snow on Opening Day.

Open the Gates and People Will Come

The second of the three opening week lessons: Open the gates and people will come! Opening Day attendance averaged 93% of the allowed capacity across MLB.  No more than a few hundred fans (less than 5% of tickets sold) appear to have been kept away in the cities with chilly weather. With tickets so limited, there wasn’t much of a drop off for second game attendance, which averaged 94% of that on opening day.  These opening day numbers were between 10% and 40% of what we might usually see for the start of a season. The exception was in Texas where the Rangers sold unlimited tickets to their first game in their new Globe Life Field and reached 95% of capacity.  Another series of opening days is occurring this week, and most of these games are seeing warmer than normal weather. 

Early Results Don’t Predict the Outcome

The last of the three opening week lessons: It’s hazardous to draw conclusions from the past – either based on the early innings of a game or on the standings of the past season.  On opening day there were six comeback wins in 13 games, and two teams lost after holding comfortable leads in the 8th and 9th inning.  A lot of games were close, with a record of eight opening-day games decided by a single run. (The old record for one-run games on Opening Day was six in 1972.)  On the second day of the season, with only six games on the schedule, there were two more comeback wins, including another ninth inning rally.

Baseball players celebrating a dramatic victory.

Of the 11 Opening Day games involving playoff teams from 2020, only two of them finished the way that one would have expected based on last year’s standings.  In five games, a playoff team from 2020 lost to one of the teams that were left out of last season’s playoffs!   But in a broader application of lesson 1 above, three of those five playoff teams came back to win the opening series.

Mid-April Weather: More Like April and Less Like June

Because the calendar shows we’re approaching mid-April, it is not shocking to see weather more like April and less like June – in other words a reversal from warm days back to cool.  The past week saw a quick return of warmer than normal weather in the northern cities but that is now changing.   There is some threat of rain during a transition back to cooler weather.  Notice the wide area of the country in which below normal temperatures are favored for the second full week of April! 

Temperature Outlook for mid-April 2021
Most areas east of the Rockies will have cooler than normal temperatures during the middle of April according to this outlook from the Climate Prediction Center.

The highest chances for unsettled weather for the second full week of April will be along the East Coast and from the Gulf Coast states northwestward to Dallas and possibly Denver. Last April, the coldest days occurred right in the middle of the month (14th to 17th) in places like Cleveland and Pittsburgh when it was chilly enough for some wet snow.  That chilly spell lasted for about eight days — similar to the below normal temperature pattern that will spread east from the Plains states over this next week. 

Weather Outlook for Start to the 2021 MLB Season

Some Teams Have a Big Adjustment to Make

The weather outlook for the start to the 2021 MLB season shows that some major league teams have a big adjustment to make as they head north.  Baseball teams leave the frigid north in mid-February to train in pleasantly warm conditions and then sometimes flee the increasing early spring heat at the end of March to go north and play in….winter-like conditions!  I recently wrote about this cold spring trend and looked at the April weather in the Northeast US when no regular-season games were played in the spring of 2020.  There were several recent years when players and coaches alike probably wished they could have stayed in Florida or Arizona one more month. 

Wondering what you’ll need for your 2021 baseball adventures? Get this free checklist

For some that extended stay in the tropics is actually going to happen this season, not for any climatologically-inspired reason, but rather due to the pandemic.   The Toronto Blue Jays and opposing teams cannot easily cross the US-Canadian border so the Blue Jays will play their first several home series at their Florida spring training stadium.  Many minor-league players also get to escape any April chill by virtue of league-wide scheduling.  All the minor league teams that historically started in early April now have their seasons pushed back until the first week of May.  The majority of players for those teams will have spring training during April at the facilities about to be vacated by the major leaguers.

How Warm Has it Been?

The teams playing in Florida have enjoyed consistently warm weather.  Most of the month of March averaged close to normal at places like Fort Myers (home of the Twins and Red Sox) with about half the days reaching highs in the 70s and the other half in the low to middle 80s.  Then it became hot with highs in the upper 80s and lower 90s beginning on the 25th.  These temperatures are about ten degrees above normal and close to late March records. 

