Whenever inclement weather is in the forecast, John Turnour, the head groundskeeper for the Nationals, is on alert and on the hook. He is the man who monitors the weather for the Nats and is in constant communication with meteorologists, ballpark staff, umpires and front office management on the latest developments.
It’s the information he provides that serves as the basis for decisions upper management makes about whether to delay, postpone or play ball. This advice has profound consequences: player, ballpark staff and fan safety are at stake and money is on the line.
Given all that is involved, the job is stressful, but Turnour — who has held his current position for six years — has put a process in place that strives to ensure ballpark safety while playing games with as few interruptions as possible.
On inclement weather days, Turnour is glued to radar, Twitter weather feeds and the updates he gets through a paid contract with Earth Networks, the Germantown, Md., company best known for WeatherBug, the online and smartphone weather service.
“Any day we have a game and the weather is a concern, it becomes about 99.9 percent of my focus throughout that day,” Turnour said.
Turnour taps into Earth Networks’ Web-based forecasting command center, staffed by meteorologists 24-7, that provides tailored pre-game, game time and post-game forecasts for Nationals Park.
The forecasts provided by Earth Networks contain information on the likelihood of different weather hazards and, importantly, details on incoming rain and its timing.
“We’re getting the real-time rain rates, so we’re able to, with the dense network [of weather stations] around D.C., see the rain as it approaches and gauge generally if it’s … enough to create a problem that would do certain things to the field,” said Mark Hoekzema, Earth Networks’ chief meteorologist.
Turnour said when it comes to the condition of the field, this information on the rainfall intensity and duration is critical for making decisions. The Nationals can play through an extended period of very light rain or drizzle, but steady and/or heavy rain leads to delays or postponement.
“If they say, ‘John, you’re going to pick up a tenth of an inch over the next two hours,’ that’s a fair amount of rain,” Turnour said. “If they say we’re going to a get tenth over a 12-hour period, that’s not as much rain and we could more than likely play through that.”
Earth Networks provides the Nationals with access to its StreamerRT tool, which provides real-time weather information, including radar and explicit information about rainfall rates. Turnour invariably has StreamerRT up and running if there’s even the slightest chance of rain.
As the game draws near, Turnour typically leaves his computer terminal as he and his crew prep the field. He then relies on phone consultations with Earth Networks meteorologists for the latest information. If storms are in the area, those phone calls will increase in frequency to as close as 10 minutes apart, Turnour said.
He’s also watching his phone for any text and e-mail alerts that Earth Networks passes along to him and his team when severe weather is within a 20- and 10-mile radius of the park.
While ensuring player and fan safety is paramount, Turnour tries to avoid disrupting player rhythm and routines in the hour leading up to the first pitch. “That’s something I take to heart and something I take a lot of pride in. I don’t want to distract them [the players] from their mindset.”
“Our plan is to always go into each day knowing we’re going to play at 7:05 or 1:05 p.m. or whatever time that game is,” Turnour said. “That is our plan to always stay on schedule. Unfortunately, weather is very unpredictable and forecasts are forecasts. . . . At times it can be a very difficult situation to be in as far as making those decisions. . . . But the plan is always to play the game.”
Once the game begins, weather-related decision responsibilities shift to the umpires — who Turnour briefs before the game and, if necessary, during the game itself. “We can go out during the half-innings and relay messages,” Turnour said, if, for example, a thunderstorm is approaching.
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Wrong weather-related decisions are always a possibility, Turnour acknowledged, and they have consequences. Postponing games costs the team money, inconveniences fans and can create scheduling nightmares. But Turnour said his approach is to err on the side of caution. “If it’s severe weather, obviously the safety of our fans is our number one priority,” he said.
For extremely hazardous weather like lightning, large hail or high winds, Turnour said, the ballpark has an evacuation plan to protect fans. “If it’s a situation when we’re in a game and we have severe weather coming, the umpires will be informed as we get closer to that time frame,” he said. “As soon as we get closer to that severe weather, there’s a broadcast or a message going across the video board to alert fans severe weather is on the way. . . . Ultimately, once the umpires call for the rain tarp, we’ll evacuate all the stands.”
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Given all that is on the line with the weather, advising management is a pressure cooker, Turnour said. “You want to make sure that you’re taking that forecast you’re getting and interpreting that forecast and delivering that message accurately,” he said. “And be very honest with the forecast and the potential situations we could be in.”
Typically he just relays information about the weather conditions to upper management and doesn’t tell them what do, but once in a great while, he’ll express his view about the appropriate course of action. “It depends on how strongly I feel,” he said. “If it’s a no-brainer, and you’re able to look at the images on the radar and the forecast is calling for 100 percent of rain all evening and you can . . . feel pretty confident, that’s when I’ll make a recommendation.”
Similarly, Hoekzema said he and his team of meteorologists at Earth Networks, who provide weather services for the Major League Baseball front office and three other teams in addition to the Nationals, feel the heat in challenging forecast situations.
“I’ve personally had my stomach in a knot trying to figure out if the rain’s going to stop at a certain time because of a major televised game and things like that,” Hoekzema said. “I know my guys, they love baseball and they love forecasting weather and they take it all personally. They’ll be agonizing over the radar.”
But Turnour said he’d happily trade places with the forecasters. He doesn’t just have to talk about the weather, he has to do something about it. “At the end of the day, [the weather] is not fun to deal with. I’d much rather be on their [the meteorologists’] end, looking at it and just laughing on the other line . . .”