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Rain delays: The routines and toils of long waits for ballplayers when the weather’s bad

What actually happens when players have to sit around and wait for weather? Former MLB pitcher Ryan Dempster helps explain.

Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

On Monday, August 20, 2018, the Cubs rested. It was an off day in the middle of a road trip to Pittsburgh and Detroit on which the Cubs split six games, oddly, scoring exactly one run in each of the first five (while still managing to win two of those five!).

The Cubs had played 123 games through August 19. They then went on a stretch when, due to previous rainouts and further postponements and makeups during that stretch, they played 41 games in 43 days (including the divisional tiebreaker and the wild-card game). They flew from Detroit to Chicago to Atlanta to Philadelphia to Milwaukee to Washington to Chicago to Washington to Chicago to Phoenix to Chicago. (Frankly, I’m frazzled just reading that air itinerary.)

I personally attended 26 of those 41 games and I was completely exhausted when that stretch was over. Even though the Cubs are young men in far better physical shape than I am, I can imagine that sojourn left them utterly drained by season’s end. Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that the offense disappeared often in those six weeks.

In addition to having just one scheduled off day (Thursday, September 20) in that time frame, the Cubs also played an inning and a half of a game in Washington Friday, September 7, which was made up the next day — but it wasn’t called until there were multiple hours of delay and even the Nationals beat writers thought it was poorly handled. Then they got rained out entirely Sunday, September 9, but not until they had to sit around for three hours after the scheduled game time before the game was called, even though it was clear there was no chance the rain would end. That game was made up in Washington the following Thursday, a previously scheduled off day, forcing the “Washington to Chicago to Washington to Chicago” portion of the itinerary noted above.

There were no official games played on September 7 and 9, but they were hardly “days off” for the players. I had a chance to talk with former Cubs righthander Ryan Dempster recently, as you know from this article, and during our conversation I asked him what it would be like for a player to have to sit around during long delays of that nature.

The first thing he told me about that stretch was, “I’m not making any excuses, and neither would anybody, but to say that it doesn’t have an effect is unfair to those guys.” He mentioned the lack of sleep that can come from flying back and forth as the Cubs did would definitely have an effect on their preparation and rest.

“Even though they might not necessarily play a game because of a rainout,” Dempster continued, “They’re getting prepared to play, hitting in the cage, going to the weight room, going through their entire training routine, and then... ‘No game!’ Very few times did we walk into the field and they said right away, ‘No game today.’ You always have to be ready, you don’t want to not be ready and you go play and all of a sudden you’re down 6-0 in the third inning because you weren’t ready.”

Beyond all those kinds of things, I wanted to know what it’s like for a player to prepare for a game, only to have it rained out. So I asked my longtime friend Kevin Ciarrachi, a catcher who played in the Mets and Pirates farm systems and in indy ball from 1999-2006, what a typical preparation day would be like. He sent me quite a detailed report:

For a 7 p,m. game, you’d wake up at 9 a.m. Do a light workout if you’re expecting to play, eat breakfast, then head to the field at 1 p.m., mentally expecting to play.

Get dressed, go to the trainer’s room, stretch, heat up, tape. Go to the indoor cage and warm up your swing and go through your hitting routine for game days.

Then, watch video on tonight’s pitcher and check the scouting report.

As a catcher, you go through the opposing hitters’ scouting report as respects to my pitcher. Then when our starting pitcher gets to the clubhouse we go over the report together and talk about a game plan. Go outside and do team stretch, throw and BP.

You come back in after BP for about 40 minutes and then go out and play the game.

The tricky part is if you are nursing some type of injury you might do something that you would only do if expecting to play, but if you don’t play it’s kind of like you only have so many bullets in the gun. Like if you had a sore ankle, you probably would like 24 hours to rest, but if you’re playing you do certain warm-up exercises to play and sometimes those are not enjoyable to go through.

Then on top of it, if you’re just sitting in the clubhouse for a few hours in a delay not knowing if you’re going to play it takes a toll mentally because you have to be prepared to go out in battle and usually only get about a 30-minute notice when you are going to go out there and start the game.

To me, the most important point made by both these men is the mental preparation aspect. It’s not just the sitting around, it’s the fact that a player has to be mentally prepared as well as physically ready. This is why the Cubs have hired several very good mental skills people such as John Baker and Bob Tewksbury. Teams haven’t realized until recent years how important the mental side of the game is and I think the Cubs under Theo Epstein have given players excellent support on the mental side of the game.

So on that weekend in Washington last September, when the Cubs had to sit through nearly four hours of rain delays and the game wasn’t called until almost midnight on Friday and then they had to go out and play two games the next day, a single-admission doubleheader that started at 5:15 p.m. local time (due to another rain delay) and didn’t end until after midnight local time (due to another rain delay and a between-games ceremony that really should have been held another time) and then had to sit around until three hours after the scheduled game time the next day before it was finally called and then had a two-hour flight back to Chicago... well, it shouldn’t really be that big a surprise that the home game the day after that, Monday, September 10 against the Brewers, turned into a 3-2 loss.

Now, if they had won that September 10 game, they would have avoided the divisional tiebreaker and wound up with the best record in the N.L. and had home field throughout the N.L. playoffs and who knows, maybe they get back to the World Series.

In the end, though, Dempster says though he knew what the players were going through: “I was proud of them for never folding, for continuing to push forward and winning 95 games. I know they were tired, I could see it in them, but not one of them said, ‘I’m exhausted.’”

Which is a credit to every single one of the players and coaches on the 2018 Cubs, even though they fell short of their ultimate goal.

Footnote: The schedule-makers didn’t make things any easier on the Cubs for this season. From Tuesday, August 27 through the end of the season, Sunday, September 29, the Cubs have just two scheduled off days (Tuesday, September 4 and Monday, September 23), making it a stretch of 32 games in 34 days... at least that many, presuming they don’t have any postponements to make up at that time. During that time they’ll play a night game in New York Thursday, August 29 and a 1:20 p.m. game at Wrigley Field the next day — hello, Tom Tunney, time to give it up and let the Cubs play Friday nights at home under those circumstances — and though the 32 games are evenly split, 16 home and 16 road, they’ll finish on the road in Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

So here’s hoping for better weather in the Midwest and Northeast in 2019 than we had in 2018, and I hope this article has given you a bit of a better understanding of what baseball players do during long rain delays, or days when they have to report for a game only to see it rained out hours later, or preparing to play in general. It’s way more than just sitting around, and far more than you’d see in three hours’ worth of game time.