What a sight: Baseball at night

rmooney@bradenton.comMarch 17, 2009 

The shadows covered the entire field by the time Adam LaRoche grounded to shortstop to start the bottom of the second inning. Soon, the lights would take over, and you know what happens then. Magic.

The grass at McKechnie Field, at any baseball field, takes on this wonderful glow when bathed by the stadium lights. It becomes greener, if that is at all possible.

I remember the first time I saw a baseball field under the lights. It was Aug. 4, 1972. We arrived in the top of the first inning, long after the national anthem had been played and after the Chicago Cubs scored a run.

We arrived late because my dad had to have his second cup of coffee after dinner, something he now disputes, but it’s the truth. Honest. Ask my mom. We’ll save that story for another day.

My first glimpse of the grass at Shea Stadium that Friday night came as we made our way from the concourse under the stands down the aisle to our seats. The sky was dark. Games started at 8 o’clock back then. And the grass glowed.

Simply glowed.

I had never seen anything like it.

You don’t get that effect on TV, though on our TV back then, the only colors we got were black and white.

Anyway, back to McKechnie.

Monday was a beautiful night to sit outside and watch a baseball game, and, by the luck of the schedule, the Pittsburgh Pirates had a game with the Tampa Bay Rays that started at 7:05 p.m.

Shadows crept across the field as the sun disappeared behind the third base stands.

Remember the old footage of Johnny Podres pitching into the shadows during Game 7 of the 1955 World Series? Not quite like that, but you get the idea.

Rays first baseman Willy Aybar called time out in the bottom of the first so the batboy could bring him his sunglasses. Aybar wouldn’t need them long.

The night sky grew dark and the lights did their job.

A lazy breeze moved the flags in center field.

Rays fans on the first base side of the stands screamed “Tampa,” while Rays fans on the third base side answered with “Bay.”

Rays top prospect David Price pitched.

The bases were painted green and the Pirates donned green caps on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day.

The members of the grounds crew wore green shirts.

Every seat was filled.

It was an event.

And around here, it will happen one more time this year, on the 27th when the Toronto Blue Jays come to town.

Once the regular season begins, once the Pirates are back in Pittsburgh and the Rays move back to Tropicana Field, the beauty that is a night game played under stars you can’t see will belong to other major league cities.

For some reason, the FieldTurf at the Trop doesn’t create the same magic as grass.

Looks kind of shinny, doesn’t it?

Oh, this isn’t a push for a new outdoor stadium for the Rays. The roof comes in mighty handy during those summer thunderstorms and around here AC is always welcomed.

Sure, you can go to Sarasota or Port Charlotte and watch the Class A minor leaguers hone their skills under the lights. Clearwater and Tampa, too.

But there is nothing quite like watching Rays left fielder Carl Crawford run out a triple or pitcher James Shields carve his way through a batting order or center fielder B.J. Upton outrace a fly ball to the deepest part of the park, each surrounded by those funky little shadows created by the light towers.

There is something about a perfect night and a perfect game. Not the ones that come with no hits, no walks and no errors, but with a full house, a gentle breeze and blades of grass that glow.

It was Humphrey Bogart who said, “A hot dog at the ball game beats roast beef at the Ritz.”

I believe he was talking about a ballgame played under the lights.

Roger Mooney, sports writer, can be reached at 745-7087, ext. 2112.

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