Put Away the Mustard and Rye Bread: Climate Change and the Future of Baseball

By: Dana McClure

We are now two weeks into the playoffs for a baseball season that never should have been. Somehow, through multiple team-wide COVID outbreaks,[1] bizarre rule changes,[2] a short-lived (and in some places awkward) player strike,[3] and an unprecedented number of doubleheaders, Major League Baseball managed to scrape together a 60 game season and my Seattle Mariners were able to extend their playoff drought (which is now old enough to vote). While many of the challenges baseball faced this season will hopefully be gone next year, this season may also serve as a preview for the future of the sport: a future where fire and extreme weather lead to the postponement and cancellation of games, outdoor stadiums are replaced with enclosed arenas, and players and fans alike suffer adverse health effects from poor air quality and extreme heat.

Living on the East Coast while being a fan of a West Coast baseball team can be hard. With the time zone difference, games frequently start late, and this year due to COVID restrictions, teams only played in their geographic regions.[4]  When I turned on the TV one Monday afternoon in September looking for a game to watch, I was pleasantly surprised to see the Seattle Mariners scheduled to play a game that would not require me to stay up into the early morning to finish. The game started out normally enough (or what could pass for normal this season), but I couldn’t help but notice that it seemed awfully dark in T-Mobile park for what was around 3:00 PM local time. A break in the game came and when the film crew cut to an exterior shot, I was appalled by what I saw. The sky was an apocalyptic shade of orange and the air was so thick with smoke you could barely see the park. When the crew cut back into the stadium, what I had originally mistaken for a lighting issue was clearly smoke pooling on the field. The Washington Department of Ecology reported the Air Quality Index in Seattle that day was 290,[5] just shy of the Index’s worst rating of “Hazardous.”[6] Visiting Oakland Athletics pitcher Jesús Luzardo reported he was “gasping for air”[7] as a result of the air quality.  Seattle and Oakland played a doubleheader that night, leaving players gasping for air for nearly 5 hours.[8] Citing poor air quality,[9] Seattle’s next series was postponed and their home games were temporarily played in San Francisco, which only the week before shared the same haunting haze.[10]

Wildfires on the West coast are nothing new, but climate change is making them more frequent and more intense. This week, California experienced its first modern “gigafire”[11] with more than a million acres burning simultaneously.  This equates to an area larger than Rhode Island.[12] These types of fires are likely here to stay. In 1995, author Mike Davis published The Case for Letting Malibu Burn, in which he describes the history of fire in the region and the unique causes for its frequency.[13] In particular, Davis emphasizes that over-development of the land has interrupted the natural fire cycle in the region, creating a feedback loop that only intensifies as the years go on.[14] In the twenty-five years since The Case for Letting Malibu Burn was published, Davis has added “epic drought and extreme heat during the summers” to the list of factors that contribute to the frequency and intensity of California wildfires.[15]  According to Davis, without major regulatory intervention and fundamental changes in California’s land management practices, devastating fires will become an annual fixture in the region.[16]

Not every effect of climate change will be quite so dramatic. Among the more banal is increased temperature. 2015 through 2019 was the hottest five year period ever recorded,[17] and May of this year was tied for the hottest May ever recorded.[18] Increased temperatures have already spurred the Texas Rangers to build a new, air-conditioned stadium. The stadium was roundly mocked online when construction was completed,[19] however there was little discussion as to why Globe Life Field was replaced after barely 25 years of service. In the course of researching this, I never actually found a straight answer from the Rangers or any officials from the City of Arlington, who contributed half a billion dollars to the new stadium, explaining why the stadium was replaced,[20] but I did find one consistent complaint about the old stadium from fans: it’s too hot in Texas.[21] While the measure to fund the new stadium was passed by popular vote, public financing of sports stadiums can be controversial.[22] The majority of baseball stadiums in the country do not have a roof, meaning players and fans are exposed to the elements, including the heat of a summer baseball season.[23] Assuming that climate truly was the motivation for replacing Globe Life Park, it seems likely that this will not be the last stadium that will need to be rebuilt. With the increasing costs of stadium construction (compare the $191 million price tag for the original Globe Life Park in 1994 to the new stadium’s $1.1 billion),[24] I cannot help but wonder when cities will draw the line and refuse to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to construct new sports stadiums. When the stadiums are gone, where will we play?