Map of Grapefruit League team locations in Florida.
This map shows the locations of the 15 Grapefruit League teams. Source = https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grapefruit_League

Teams such as the Yankees (hosting Blue Jays), the Tigers (hosting the Indians) and Phillies (welcoming the Braves) have been playing in the Florida heat but could have highs as cold as the upper 30s and 40s for the first game of the regular season along with plenty of clouds and chilly winds. The Reds, whose spring training home is in Arizona, did see stretches of cooler than normal March weather there (seven days in Phoenix failed to reach 70) but opening day in Cincinnati could be 25 degrees colder than the coolest day during the Cactus League schedule.   The East Coast and eastern Midwest may have some lingering showers on opening day, otherwise a generally dry pattern with a warming trend will cover much of the Nation during the first week of April.  If all opening games are played as scheduled this will be the first season since 1968 that every team opens the regular season on the same date! 

Some Teams Consigned to Stay up North

Having become acclimated to summerlike spring training weather, some teams are consigned by the schedule maker to stay up north for most of April.  Once the season starts, they don’t see much early action outside the northern tier of states.  For example, the Yankees have twenty of their 27 April games in cold-weather cities – either at home, in Cleveland, or Baltimore – interrupted only by games back in Florida during week two of the season.   Even more notable, Boston plays all twenty-five of its games in the first four weeks of the season either at home or in other northern cities such as New York, Minneapolis, or Baltimore before ending the month with two games in Texas.  These teams would really benefit from a milder and drier April pattern, avoiding a backlog of games to be made up during the warmer months of the year.

Trends into May – Baseball-Friendly Weather to the South and West

The general forecast trends for April into May are suggesting baseball-friendly (warmer than normal) weather for much of the Nation in the month of April (see the NOAA outlook map below).  That would mean lots of days in the upper 60s and 70s for cities like Kansas City, Chicago, and even Minneapolis. 

Mid-April 2021 temperature outlook map for the US.
This NOAA/NCEI temperature outlook for mid-April suggests there could be widespread temperatures more typical of May! Source = cpc.ncep.noaa.gov

Some more refined outlooks from private forecasters show that New England and the mid-Atlantic states have lower confidence on a lasting warmup and could even average cooler than normal overall for the month of April.  That would mean daytime highs frequently back in the 40s and 50s.  Combine that with some night games on the schedule and a potentially more showery pattern in the Northeast and it may not seem much like spring at times.  The month of May brings the higher chances of above normal rainfall in the Northeast and more likely near to below normal rainfall across the Midwest and Western states.

Five Questions to Answer for New Baseball Fans

What five questions would you answer for new baseball fans to understand the game quickly?  As the world re-opens from COVID many people may be looking for new experiences and activities.  It would be great if some of them became new baseball fans!  How would you explain the game to someone for whom it was a new experience? 

Baseball player with mask

A newcomer may not even know what questions to ask, so I’ve listed five questions which you could ask (and answer) for the new fan to help accelerate the learning process.  These provide insight into not only the basic rules but also some of the strategy employed by teams.

Question 1 – What is the Object of the Game? 

The team with the most runners safely rounding the bases and touching home plate (in nine innings worth of opportunities) wins the game.  One of the interesting facets of the game is that a team can have a lot more runners on base but end up losing because it is unable to advance them to score.  In that respect, baseball is like other sports.  Base runners in baseball could be analogous to shots on goal in hockey or first downs in football.  Other times, a team will have few runners on base but wins the game because it is efficient at getting them to score.  That’s why it’s a common defensive strategy to utilize intentional walks to avoid stronger batters and put more runners reach base if that makes it easier or more likely to get three outs before any runs score.

Here’s a fun Youtube video describing the basics of the game.  The explanations aren’t perfect, especially relating to some of the finer points of the rules.  For that reason, it might be most useful as entertainment for experienced fans and a source of perspective, helping generate ideas and insights for explaining the game on both an intuitive and deeper level.

For sheer efficiency in bringing a newcomer to basic understanding, this might make great reading the night before attending a ballgame for the first time.

Question 2 – Who is the Most Important Batter to Watch?

The answer to this question for new fans depends on the situation, both in terms of the pitcher and batter matchup and the portion of the game in which the teams are playing.  Some batters are skilled at hitting home runs so any time they come to the plate the chance of scoring is reasonably good.  Some batters do not possess much raw power but are skilled at putting shorter hits into play.  That hitter will have important opportunities when there are runners on base.  Runners who are on second or third base are running AWAY from the fielders as they try to reach home plate which provides a definite advantage.  It takes just seven seconds for a fast player to advance from second base to score.

