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Pirates What are the odds of hitting a home run with an Allegheny splashdown?

Sunday, April 15, 2001

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Before we get to today's lessons in physics and wind studies and the probabilities/problems of finding bashed baseballs in the drink, let's quickly cover the 443 feet down the right-field line from PNC Park's home plate to the Allegheny River and come to the all-wet part of this discussion.

 
 

Homerun splashdown -- an InfoMotion graphic

   
 

So what are we going to call this water hazard on the ballclub's new course?

Willie Water?

Stargell Strait?

HR-2-O?

San Francisco's Pac Bell Park has its liquid portion of the China Basin Channel affectionately called McCovey Cove, for one of the Giants' most popular Willies. Eight times last season, in the park's debut year, home runs went kerplunk there. Six of those came courtesy of a left-handed hitter named Barry Bonds.

Listen to experts in physics and home-run historyand hear PNC Park will be lucky to have a similar splashdown event once a summer.Maybe twice.

For one thing, Pac Bell Park right field foul pole is only 307 feet down the line, 352 until ball meets China Basin.

PNC Park's right field foul pole is 320 feet down the line, 443 until ball meets Allegheny River.

Forget the calculators. That's a big difference.

"To hit one out there," Brian Giles, the Pirates' best left-handed possibility of reaching the river, "you'd have to hit a bomb."

"It's a nice amusement to think about those things," said John Pastier, a home-run aficionado with the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR). "It will happen eventually in Pittsburgh. Unless Major League Baseball does something to the balls."

Many variables play into this discussion.

We'll start with physics.

The batter must redirect a pitch: 320 feet down the right-field line, 21 feet over the right-field wall containing the out-of-town scoreboard, 38 feet high to clear the stands, approximately 80 feet across the concrete concourse; and approximately 50 feet beyond -- the expanse between the park and the river's edge -- coming to a total distance of 443 feet, minimum.

So Frank Tabakin, physics professor from the University of Pittsburgh, what's involved here?

"The bat, the ball, the pitcher, the velocity of the ball. . . ," Tabakin began. "I mean, you've got to hit that thing, and you've got to hit it hard."

You haven't lost us yet, prof.

"Ideally, you could calculate this with the laws of mechanics," Tabakin continued. "You'd have air resistance and wind.

"If you want it to go 443 feet, and you're not in a vacuum, you're going to have to hit it roughly 45 degrees and 100 mph.

"In a vacuum, though, it would be a parabola."

Uh, you're way over our heads now.

John G. Fetkovich, a physics professor emeritus from Carnegie Mellon University, once broke out statistical data to study the mathematical probabilities of the Immaculate Reception. When confronted with this baseball subject, he went back, back, back to the books and the numbers.

"What I did was to look at the number of home runs that are hit on average by an average team in the American League," Fetkovich said, explaining that he used the AL instead of the National League because the distance to right field in PNC Park is more similar to the distances in AL venues.

"So, what I expect is, in 81 games at PNC Park, about 200 home runs would be hit. Total. By both teams. Statistically, 37 would go over the right field fence."

Fetkovich took into account the 38-foot-hight right-field stands behind that 21-foot-high PNC Park wall and 50-or-so feet of walkway outside the park, and he predicted that an average of five homers would carry over those right-field stands each season. A couple of those may bounce into the river.

"And, sort of as a semi-educated guesstimate. . . ," he concluded, "probably only one or two would go into the water on the fly."

Forget physics and mathematics for a moment.

Pastier of SABR wants to talk topography and meteorology: altitude, humidity and, most important, wind.

Pittsburgh ranks second in the NL to the Mile High City in altitude, even if we're some 5,100 feet behind Denver. The North Side home to PNC Park is roughly 730 feet above sea level. In baseball, this translates to a 1- to 1.5-percent increase in home-run distance. "So that's as much as 6 more feet for a ball hit around 440," Pastier said.

Humidity helps homers, too. The air, although it doesn't feel it to us, is lighter for baseball air travel. So the sticky summer here translates to another foot increase in distance.

Finally, there's the variable of wind. The Pirates commissioned in 1999 a wind study that showed breezes around PNC Park would travel from left field to right, up to 15 mph. Such a blow could amount to a decent tailwind . "That could add several feet," Pastier said.

You might think San Francisco would have a windy advantage over Pittsburgh. But the Giants constructed their park in such a way that it served to mitigate the wind, although sometimes 2 to 10 mph breezes would curl around the right-field-line seats and sneak into play in that short-porch corner.

Bonds officially slugged six homers into McCovey Cove last season, starting on May 1 -- after some 294 Giants at-bats. Los Angeles' Todd Hundley later hit one into the drink. So did Arizona's Luis Gonzalez, who last season also hit one into Bank One Ballpark's pool.

No one will know precisely until deep into this PNC Park season whether, like Cleveland's Jacobs Field, winds will help carry balls over walls. But Pittsburgh's combo platter of height above sea level, humidity and hot air could provide a significant boost.

If any balls make the Allegheny, will they be chased by a, uh, raft of boats?

Opening day in San Francisco last April attracted between 75 and 100 boats around McCovey Cove. "Like a mini regatta," Giants' public affairs manager Shana Daum said. It caused the U.S. Coast Guard to patrol the waters more frequently and the local boating laws to be made more restrictive.

U.S. Coast Guard authorities in Pittsburgh said they plan to install buoys to create a restricted zone around the City police River Rescue station by Clemente Bridge. They also expect to monitor boating along that patch of the Allegheny along with River Rescue and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. Regulations could be tightened if necessary.

Historically speaking, ballparks have found homes near bodies of water before. Braves Field in Boston was next to the Charles River. Lakefront Park in Chicago saw it's share of homers around Lake Michigan, but that was probably more due to its short porches: 180 feet to left, 196 to right. And a former Pittsburgh place known as Exposition Park (1891-1909) had its own water hazard: The Allegheny occasionally flooded into the outfield.

One last thing: The distance from PNC Park home plate to the Allegheny via the center-field wall is 602 feet.

Don't bother.

"No one," SABR's Pastier said, "has ever hit a ball 600 feet."


Next: Technology park

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