With everything at stake in the fight against climate change, baseball may seem trivial. However, there must be things worth enjoying, and a future without baseball is a bleak future indeed.  Prior to law school, I lived in Oklahoma City. In the summers, my friends and I would go see minor league games downtown. I don’t remember much about the games, but they weren’t really what was important. What I remember is sitting in the sun with my friends, drinking cheap beer, and vibing. I want to be able to keep doing that. While baseball may not be the most important thing at stake, a future with baseball is a future where not all is lost.

Image from Yahoo! News

[1] MLB postponements timeline: How positive coronavirus tests have impacted the schedule, ESPN (Aug. 21, 2020), https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/29571468/.

[2] Thomas Harrigan, New rules in place for 2020 season, MLB NEWS (Jul. 21, 2020), https://www.mlb.com/news/mlb-rule-changes-for-2020.

[3] Michael Baumann, Strikes Across MLB Have Challenged the League’s Apoliticial Foundation, THE RINGER (Aug. 27, 2020, 1:10 AM), https://www.theringer.com/mlb/2020/8/27/21403382/. (On Wednesday August 26th, 11 MLB teams went on strike in protest against racism and police brutality after  the killing of Jacob Blake. Some teams made the questionable decision to play as scheduled while their black players sat out.).

[4] Anthony Castrovince, FAQ: All you need to know about 2020 season, MLB NEWS (Aug. 24, 2020), https://www.mlb.com/news/faq-for-2020-baseball-season.

[5] David Williams, Wildfire smoke leaves Oakland A’s pitcher gasping for air during Seattle Mariners game, CNN (Sept. 15, 2020, 11:04 PM), https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/15/weather/mlb-oakland-pitcher-smoke-trnd/index.html.

[6] AIRNOW, AQI Basics, https://www.airnow.gov/aqi/aqi-basics/ (last visited Oct. 8, 2020).

[7] Williams, supra note 5.

[8] BASEBALL REFERENCE, https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/SEA/2020-schedule-scores.shtml (last visited Oct. 8, 2020).

[9] Giants-Mariners games in Seattle postponed, moved to SF due to heavy wildfire smoke, KTLA5 (Sept. 15, 2020 4:29 PM), https://ktla.com/news/california/giants-mariners-games-in-seattle-postponed-moved-to-sf-due-to-heavy-wildfire-smoke/.

[10] Christina Zdanowicz, This is what the Bay Area’s skies looked like today during the wildfires, CNN (Sept. 10. 2020), https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/09/weather/california-orange-skies-wildfires-photos-trnd/index.html.

[11] Oliver Milman & Vivian Ho, California wildfires spawn first ‘gigafire’ in modern history, THE GUARDIAN (Oct. 6, 2020, 12:11 PM), https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/oct/06/california-wildfires-gigafire-first.

[12] Id.

[13] Mike Davis, The Case for Letting Malibu Burn, 19 ENV’T HIST. REV. 1 (1995).

[14] Id. at 5-10.

[15] Suzi Weissman & Mike Davis, Letting Malibu Burn, JACOBIN (Dec. 2, 2018), https://jacobinmag.com/2018/12/california-fires-let-malibu-burn-mike-davis-interview

[16] Id.

[17] Alessio Perrone,  July was hottest month ever recorded on Earth, preliminary data shows, INDEPENDENT (Aug. 2, 2019, 6:52 PM), https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/july-weather-hottest-month-ever-climate-change-heatwave-global-warming-wmo-a9035356.html.

[18] NAT’L OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMIN., May 2020 tied for hottest on record for the globe, (June 12, 2020), https://www.noaa.gov/news/may-2020-tied-for-hottest-on-record-for-globe.

[19] Joe Rivera, New Rangers ballpark gets blasted by baseball fans: ‘Sheet metal warehouse look’, SPORTING NEWS (June 25, 2020), https://www.sportingnews.com/us/mlb/news/new-rangers-ballpark/17bvwgc10633w1qrb2lurgx517.