Question 3 – What Makes a Batted Ball Fair or Foul?

On the infield, wherever the ball stops rolling or is first touched by a fielder determines whether it is fair or foul.  For this reason, a weakly hit ball or bunt may be allow to roll – even until it stops — if the fielders judge that it will go foul.  On the other hand, if the fielder can easily get the runner out he will quickly pick up that weakly hit ball and make the play.

A hit to the outfield is judged fair or foul based on where it first hits the ground.  It can LAND in fair territory and bounce INTO foul ground but it’s still a fair ball.  That makes for some interesting results!  It’s good to call attention to the dimensions and unique architecture of the outfield walls to get new fans thinking about what can happen as balls roll and bounce where fielders can’t reach them.  One consideration will be the special rules for balls that bounce into the stands or are touched by fans reaching over the wall.  It is definitely going to make fan interference much less likely while the first few rows of seats are kept empty during the pandemic.

Question 4- How do Teams Decide on Defensive Strategy?

Often the defensive team will strategize based on an assessment of how many runs will be needed to win the game.  If one team has a really good starting pitcher, the other team may take every risk to stop the other team from scoring more than one or two runs.  If the opposing pitcher is less daunting a team may be more patient in the field and will focus on preventing a large rally, taking the sure out at first base rather than risking a larger rally to try and stop every single runner from scoring.  When a runner is on third base with less than two outs, it can be a good teaching moment to point out how the fielders are aligned and what that says about the defensive strategy.

Another source of strategy comes into play for each individual batter. Analytics have provided a profile of each batter’s strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. Many teams will pitch to the batter and align their defense according to the statistical analysis in order to maximize the chance of retiring the batter (getting him out).

Question 5 – Why are the Hardest Hits Not Always the Most Valuable?

No matter how hard a ball is hit, the fielders may still be able to catch it.  Remember that the object of the game is to get runners to advance safely around the bases to touch home plate.  Whenever the ball is hit on the ground they have opportunity to advance while for balls in the air they must wait at least until it is caught.  The fielders are talented enough to get to most balls quickly, but a slowly hit ball on the infield can be surprisingly troublesome.  While the fielders are racing to get the ball, the swift runners can cover a lot of ground. 

Five Tips for Baseball Fans to Avoid Waiting in Line

Arrive at the Game Earlier (or Later)

Baseball fans can avoid waiting in line by taking advantage of the fact that stadium gates usually will open about ninety minutes before the start of the game.  A real motivator to arrive early is when the team is giving away a novelty or commemorative item because supplies may be limited to the first 10,000 or 15,000 fans.  Another reason for early arrival, especially for evening games, is to watch batting practice. A third reason, and my favorite, is to walk down memory lane.  That’s because many of the newer baseball stadiums have display areas that serve as museums of team history.  Fans can also avoid waiting in line by arriving late.  You won’t find lines to get in the gate but you may have a long walk to that gate from your parking spot, especially as stadiums return closer to full capacity as the pandemic is defeated.

Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

Attend Early in the Season (or in September)

Baseball fans can also avoid waiting in line by choosing less popular game dates.  This tip seems like a variation on the first rule, except rather than utilizing the clock, you will study the calendar!  Hot weather, summer vacations, and close division races bring out greater numbers of fans.  If you can bundle up against the early-season or late-season chill, attend on a school night, or after a team falls out of contention, you can have a fine ballpark experience without the crowds.  Fans should always expect that teams with newer stadiums will have scarce tickets as fans are eager to come see the new confines.  Be aware of promotions like post-game fireworks, ceremonies honoring past stars or fan appreciation nights which always draw big crowds.

Leverage Your Smartphone

Baseball fans can avoid waiting in line by putting their phones to good use.  Teams have made everything from tickets to concessions and merchandise available for purchase via the MLB Ballpark app, and this season that will be the only way to buy some ballpark items.  Even if you are not required to buy online, you’ll almost certainly need to pay electronically.  Most stadiums have become cashless environments due to COVID, so be ready to use a credit card or phone-based apps for transferring money. (Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash)

In my Back to Baseball 2021 course I will provide a guide to ordering food from the MLB Ballpark app.

