By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
Here’s a switch: Not having the sun in their eyes may have caused the Mud Hens to drop the ball.
An ancient rule of baseball, along with the laws of nature, are presenting a conflict for the proposed East Toledo riverfront ballpark. The planned positioning of the ballpark could leave fans and players staring straight into the sun.
The problem is simple. Team officials want fans to be able to admire the downtown skyline from their seats.
In fact, the site recommendation document presented to Lucas County commissioners this week pushes the skyline views: “A waterfront ballpark and sports complex will afford wonderful views of downtown Toledo skyline and the Maumee River.”
But where there’s skyline, there’s sun.
Rule 1.04 of the official rules of baseball, after outlining mundane topics like the slope of the pitcher’s mound and the distance from first to second base, has this to say:
“It is desirable that the line from home base through the pitcher’s plate to second base shall run east northeast.”
It’s not a requirement, but it’s a strong recommendation with the backing of common sense. If that line were to face, say, west southwest, batters would be looking straight into the setting sun for late afternoon and early evening games. That would mean that batters could have trouble seeing the ball being pitched to them.
Therein lies the rub. For Mud Hens fans to have a good view of the skyline and the river, that line would have to face west southwest.
That could cause squinting for players and fans.
“You’ve got to build it facing the right direction, that’s sure,” said Gene Cook, the team’s general manager. “That would be very difficult on a batter’s eyes. They could not put it facing the sun.”
He did cite one potential bonus of batters staring sunward: “If they did that, we’d have a lot of well-pitched games.”
Even without the problem of how to orient a potential East Toledo stadium, financing problems with the proposed site – on the former Toledo Edison Acme generating plant – may kill the plan. County and city officials say it will cost too much to demolish the plant to make way for the stadium.
Representatives of other teams in the Mud Hens’ International League expressed their concerns, including the safety of their players.
“It’s definitely not a normal thing to do,” said Mike Birling, assistant general manager of the Durham Bulls. “Anytime you have players look directly into the sun with balls moving that fast, there are obvious safety concerns.”
He said that the major league affiliates of some teams may have concerns about putting high-priced young players into a potentially unsafe situation.
At least one former major leaguer said facing the setting sun is a significant problem.
“I’ve never seen a field that was laid out like that in 36 years of baseball,” said Tommy John, a legendary Yankees pitcher who is remembered for his 288 wins and 46 shutouts and for lending his name to “Tommy John surgery,” a tendon-replacement operation that saved his career and since has saved dozens of others.
“Personally I don’t think it would help their team. There’s got to be maybe another solution to the problem,” said Mr. John, now a radio announcer and director of community relations for the Charlotte Knights of the International League.
Still, he said “you could probably put up with it. I know nowadays, it’s more important to have an aesthetically beautiful stadium than it is to have something in lines with the traditions of baseball.”
Ed Bergsmark, the chairman of the Mud Hens’ board of directors, said that the sun issue had been taken into consideration. But he said he did not know how it would be resolved.
“There’s been some studies,” he said. “There’s a way of positioning the ball diamond so it meets the rules and is acceptable to the players.”
He said the sun shouldn’t be a problem. But a stadium facing west, combined with the long summer nights, could mean sun in the eyes of batters for six or seven innings for early evening games, of which 47 are scheduled for the 1999 season.
International League officials said that the sun’s glare would be a factor when they decide if a stadium is appropriate for IL play.
“It would have to be something that is taken into consideration,” said Randy Mobley, the International League’s president. “If this were to arise as an issue, there is a possibility that potentially plans could not be approved.”
Mr. Mobley said that the league will examine stadium plans when “they become serious and viable.”
Similar problems exist at a handful of other minor league stadiums, such as the Louisville RiverBats’ park in Kentucky. But that stadium is primarily used for University of Louisville football, with baseball as a secondary use.
Mr. Cook said the site for a stadium would have to allow the sun problem to be avoided.
“The site has to be appropriate,” he said. “It has to be one you can set up in the correct manner, where they would have to meet the requirements of facing the right way.”
Mr. John did have one suggestion for how the Mud Hens might be able to keep their stadium’s proposed positioning.
“Maybe Toledo city council and the mayor could vote to put that area on Pacific Coast Time, so you could play the games before the sunset,” Mr. John said. “Or maybe Icelandic time. That might be easier to do than batting into the sun.”