Archive for November, 2011

The Sun Field

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

This originally was posted on Redleg Nation on 11/3/2011

It’s apparent, now that the dust from the World Series has settled, and as with every big loss, fingers have begun to point towards incidents and players who can be seen as shouldering part of the blame of the losing side. For, though baseball is a team game, it’s also an individual game of small events that make up a larger event, an at bat or an inning. One such event that has already been recalled is the David Freese fly ball that sailed over right fielder Nelson Cruz’s head. As the ball bounced off the wall, it turned the tide of the series and the collective feel of the game took on an unreal, mystical quality of the theater of the absurd.

That’s what makes baseball special though; it is not a rote activity in practice, it doesn’t always turn out pretty pictures and tasty battle tales. At times it’s messy and imperfect and always has been. As for the gaffe in RF by Cruz, that in itself is an occurrence that shows up throughout the game’s history. In the World Series, however, it really stands out, and that’s how we get things like Snodgrass’s Muff. Or even the more obscure Max Flack muff in the 1918 World Series that has been mentioned in the past year as possibly being a “planned” event.

Due to that one play, we can rest assured that Nelson Cruz will be remembered less for his incredible power hitting this post season and more for his fade back to the fence to track down Freese’s drive in game six.

One thing we know for sure: he can’t say he lost the ball in the sun. The last World Series day game was Game 5 of the 1971 World Series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles, FORTY YEARS ago. *

* Actually 1970 was the last all day game series. 1971 was the first series to have a night game and 1972 was the last to have a weekday day game.

Newsflash: once upon a time the game was only played during the sunlight hours, which certainly isn’t the case today. Today the major league game is played in the evening the majority of the time. Last year, the Cubs led the game in daytime appearances with 73, the A’s played 63 (which is good because that place is 100 times better when the sun is out); the Reds played 58 day contests. Avoiding the day games as much as possible were the teams located in the warmer locales, with Texas appearing in an AL-low 48 daytime contests, Atlanta 46, Arizona 43, and the Marlins with a MLB-low 39 day games.

Thus, due to most teams playing up to 60% of their games at night, one never tends to hear much talk of the sun field these days.

The sun field, the sun field, the sun field… say that a bunch of times, it sounds weird, very agrarian; it’s an odd, old phrase, a term that is more dead than alive, and today it is more sandlot than pro. True, it’s just another piece of baseball jargon, derived from the game’s roots, it’s derivative from the design of the game, a design that burst from the fields and empty lots across the nation.

Google “sun field” and you’ll find that you need to add the word “baseball” to the search parameters to receive an inkling of the info I’m talking about. Most searches will usually lead the curious reader to this rule:

1.04 THE PLAYING FIELD. The field shall be laid out according to the instructions
below,

The infield shall be a 90-foot square. The outfield shall be the area between two foul lines formed by extending two sides of the square. The distance from home base to the nearest fence, stand or other obstruction on fair territory shall be 250 feet or more. A distance of 320 feet or more along the foul lines, and 400 feet or more to center field is preferable. The infield shall be graded so that the base lines and home plate are level. The pitcher’s plate shall be 10 inches above the level of home plate. The degree of slope from a point 6 inches in front of the pitcher’s plate to a point 6 feet toward home plate shall be 1 inch to 1 foot, and such degree of slope shall be uniform. The infield and outfield, including the boundary lines, are fair territory and all other area is foul territory.

It is desirable that the line from home base through the pitchers plate to second base shall run East-Northeast.

The last part is why most baseball diamonds have a sun field that is situated in right field and not a sun plate It’s also likely that this information is more apt to be known more by the old time fan than today’s baseball zealots, and it’s not because of some diminishing grasp of the game by today’s over-saturated sports fan. It’s more a result of the growing number of night games and the association to the professional game as being a game played in the evening, under the lights. It’s things like this that make terms like The Sun Field seem archaic and dated, just like rotary and home line sound old fashion when talking of communication in the 21st century.

Thus, we are probably due a refresher: the sun field is the outfield position that bears the brunt of the afternoon sun. Most stadiums/parks/diamonds have learned (and been dictated to by leagues) over the years to lay their parks out in the aforementioned manner to keep the sun out of the batters eyes, which (in reverse) places it in the eye line of one of the fielders.

As stated in the description of how a field should be designed:

It is desirable that the line from home base through the pitchers plate to second base shall run East-Northeast.

Crosley Field is a great example of this (Thanks to Clem’s Baseball), as the afternoon sun would be in the right fielder’s eyes.

Of course in 1889 the rule just said this:

The Grounds must be an enclosed field, sufficient in size to enable each player to play in his position as required by these rules.

Nothing said about direction or placement of the field.

But then again, the day game was a different beast back before lights. Day games didn’t start at 12:00 or even 1:00, they were later in the afternoon in hopes of getting the first-shift worker in the park, and in those days the length of the games were not as much as an issue as they are today. Often, a game could start at 3:30 (standard starting time 100 years ago) or later, in the case of the New York Giants, who postponed their starts until 4:00 so they could cater to the Wall Street brokers

Therefore, as the day waned and the sun set towards the horizon, it was the right fielder who bore the brunt of the ball of fire in the sky and because of that (and the long throw to third), we find that, often throughout the games history, the superior fielder is located in RF. Before Powell Crosley dragged the game (kicking and screaming) into night baseball, the sun factor was likely something that played into who would play where, as evidenced by this Ted Williams quote:

“I had been moved to left field because it was easier to play—right field in Boston is a bitch, the sun field, and few play it well.”

Ted Williams

Just ask Max Flack; his muff occurred in Fenway Park in 1918.

Of all the stadiums (parks) that have been in the Major Leagues since the early 20th century (and I have a count of 70 from Clem’s baseball site), the following stadiums that have hosted MLB games do NOT follow the standard East-Northeast layout

Olympic Stadium (N)
Jack Murphy Stadium
Memorial Stadium
Candlestick Park
Progressive Field
PETCO Park
Coors Field
Citizens Bank Park
Chase Field

Many of the above are extreme North in their layouts

The only parks to lay out in a completely different manner are the following parks, which are all West-Northwest in their layout. Oddly enough, three are located in Canada and the other is domed in one of the hottest cities in the USA.

Jarry Park (NW)
Exhibition Stadium
Rogers Centre
Minute Maid Park

It may be a dying term but 100 years ago there was finally some technology that was taking on the sun and the pain it caused those in the field. It is not odd at all that the man who invented the flip down glasses was a baseball man, and it’s no surprise that one of the first to try the “smoked glasses” was the right fielder for the 1914 Cincinnati Reds, Herb Moran, as displayed in this photo from Baseball Magazine:

Herb Moran, right fielder of the Cincinnati Reds, is playing the sun fields around the National League circuit with a pair of patented glasses. Invented by Fred Clarke*, manager of the Pirates. Moran claims they are a great improvement over the old style.

So the next time a player loses the ball in the sun in one of the few day games we see today, remember that he’s experiencing one of the natural obstacles that the game used to have to deal with every day, just like it had to deal with wool uniforms, long train rides, no air conditioning, and the reserve cause. Sure the game is the same, but there are a lot of things that are different.

* Clarke created and held patents for flip-down sunglasses, sliding pads, an additional rubber strip placed in front of the official pitching rubber to help pitchers from sliding when they pivoted, a small equipment bag, and an early mechanical way of handling the tarpaulin.