Carry a Personal Supply of Snacks

Those fans who avoid waiting in line to this point may also not want to wait to eat.  Most venues will allow you to bring sealed bottled water and a small disposable snack bag into the game, but best to check your team’s rules beforehand.  Snacks (if permitted) in a transparent bag will allow for touchless security screening to make your access to the stadium quicker.  You can often find detailed rules about what you can bring on the team website under the ballpark security, or health and safety sections.  If carrying snacks into the game is impractical, and you don’t like the limited concession offerings during COVID, one good strategy for a pre-game or post-game feast is to bring a cooler full of favorite snacks that never leaves your car.   Then drinking plenty of water during the game should carry you through a three or even four-hour time frame.

Carry Hand Sanitizer in Your Pocket

Finally, baseball fans who avoid waiting in line to enter the stadium and to buy food may want one final tool on hand – something that you’re likely already using often.  Hand cleansing stations will be set up around every stadium, and I don’t anticipate long lines for this free hand sanitizer, but it could take a little time to get there from your seat.  There may be times when you will want clean hands without waiting for an inning to end or missing any of the action.

Get Your Tickets — Multiple Leagues Good for Midwestern Fans

What is a baseball fan to do with tickets being sold for only 20 to 30 percent of the seats in most Major League stadiums for the start of the 2021 season?  If you are patient, these ticket percentages are almost certain to rise as the pandemic recedes during the late spring and summer.  For those not wanting to wait until the heat of summer, you might look for tickets at a minor league or independent league baseball venue! 

Wondering what you’ll need for your 2021 baseball adventures? Get this free checklist

Let me Count the Ways

Such baseball opportunities are plentiful in the Midwest because of the presence of two levels of minor leagues and four independent leagues.   The Midwest region has teams from

  • High A Central (former Midwest League)
  • Triple A East (previous International League)
  • Frontier League (Eastern and southern Midwest)
  • American Association (Chicagoland and points west)
  • Northwoods League (Upper Midwest) and
  • Prospect League (along and east of the Mississippi River).

Adding up the teams residing in these various leagues and levels, the state with the most options is Illinois with 14 teams, followed by Wisconsin with 11.  Count bordering cities such as Fargo and Omaha and you find seven teams at hand for Minnesotans, and five teams available to both Iowa and Indiana.  Though most AA teams are found in the South and along the east Coast, there are AA teams on the fringes of the Midwest in southwest Missouri (Springfield) and eastern Ohio (Akron).

Midwest League Elevated

Better players will be playing in many locations as the former Midwest League has been elevated to a High-A league.  There will be a lot of players whose climb up the talent ladder takes them to the towns where they played in Low-A within the past year or two!

It was taken as bad news when the Midwest League (now High-A Central) shrank from 16 to 12 teams, but the four teams left on the outside (Clinton, IA,  Burlington, IA, Kane County, IL and Bowling Green, KY) are still alive and playing in 2021.  Bowling Green was shifted to the East division (formerly South-Atlantic League) of High-A baseball.  The two Iowa teams found spots in the now 16-team Prospect League and Kane County moves to the northern division of the American Association replacing the new top Twins affiliate St. Paul SaintsYes, the Prospect League and AAPB play shorter 60-game and 100-game seasons respectively, but their mid and late May starting dates are not much later than the revised starting dates of the High-A season that is delayed until the first week of May.

Closer to Home

One goal of the reorganization was to better align minor league teams geographically with their MLB parent teams.  How did the plan work out in this regard?  The Beloit, WI Snappers moved from affiliation with the Houston Astros to pair up with Kansas City.  Two of the teams left out of the reconfigured High A league were affiliated with NL West teams whose new teams are in the High-A West (in Oregon and Washington).  Those MLB teams also did well.

The ongoing trend toward new and renovated ballparks will continue.  Many of the ballparks even for lower minor league and independent teams are quite new with great amenities.  2020 renovation projects were more easily completed ahead of schedule when stadiums were emptied by COVID.  Teams (and their cities) that kept minor league affiliations will have deadlines to meet certain standards for stadium facilities in order to maintain those relationships with MLB teams.  A lot of these improvements are player-oriented, but fans will benefit as well. 

Need a good weather forecast for your baseball adventures? Here’s a free tool to help find weather like this!

