This story has been updated.
We’re going to remember Thursday night’s Nationals vs. Braves game — not for shutout pitching or a game-winning RBI by Anthony Rendon, but for a three-hour rain delay that included everything but rain.
Fans at the park were annoyed, right up to the moment they left without seeing any baseball. Managers were blaming the meteorologists. Park officials were mopping up the damage on social media. Even the players were doling out the snark.
Nationals reporter Chelsea Janes, rightfully confused, filed this story at 2 a.m., after the Nats lost to the Braves (5-2):
At 8:19, the approach seemed imminent. The grounds crew pulled the tarp onto the field. If the rain had hit right then, which would have been about four or five innings into an average game, one could see the argument for waiting. Starting and stopping probably would have burned both team’s starting pitchers after four innings. Neither side would have been happy.
“We were told that bad weather was coming. The umpires, both sides, you don’t wanna waste pitchers,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “You hate to have the fans wait around as much as we hate to wait around, but we were told that there was a pretty severe storm coming. But the weatherman, as you know, has been wrong before.”
Nationals Park does have a “weatherman.” They are in a paid contract with Earth Networks, the Germantown, Md., company best known for WeatherBug (though they sold that consumer-facing product in 2016). Earth Networks’ forecasts include the likelihood of rain and its timing. For a 2015 story, the company’s chief meteorologist told us they also use the region’s “dense network” of weather stations to see whether the rain is actually heavy enough to be an issue.
We spoke with Anuj Agrawal, the company’s chief marketing officer, to get an idea of what they were seeing.
“Yesterday was a unique situation,” Agrawal said. “There was a storm that was pretty close and it dissipated as it got close to the park. When there’s a chance of severe weather, it’s always best to take the cautious approach.”
“You’re not always going to be right on it,” he added, “but making sure the fans and players are safe — that’s the ultimate goal of both organizations.”
The Capital Weather Gang was right there with the fans last night, scratching our heads and trying to piece together the logic. We noticed that around 6 p.m., the high-resolution HRRR model — which hasn’t performed well in situations like Thursday night’s — was showing substantial rain would move through shortly. But actual radar would not have supported that forecast.
As Agrawal alluded to, there was a storm in the region, though it was out near Manassas when the game started. If it held together, it could have reached the ballpark in the 8 p.m. hour.
Whether that is a good reason to delay the start of the game is a question left to the Nationals — not the meteorologists. Earth Networks gives the club the best weather information they have at the time but the decision is ultimately left to the officials.
Perhaps it was for “fan safety,” as the Twitter account @NatsParkService said at one point.
“Fan safety” usually refers to lightning, but there were no storms producing lightning in a 30-mile radius. The closest lightning strike at the time of the game was down in Fredericksburg, Va. So we’re unconvinced that would have delayed the game for three hours.
In reality it may have just been miscommunication. Baker’s statement — “we were told that bad weather was coming” — is probably the most telling piece of this story. Every meteorologist has had an experience where they were forecasting a 30 percent chance of rain and someone on the other end interpreted that to mean “rain is going to happen so you better get ready.”
Layer that on top of the fact that it’s not one person making the game decisions, but a gaggle of officials — some of which aren’t even at the ballpark.
“Our decisions on any weather-related issues are made in conjunction with Major League Baseball, opposing teams, umpires, and the players union,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said after the game. That’s a lot of people to come into agreement on scattered showers and a 30 percent chance of rain.
It’s a shame that fans and players were forced to wait three hours to play a game that could have been over by the time it started. And who knows — perhaps starting earlier in the night would have led to a different outcome for the Nats.