Saturday, July 5, 2014

Fourth of July Baseball and Fireworks

A friend of mine generously invited my younger son and me to join his annual company get-together at the July 4th Colorado Rockies baseball game and fireworks show.

The Colorado Rockies were playing the L.A. Dodgers.  The Dodgers' record was 49-40, tops in the National League West.  The Rockies were in a slump, having fallen 12 games back at 37-50; and their best hitter, Troy Tulowizki, was out of the lineup with some affliction described as "groin tightness."  (On the other hand, "groin looseness" sounds like an even more troubling affliction.  Clearly, it's important to maintain a healthy balance groin-wise.)  Anyway, the Rockies were facing a hard evening's work.  None of the Colorado fans pouring into the stadium seemed very optimistic.  

The weather was perfect and, as always, Coors Field was a delight.  Our seats were behind home plate in the Upper Level Infield section, a pleasant well-shaded area with an excellent view.

The stadium provides a state-of-the-art scoreboard that gives the batting lineup and player statistics.  It also provides "instant replay" video for crucial plays.  This is a great boon for those of us who are so accustomed to watching televised sports that we feel compelled to have our own eyesight validated by a subsequent video of the action.  (Reliance on the instant replay is probably undermining both my attentiveness and my overall character.)

Here is a picture of the scoreboard taken at the top of the fourth inning.  Morneau, the Rockies first baseman, is batting.  There are two outs.  The Dodgers are ahead 3-0.

By the end of the game the Dodgers had manhandled the Rockies for 6 more runs and won the game 9-0.  Apart from scattered booing during the final inning, the Colorado fans generally took the loss in stride.  Now it was time to prepare for the fireworks show.

The fireworks artillery was staged right outside the stadium and was located behind the scoreboard.  This meant that people sitting in the left field stands and in the cheap seats called the Rock Pile would need to find a place on the outfield grass in order to have a view of the fireworks.

It took more than half an hour for these people to find a place in the outfield.  They had to slowly file down the steps in the stands and then walk behind the stands until they emerged from an opening at the far left corner of left field.  Groundskeepers cordoned off walkways that split the traffic into two groups: one group traveled along the outfield warning path; the other group traveled just outside the infield.  The two groups met up near first base and thence spread out into the outfield area to lay down their blankets.

The entire process was aggravatingly slow.  My friend asked me, "As an engineer, how would you speed things up?"

I replied that it was partly a crowd-control problem and partly a flow problem, but I didn't have a quick off-the-cuff solution to give him.  However, as I reflected on the situation after the game, I decided that there were two main choke points to the flow.

First, there was the unavoidable flow restriction to exiting the stands that was due to slower mobility associated with young children and old people.  Easing this restriction would require ergonomic changes to the steep and narrow stairways and would probably be deemed impractical by the stadium owners.

Second, after the fans made their circuit around the outfield and arrived at first base, they moved out (the military term is debouched) onto the outfield grass in an inefficient way.  The early families claimed their territory by spreading out their blankets such that a wide buffer zone was maintained between blankets.  As the latecomers arrived, the early families would have to shift their blankets to make room for the latecomers.  It was a slow and chaotic process.

The situation was roughly analogous to birds roosting on power lines at twilight.  The first birds establish a comfortable space between themselves.  As more birds crowd in, ruffled feathers and squawking result.

A better method for spacing family blankets on the outfield would be to have the groundskeepers explicitly direct the blanket placement.

I did something much like this nearly fifty years ago when I helped park cars on a farmer's field across from the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds.  I jauntily waved a wooden cane (an implement that gave my parking commands particular focus and also served as my credential as an authorized parking official on behalf of the farmer, despite my negligible presence as a skinny teenager) and efficiently guided drivers to park in precise lines and also preserve appropriate gaps for aisles.  I was brilliant at this.

For a small stipend I could train the Coors Field groundskeepers in my proven parking techniques.

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