Guide for 2021 Baseball Fans

Better Weather as Spring Unfolds  

May is typically quite a bit more pleasant than April over the northern parts of the US.  In recent years, this difference has been made more dramatic by a tendency for chillier than normal April weather and near to warmer than normal May weather.   This is one reason that there could be a great benefit from the fact that all of the minor league seasons have been moved back a month for 2021, starting five weeks after MLB with the minor league regular seasons extending through the first half of September. 

Some time ago, I looked at the cold weather that can plague the month of April from Ohio into New England.  Now let’s look at the spring weather for the west end of AAA East.  This area, too, has had a recent tendency for very chilly April weather (see chart below) and 2020 was no exception.  In the Twin Cities, seven days of that month had highs in the 40s, and three other days didn’t even surpass the 30s!  April 2020 was drier than normal in this region, but many recent Aprils have been wetter (and/or whiter) than normal. 

Four of the past seven Aprils have been significantly colder than the already-cool average of 43.2 degrees for the region that includes Minnesota and Iowa. (Source = https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cag/regional/ from NOAA/NCEI)

The month of May not only averages 12 degrees warmer than April in the Upper Midwest region but recent months of May have tended NOT to be chilly. In fact, many have been warmer than normal in Minnesota and Iowa.  In 2018, as an extreme case May averaged 27 degrees warmer regionwide than April which had record cold and a fair amount of snow.

Single Time Zone but Varying Weather for American Association Teams

The 12-team American Association of Professional Baseball (AAPB) on-field talent consists of former major league and former minor league players and undrafted college players.  As the map below shows, the six Northern Division teams include three in the Chicagoland metroplex, Milwaukee, Fargo, and Winnipeg.  The Southern division teams include four members along the I-29 corridor between Sioux Falls and Kansas City and two others from Texas.  The Saint Paul Saints (former league member) moved on to become the AAA team for the nearby Twins, so the American Association is now without a team along the Mississippi River. 

Locations of American Association teams for 2021. Their 100-game regular season is scheduled to run from mid-May until Labor Day weekend. The Northern Division consists of teams at the locations represented by the red dots, while Southern Division teams are represented by blue dots. Map source = https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Association_of_Professional_Baseball#Current_teams

Though the teams lie far apart geographically, the AAPB has the advantage of all teams being within the Central Time Zone.   My recent article about Northwoods League weather applies well to the northern division of the AAPB as it overlaps the geography of the Northwoods League.  Lengthy daylight hours are notable, as by late June Winnipeg has nearly 16 and a half hours of daylight (still twilight at 10PM) while the Railroaders team in Cleburne near Dallas-Fort Worth enjoys an hour less daylight in both the morning and evening.

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The southernmost locations of the league have a much warmer spring climate profile with an earlier severe weather season.  The map here shows that average May temperatures (at the start of the season) are some twenty degrees warmer for the Cleburne team in Texas as compared to the Fargo RedHawks home along the Minnesota – North Dakota border.  Severe weather tends to peak by the end of May for southern locations (Kansas City southward) and from late May into June from Omaha to Chicago.  The northern locations (Fargo and Winnipeg) sometimes see more of a mid-summer (July) peak in severe weather and thunderstorms.

May average high temperatures show a greater contrast from north to south than what we see in the summer months. This contrast can drive a fairly active severe weather pattern.(Map provided by The Weather Channel)

As summer progresses, the long days up north allow the temperatures to catch up with those in the southern states.  There remains a significant contrast in humidity levels as measured by the dewpoint between the northern and southern locations.  The chart below compares the monthly average dewpoint for Winnipeg, Sioux Falls, and Kansas City.

Humidity levels reach their peak in July and August and can often reach the oppressive category farther south while usually remaining comfortable at Winnipeg. (Data for this chart from https://www.timeanddate.com/weather/usa)

Many fail to realize that rainfall events on average become much less frequent and heavy going from late spring to the end of summer into early fall.   Average monthly rainfall at Sioux Falls is nearly 60% higher in May and June compared to the month of August.  At Winnipeg, late summer rainfall averages barely half of the May and early June amounts. For this reason the potential for rainouts is much lower during the second half of the season! 

Need a good weather forecast for your baseball adventures? Here’s a free tool to help find weather like this!

