During a night when every Major League Baseball team is in action, odds are that lightning activity is unsafely close to at least one of its stadiums, a recent study found.
Lightning safety “is something I’m really passionate about,” said Vagasky, who works in Colorado for Vaisala, a weather-measurements company that operates the U.S. National Lightning Detection Network.
Vagasky said he has often watched a televised game showing lightning crackling in the background while meteorologists light up Twitter questioning why play hasn’t been stopped. It happened Wednesday night when dangerous storms approached Target Field in downtown Minneapolis as the Minnesota Twins faced the visiting Houston Astros; the game was ultimately suspended but well after some meteorologists felt it was wise.
To assess the threat of lightning at MLB venues, Vagasky examined data from Vaisala’s lightning network and cross-referenced that with MLB games played between 2016 and 2019. The results shocked him. “I was not expecting as many games to have lightning nearby.”
During those nearly 10,000 games, 717 were played when lightning was within eight miles (12.8 kilometers) of the stadium, with more than 175,000 in-cloud and cloud-to-ground discharges detected. In other words, lightning was perilously close in 1 out of every 14 games played.
Vagasky analyzed strikes within 8 miles because that’s when the National Weather Service recommends a delay for any outdoor event.
The study showed that lightning is not spread evenly through the calendar or country.
During a typical season, activity rises in frequency through August, when nearly 11 percent of games are affected, then drops dramatically in September. As could be expected, the two Florida venues led the league in games with lightning nearby: LoanDepot Park in Miami (80) and Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg (78); thankfully, neither is fully outdoors. Meanwhile, California’s five stadiums had the lowest frequency, missing out on a lightning no-hitter by just two games.
One of the most dramatic nights of lightning wasn’t recorded in Vagasky’s sample but demonstrates just how intense activity can be. It happened July 23, 2020, when the Washington Nationals hosted the New York Yankees in the opener to the covid-truncated season. During a 34-minute span, Vaisala’s lightning network detected 2,993 in-cloud pulses and cloud-to-ground strokes, with bolts coming as close as 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) before play was stopped because of rain.
In the seasons under study, there were 28 lightning games at Nationals Park while Baltimore’s Orioles Park at Camden Yards had 26.
In the history of MLB, there has been only one recorded instance of an on-field lightning strike, and it was more than a century ago.
On Aug. 24, 1919, Cleveland pitcher Ray Caldwell was hit by a bolt as he prepared to face what he hoped would be the final batter in a win over visiting Philadelphia. He was knocked flat. As teammates rushed to his aid, their legs nearly gave out from numbness brought on by the current entering their bodies as their spikes touched the ground.
Miraculously, Caldwell wasn’t killed. In fact, he shook off what he later compared to getting whacked on the head with a board, then retired the Athletics’ Joe Dugan to complete the 2-to-1 victory.
Vagasky’s research found that the open-air stadium with the most lightning activity is the one nearest to him: Coors Field in Denver. The home of the Colorado Rockies went through 50 games with nearby lightning over those four seasons. That’s why Vagasky was pleased to see signs in the stadium pointing patrons toward severe weather shelters at a recent game.
The safest place in a stadium to wait out a storm, Vagasky said, is inside. A covered concourse is good; even better are the VIP clubs. The worst places are exposed areas, such as the overhang from an upper deck or — listen up, players and coaches — the dugouts.
The Rockies participate in the Weather Service’s StormReady program, which promotes lightning safety through the preparation, monitoring and execution of emergency plans. Only seven teams are considered StormReady Supporters; it is not an MLB requirement.
The Cincinnati Reds are another StormReady club — necessary, as the Great American ballpark averaged nearly 10 lightning games a season, the second highest among open stadiums.
“Weather information gathering, actual observation and planning have become a part of our daily routine,” said Tim O’Connell, the team’s senior vice president of facilities and operations.
Great American ballpark also is home to a method of lightning safety that is unorthodox; Vagasky and others have called it unsound. In 2019, the Reds installed an alleged lightning-suppression system from a supplier called EMP Solutions that purports to balance the electric field between clouds and ground.
According to data collected by Vagasky, it doesn’t work.
“At the very best, these prevention/suppression devices can act as a lightning rod, if they are grounded properly,” said Vagasky, adding that Coors Field also has such a system. “But they definitely aren’t preventing or suppressing lightning nearby. These provide a false sense of security.”
How can ballpark lightning safety meaningfully improve? Vagasky’s study suggests teams should exercise their authority to stop a game due to bad weather, intervening when umpires do not act quickly enough.
While many teams employ meteorologists available for advice, weather-related decisions often fall to umpires once a game begins, and they may not always have access to the latest storm information. In “numerous high-profile lightning events,” such as the July 23, 2020 game at Nationals Park, delays were not implemented until lightning was dangerously close, the study indicated.
The MLB rule book was amended in 2019 to allow teams to suspend a game midcourse provided they a file a plan with the league office, but the study said it’s “unclear” how many teams have done this.
“Lightning safety at MLB games could be significantly increased if teams filed lightning safety policies,” the study concludes.
Jason Samenow contributed to this report.