Warming could be bad for ballplayers, but good for home runs

Tomorrow's Major League Baseball All-Star Game may provide some needed distraction for many fans across the country affected by the wildfires, heat, flooding and weather-related outages that have characterized the last couple of weeks.

But could America's pastime also be feeling the effects of a changing climate that makes inclement weather more common? And what might baseball do to respond to those changes?

Amanda Staudt, a senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation, said baseball could feel the effects of climate change in "ways large and small."

"It's possible a stadium could sustain significant damage from rising waters or from a major storm," she said.

More mundane effects of warming could also create a nuisance. Warmer winters have been linked to out-of-control insect populations, and some of those pests have occasionally had the itch to see a baseball game.


In May, a swarm of bees briefly interrupted an Arizona-Colorado game in Denver. Flying ants, bees and other unwelcome visitors have attended games in Cleveland, Detroit and elsewhere, in some cases disrupting the action and affecting the score.

Even without the bugs, Staudt pointed out, sitting outdoors in the heat can be unpleasant. "With more and more days topping 90 degrees Fahrenheit, extreme heat will mean more health risks for players and fewer people in the stands," she said.

That reality was brought home late last month, when the Washington Nationals' star pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, was pulled from a game in Atlanta after three innings, suffering from severe dehydration. The game-time temperature was 104 degrees -- the highest ever for a Nats game.

It is clear that teams around the country are responding to heat-related risk already, whether they talk about climate change or not. The Houston Astros, who played for years in the climate-controlled Astrodome, have a rule that the retractable roof on their new stadium must be closed -- rain or shine -- whenever the temperature tops 85 degrees. It hasn't been open since the beginning of May. Miller Park in Milwaukee, which lacks air conditioning, must have its retractable roof open on hot days even if it is raining to allow heat to escape.

Chicago, Atlanta and Arlington, Texas, are home to ballparks with no retractable roofs, but the Cubs, Braves and Rangers say they have taken steps to make sure their players and fans are comfortable. For Chicago's Wrigley Field, which by tradition hosts more day games than any other major league ballpark, that means complimentary water, cooling stations and misters for its guests.

The team also keeps medical personnel on hand in case a fan experiences a heat-related emergency, said spokesman Jason Carr.

Carr said that the Cubs have played two games where the temperature hit 104 degrees, which is the record for Wrigley Field. The games occurred in 1953 and 1995.

But what about the players? Do they run the risk of serious health impacts from playing for hours in the oppressive heat?

Possibly, said Steve Marshall, interim director at the University of North Carolina's Injury Prevention Research Center. "In the worst-case scenario, if you go into the red zone for too long, you cook your body," Marshall said in an interview.

But professional sports teams that play outdoors -- be they in MLB or the National Football League -- have protections in place to ensure that their high-profile players don't bake, Marshall said.

"The pros have a lot of clinicians standing around who should be really well versed and able to step in," he said.

The bigger problem, Marshall said, is a lack of protections for college and especially high-school athletes, who are often forced to play in the heat by coaches who don't have the expertise to keep them safe.

Amateur athletes also generally play in open-air stadiums that are vulnerable to lightning strikes and sudden storms.

Marshall pointed to a study conducted in 2007, which showed that less than 10 percent of high school coaches check a heat and humidity index before deciding whether or not to hold practice. But playing in hot and humid conditions can cause heat stroke, exhaustion and milder conditions like heat cramp, he said.

"I think our level of concern is rising as climate change becomes more and more extreme," he said.

Physicians have not yet seen a measurable uptick in athletes seeking medical attention for heat-related illness, but that could change, said Marshall. Adaptations are possible, he said. Practice can be scheduled at cooler times during the day, and high school teams can hire medical professionals to make decisions about student athletes' health.

"What scares us is that people won't make those adjustments," he said.

But while heat and humidity may be bad for the fan in the bleachers or the pitcher on the mound, they are good for making baseballs fly farther.

Alan Nathan, a professor emeritus in the physics department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, explained that warm air is less dense and provides less resistance than cooler air.

"Temperature really does matter, and I think ballplayers know it," he said.

Nathan did an analysis of 8,800 home runs hit during the 2009 and 2010 seasons, taking into account factors such as the force of the hit and the speed and angle at which the ball left the bat. He concluded that fewer home runs would have been hit in those years if the temperatures had been significantly lower.

Balls fly farther through humid air than dry air, as well, he said, because water molecules are less dense than air molecules.

But if it is actually raining, he said, "All bets are off." The downward pressure from rain may slow a ball's trajectory.

Nathan said his analysis doesn't prove that climate change will be a major boon to home run totals in the future (in fact, they have gone down in recent years, as fewer players appear to be taking performance-enhancing drugs).

"If the average temperature increased by 1 degree, that would increase the number of home runs by six-tenths of a percent," he said. "That's such an insignificant number."

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