Three Helps to Savor the Long Days — Northwoods League Weather

Recently, I’ve been taking you on a tour of minor leagues that play in the northern parts of the Nation, with an eye on the types of weather seen in April and May.  I have demonstrated that AAA teams in the Northeast may well benefit from a delayed start to the baseball season  while Pacific Northwest weather patterns tend to be more favorable for six teams preparing for a longer season. These minor league teams are organized based on the MLB team that holds the rights to their professional players.  Other independent amateur leagues attract college players who desire further playing time at the completion of their spring seasons.  The collegiate summer league having the footprint that is farthest north, the 22-team Northwoods League, plays in towns across the Upper Midwest starting at the end of May.  The league is Wisconsin-focused with 10 teams based there and five teams playing in Minnesota. 

The Northwoods League was one of the earliest to release their 2021 schedule.  Because most of its teams were able to play a shortened schedule in 2020, operations have been less disrupted by the pandemic than affiliated ball.  All teams on the 2020 roster are back for this season and a new team for 2021, the St. Croix River Hounds, takes the field just across the Wisconsin border from Twin Cities Metro area.

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Longest Days Found Farther North

One unique aspect of Northwoods League play arises from the fact that summer days are LONGER the farther north one goes, and that difference is most dramatic during the weeks surrounding the summer solstice each June 21st.  By the third week of the regular season, the sunset time in some Northwoods League cities is after 9PM, meaning that many evening games will end before it’s fully dark outside.  At Bismarck, ND, home of the Larks, the latest June sunset time is 9:42PM!  While not great for postgame fireworks shows, the long days are friendly for those who have a bit of a drive home after the game.

Lake Breezes and Passing Storms

What weather conditions are we signing up for as fans of the Northwoods League in 2021?  The season overlays the warmest days of the summer, as it coincides with summer break for the college players who fill its rosters.  

One unique geographical feature is the nearness to the Great Lakes of nearly one-third of the teams.  This provides significant exposure to the potential for cooling onshore breezes during the late afternoons and evenings.  The lake breeze effect tends to be most substantial during the early part of summer when the cool lake temperatures still have the greatest contrast with the air temperature over the adjoining land.

Otherwise, the comfort level outdoors will vary based on cloud cover and humidity. There is the threat of thunderstorms throughout the season, though the most volatile weather is usually confined to the first half of the season.  Any storms tend to be more scattered and more slow-moving during late July and early August, and instances of severe weather become less numerous in most years after July 4th.  The tradeoff is that mid to late summer humidity tends to be much higher during July and early August – especially for the league’s southern outposts like Waterloo and Kokomo as maturing seasonal croplands maximize their water usage. 

Hard to find a good weather forecast for your baseball adventures? Use this free tool to find the weather you want!

Spring Weather Tour – Northwest League

In an earlier article, I looked at the benefits of “missing out” on chilly April weather (and in turn enjoying games into mild September) in the northeast United States for a 2021 baseball season delayed by pandemic realities.  I gave weather details from last year when there was no spring baseball — using the April 2020 weather pattern.  With the long-awaited release of schedules, and all except MLB, AAA, and college teams delaying the start of their seasons into May, it’s time to resume my “tour” of the minor leagues.  This time we’ll go to the other coast where the newly- elevated teams of the High-A Northwest League are set to play the season with five teams based in Washington and Oregon, and a sixth team based across the border in Vancouver, BC. I should note that these teams were formerly part of a short-season league that did not start play until June. That means they customarily have missed out on the spring weather.

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April Weather Variations

Last spring showed that April weather in the Northeast US can be downright wintery, but the Pacific Northwest enjoys a more temperate spring climate.  First, the average April temperature in Washington State is a couple degrees warmer than that of New York State.  Layered on top of this natural advantage has been a string of mild Aprils.  It has been a full ten years (back to 2011 as shown on the chart below) in which Washington State had a month of April that was more than one degree colder than the long-term average.  Remember, New York has had three such cold Aprils just since 2015! 

Graph of Washington State April departure from normal temperatures since 1895.
Yes, April can be cold in the Pacific Northwest, but it has not been dramatically so since 2011. Eight of the past nine Aprils have averaged within one degree of the long-term normal (chart from https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cag/statewide/time-series/).

The six teams of the Northwest League are in a very homogeneous geography compared to the 15 teams in the (former) International League.  April temperatures are seldom cold enough for snow at the lower elevations of the Pacific Northwest and April precipitation averages about 10% less in Washington State than in New York.

