If the roof is open at Safeco Field, shadows could play big part in today’s game
By KIRBY ARNOLD
SEATTLE — The Chicago White Sox flew into town, their pitching staff torn, their once-powerful offense tattered and their season down to one game.
Then they saw the sun shining Thursday at Safeco Field.
Oh, the horror.
If there’s anything the hitting-happy White Sox would like to see today when they play the Seattle Mariners in Game 3 of the American League Division Series, it’s a canopy of clouds or the Safeco Field roof extended overhead.
Heck, some Mariners wouldn’t mind it, either.
Anything but a bright, blue sky.
"They told me the sun doesn’t come out in Seattle," Sox manager Jerry Manuel said Thursday before his team took batting practice. "If it’s out today, it won’t be out tomorrow, right?"
Wrong, Jerry. The forecast is for a beautiful day.
Oh, the dismay.
When the sun comes out, so does the infamous Safeco Shadow. It’s the most damned element of the new ballpark since the latte machine broke down one day.
When the sky is clear and the roof pulled back, a shadow creeps across the field as the sun sets behind home plate.
At batting practice Thursday, players on both teams got a good squint at how it might affect today’s game. At 1:07 p.m. (today’s starting time) the shadow covered all of the first-base foul territory, with the batter’s box barely in the shade and the pitcher’s mound in the sun.
For the next hour, as the sun tracked toward the west, the shadow didn’t move. But at about 2:30, it started creeping toward the mound. By 3 p.m., it covered half the infield, including the mound and home plate.
Pitchers, of course, love it.
"It all depends on the location of the pitches," said Aaron Sele, today’s starter for the Mariners. "We played a series here with Oakland and a couple of them were day games and we had a lot of shadows. It didn’t seem to bother anybody either way."
Hitters tell a different story.
Their livelihood depends on how they see the baseball out of the pitcher’s hand. They must get a good look at the rotation in order to gauge whether it’s a fastball, changeup, sinker, slider or curve. Without that, they’re just guessing.
"It’s definitely a factor," Mariners first baseman John Olerud said. "When the pitcher is completely in the shade and the hitting background is in the sun, it’s extremely tough to see the ball. The ball is dark and the background is so bright."
The hitting background, a dull green wall behind the center field fence, helps batters get a clear view of the ball. It was a problem last year at Safeco because the sunlight created a glare that made the wall seem bright green.
The Mariners redesigned the wall last winter by tilting it toward the ground (to direct the light downward), giving it a rough stucco-like finish and painting it a darker shade of green.
The hitters seemed to like the changes, although nothing was as good as a cloudy day or a game with the roof pulled overhead.
"It would certainly make it easier to pick up the ball," Olerud said. "The shadow makes it difficult to pick up the spin on an off-speed pitch. I think shadows definitely play a part."
There had been fear that the roof would be closed for the games today and Saturday regardless of the weather. Playoff games in Toronto in the early 1990s were played with the SkyDome roof closed despite nice weather.
"That (Toronto) was different because it was a completely enclosed stadium," said Mariners president Chuck Armstrong, who decides whether the roof should stay open or roll overhead. Unlike Skydome in Toronto, Safeco Field is a open on the sides even when the roof is extended.
If today’s weather is as nice as Thursday’s, Armstrong said the roof will remain open.
Major league baseball officials often have the final say in postseason games, but Armstrong hasn’t been told the decision will be made by anybody but himself.
"Nobody’s told me anything," he said. "Paul Beeston (major league baseball’s chief operating officer) told me to keep doing what we’re doing."
On Thursday, they practiced with the sun shining in.
The conditions were similar to Wednesday in Chicago, when a late-game shadow crawled across the infield and played a part, according to Olerud, in the Mariners’ 5-2 victory.
Mariners pitchers struck out the final five White Sox hitters, and closer Kazuhiro Sasaki had them fooled badly in the ninth inning.
"Kaz was throwing great," Olerud said. "But I think that shadow definitely helped us in the ninth."
If it provides the same benefit today, the Mariners could celebrate a series-clinching victory.
Then they really would have it made in the shade.
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