[20] THROW A BILLION DOLLARS FROM THE HELICOPTER (Giant Ladder Films 2020) [hereinafter THROW A BILLION].

[21] Phil Rogers, Rangers Saying Goodbye To Beautiful Ballpark After Only 26 Years, FORBES (June 11, 2019, 12:46 PM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/philrogers/2019/06/11/rangers-saying-goodby-to-beautiful-ballpark-after-only-26-years/#6f40af7b24f3;  Rivera, supra note 19; THROW A BILLION, supra note 20.

[22] THROW A BILLION, supra note 20; See also Karthik Vegensa, The Economics of Sports Stadiums: Does public financing of sports stadiums create local economic growth, or just help billionaires improve their profit margin?,  BERKELEY ECON. REV. (Apr. 4, 2019), https://econreview.berkeley.edu/the-economics-of-sports-stadiums-does-public-financing-of-sports-stadiums-create-local-economic-growth-or-just-help-billionaires-improve-their-profit-margin/; Rick Paulus, Sports Stadiums Are a Bad Deal for Cities, THE ATLANTIC (Nov. 21, 2018), https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/11/sports-stadiums-can-be-bad-cities/576334/.

[23] Peter Schiller, How Is Climate Change Impacting Baseball and the MLB?, BASEBALL REFLECTIONS (Aug. 11, 2019), http://baseballreflections.com/2019/08/11/how-is-climate-change-impacting-baseball-and-the-mlb/.

[24] 10 things to know about the new Rangers ballpark, including where it will be and how much it will cost, DALLAS NEWS (Jan. 1, 2018, 7:30 PM),  https://www.dallasnews.com/sports/rangers/2018/01/02/10-things-to-know-about-the-new-rangers-ballpark-including-where-it-will-be-and-how-much-it-will-cost/.

4 comments

  1. As a baseball fan myself, this article really resonated with me. Thinking back on all of the baseball games I’ve attended, I don’t remember anything about the actual games. What I do remember is sitting with friends and family, eating, drinking, and just having a good time. I now look back on these times with nostalgia, knowing that the days of sitting in the stands under a clear sky, breathing in fresh, cool air are severely limited. While increasingly hot summers have already caused several teams to construct closed-in stadiums, this summer really demonstrated how climate change necessitates a change in infrastructure. As you point out, such construction costs millions of dollars, and eventually, no one will be willing to front the money. Hopefully, this year’s massive disruptions to baseball, an important facet of American culture, caused by a deadly zoonotic disease and wildfires of an unprecedented scale, will serve as a call to action for more people to support regulation that mitigates the impacts of climate change.

  2. As someone who is generally oblivious when it comes to sports, I have never considered the effect of climate change on baseball. I had no idea that the Texas Rangers built a new stadium, much less how much it cost, and I was totally unaware that others will likely need to be constructed in the future due to climate change. But it makes perfect sense. In adapting to climate change, I think your point that there must be things worth enjoying is critically important. Hopefully, as climate change continues to affect those things, more people will be inspired to take action to mitigate it.

  3. I’ve never really considered the relationship between climate change and baseball before! This is a really interesting connection. I agree with your sentiment – the most memorable part about attending games isn’t the game itself; it’s the overall experience of hearing the crowds, being out in the open air, and paying way too much for a draft beer. I don’t want to imagine a future where the air quality is so bad that we can’t even enjoy this experience anymore. However, this may be the kind of thing that finally get the general public to pay attention to the seriousness of climate change. People unfortunately tend to not care about things until they are personally affected. Framing the conversation to center around topics like this may be an important step in increasing awareness and actual action towards mitigating climate change as a society.

  4. I’ll ignorantly admit that I have not spent enough time reflecting on or researching the ripple effects that major climate change devastation will have on my everyday life. Perhaps because it’s too much to comprehend and cope with all at once and it’s “easier” to focus on one thing at a time, either way that mindset must change. I think the idea of bringing awareness to activities and concepts that many Americans enjoy, yet take for granted, is an effective way to help bridge a gap that will hopefully make a majority, if not all Americans, take climate change as seriously as it should. #LetsGoMetsGo

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