The Splendor of September

With games not starting until May, the 132-game class A season will stretch into at least the first half of September.  Similar to the differential seen in the Northeast US, September temperatures in Washington State average 12 degrees warmer than those of April.   By virtue of averaging a couple degrees cooler than New York in September, the Pacific Northwest would appear to retain a regional advantage at the back end of the season– less of a tendency for late-season heat waves compared to the Northeastern states.  This moderating influence was not fully realized in the past ten years.  In fact, during the past decade half the Septembers in Washington State were much warmer than normal.  The very warmest Septembers (for instance 2020) have brought highs of 95 to 100 in the first week of the month at places like Pasco, WA, home of the Tri-City Dust Devils.  It turns out that this may not have been too uncomfortable for evening baseball with the earlier sunsets of September.  Especially helpful is the low humidity of the region allowing most nights to cool into the 40s and 50s.  Early autumn weather is typically splendid in Washington and Oregon as normal rainfall in September is less than half of that seen in much of the Northeast US.  Shifting the baseball season back a month might be particularly appealing in this part of the country. 

Baseball Under Review – Where to Attend Games in 2021

In the pandemic season of 2020, it seemed that everything about the game was under review and subject to change – often on short notice.  To get safely through the 2020 season changes were made to the length of games (7-inning doubleheaders), the number and timing of off days, and game sites.

In 2021, we can be confident that many of us will be able to attend games in person for the first time since 2019!  But a lot has changed, and some “temporary” changes will be slow to unwind.  It may well require some creativity to return to baseball in 2021, so I encourage baseball fans who want to join in to think outside the box. 

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I appreciate the game so much that watching any game any time is enjoyable.  If your appreciation of the game is at a high level, then you need not be limited by the shortage of tickets when social distancing is in place during the 2021 season, even if – as I’m starting to hear is increasingly likely – the 2021 season is shorter than 162 games. 

Here’s a question as you contemplate getting back to baseball in 2021.  Will you drive farther to see a AAA game if tickets aren’t available to see your favorite MLB team?  Such devoted fans will be popular with teams hurting after a year of lost revenue and little chance of full stadiums in 2021.   If you could go anywhere to see AAA baseball in 2021, where might you find the best chance of success? 

As the starting point for considering the balance of supply and demand for tickets in spring of 2021, let’s look at AAA attendance from the most recently-played season.  Of the 27 AAA teams expected to maintain the same affiliation status as in 2019, five teams averaged less than 50% of capacity in 2019.  These were Salt Lake of the Pacific Coast League (PCL), and Buffalo, Syracuse, Norfolk, and Gwinnett of the International League (IL). Jacksonville, moving from AA to AAA for 2021, also averaged less than 50% of stadium capacity during the 2019 season. Part of the picture for the low percentages in Buffalo (with the 9th highest average attendance in AAA) and Salt Lake City (near the middle of the pack in AAA attendance) is that they have the largest stadiums in AAA.  If you’re near these cities, you might find it easier to get in to a socially-distanced game! 

On the opposite end, there were two teams in the PCL (Nashville and Las Vegas), and three teams of the IL (Charlotte, Columbus, and Lehigh Valley) which averaged more than 85% of capacity during the 2019 season. The new Twins AAA affiliate in Saint Paul drew remarkably well when operating as an independent league team, regularly selling out 7210-seat CHS Field.  Each of these teams have newer stadiums, (all opening since 2008), and four of the six had winning records.  It’s very possible these may be among the harder tickets to get in the restart of the minor leagues!  Where does your local team fit into this picture?  Below is the list of AAA affiliates and their average 2019 attendance compared to their listed stadium capacity.

Here is the ranking of AAA teams from lowest to highest percentage of average attendance capacity in 2019. I have not included Fresno and San Antonio (moving from AAA to other levels this season) and New Orleans (whose franchise moved to Wichita after 2019 and will now be at the AA level). 

  Another option for some fans would be to look at games in the lower levels of the minor leagues or even the independent leagues, many of which were able to play a shortened season in 2020.  These independent or non-affiliated leagues include the Northwoods League (which boasted the largest attendance of any US baseball league in 2020), the American Association, the Atlantic League, and the Pecos League.  Their schedules start later which combines with limited travel and player movement to give these leagues better opportunities to play full seasons in 2021.  The Appalachian League (southern mid-Atlantic region) is newly non-affiliated in 2021 and recently released a 54-game schedule (down from 68 games in previous seasons when it was a low-A league). 

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