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Major League Baseball And Severe Weather: Are They Prepared?

Sunday night's storms in St. Louis were scary, but ultimately harmless at Busch Stadium. What if a tornado were heading right for a major league ballpark?

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday night, the Cubs/Cardinals game was delayed twice by weather, for 45 minutes before the game began and again for nearly two hours while severe thunderstorms with possible tornadic activity came very close to Busch Stadium.

While this was going on, I sent out this tweet:

As it turned out, they did manage to complete a full nine-inning game, but similar concerns are raised in this Washington Post article entitled "Is Major League Baseball taking storms seriously enough?"

After going through the timeline of what happened Sunday night, including some tweets from meteorologists and a photo of several thousand people on the lower concourse at Busch Stadium (after fans were asked to seek shelter), the article states:

But what if the tornadic storm had held together? Would fans have been safe huddling under the concourses of a baseball stadium in 100 mph or stronger winds?

Minneapolis Star Tribune Meteorologist Paul Douglas wrote just three years ago: “One of these days we’re going to have 1,000 or more deaths from a single tornado somewhere in the United States.” Tens of thousands of baseball fans as sitting ducks at a ballpark represents one terrifying way this could happen.

“I don’t think [Sunday] night’s game even should have started,” said Marshall Shepherd, host of the program “WxGeeks” on the Weather Channel, which dedicated an episode to the issue of spectator safety at sporting events in hazardous weather.
These are absolutely legitimate concerns. When tornado sirens went off at Wrigley Field just after the gates opened June 15, Cubs officials were quick to do the same thing that happened Sunday at Busch Stadium: ask all fans to stay under cover and even clear out the press box. What I wrote about that scene at the time echoes what the Cardinals must have thought about Sunday night's game:
I can understand what Cubs officials were thinking. The Cubs and Indians have no common off days the rest of this year, and early this afternoon it appeared from some radar images that the storms would go both south and north of the city of Chicago but perhaps leave the proverbial "window" to play.

Weather forecasting is a tricky thing, and storms can be quite fickle in their timing, direction and speed. In both the cases I've mentioned in this article -- June 15 in Chicago and Sunday in St. Louis -- the tornadic storms did not come anywhere near the ballpark. They were able to play in St. Louis because the rain passed and the field drained well. At Wrigley June 15, they had to call off the game because even though the threat of a tornado had passed, it had rained too hard for the field to dry and in any case didn't completely stop raining until after 10 p.m. The Post article draws this conclusion:

Baseball is big business, and because no was hurt and the Cardinals and Cubs were eventually able to get their game in, MLB probably views last night’s weather-related decisions as the right ones. But the alternative argument is that the Cardinals and MLB got extremely lucky a tornado did not strike the stadium and should not have allowed fans in given the tornado watch and obviously hazardous incoming weather.

Last night’s event prompts the following questions:

1. Should MLB allow games to be played and fans into stadiums when a tornado is a realistic threat?

2. If a tornado warning is issued when fans are in the stadium, does each park have a plan to quickly evacuate the stands and adequately shelter fans? Can it get fans underground or inside interior rooms (like bathrooms)? In other words, does every tornado-vulnerable stadium have tornado shelters that are well-labeled (like some airports do, like Denver)?

MLB has a responsibility to have very good, thoughtful answers to these questions in the vital interest of its fans safety.

Those two questions are absolutely legitimate and I trust MLB is not putting money ahead of fan safety. At this time, I don't believe Wrigley Field can answer the second one, as I do not know of any interior tornado shelter at Wrigley that's well-labeled. While these events are rare and hopefully no baseball game will ever be affected by a tornado, it surely wouldn't hurt to be prepared. These kinds of events seem to be happening more often in recent years and we can only hope none ever hits a major-league baseball park.