‘Cosmic Baseball’ to illuminate the game like never before

May 27th, 2024

There's nothing quite like a warm summer night and baseball under the lights. But what about a warm summer night and baseball under no lights? Or, at least, a warm summer night and baseball under different lights? That's probably the best way to describe what's about to happen in Colonial Heights, Va.

The Tri-City Chili Peppers, a college summer team in the Coastal Plain League, will forge into a new era on June 1, when they will host what they've dubbed Cosmic Baseball -- a baseball game played under black lights. That means a glowing ball, glowing bats, glowing bases, glowing uniforms, glowing ... well, just about everything.

It's believed to be the first organized sporting event to be played entirely under black lights and has drawn quite the spotlight. Despite assumptions one might have about such an event -- assumptions perhaps accompanied by safety concerns -- it's nearly a risk-free proposition. Or, as risk-free as any baseball game can be.

"It's actually a lighter atmosphere than what most people would think," said Chris Martin, owner of the Chili Peppers. "You can see everything extremely well."

Martin's matter-of-fact assurance comes with a mix of experience and expertise. This event has been more than a year and more than $100,000 in the making, with a prelude that featured a team of lighting professionals, extensive testing, lots of trial and error and a healthy amount of real-world glowing baseball practice.

In other words, it's not just a shot in the dark.

From glow sticks to a lightbulb moment

This all started one night last season with a typical between-innings occurrence: The Chili Peppers threw glow sticks into the stands to give fans another layer of fun during the game. Naturally, the glow sticks were a hit.

"I'm watching it, and I'm like, 'Hey, this is really cool, but it's also kinda not very cool because the lights are on," Martin said. "I was like, 'It would be really cool if we could turn the lights off, and then you would actually see everybody's sticks waving around and having a little bit of fun with it."

But the roughly 2,000-capacity Shepherd Stadium, where the Chili Peppers play, doesn't have the fancy LED lights that can be quickly turned on and off. So Martin pondered black lights, but those would only work if the stadium's regular lights were off. And, again, turning those lights off and then on again could cause an unnecessary delay and disrupt the game.

Then a mental light bulb went on.

"Why don't we just turn off the lights in general, and see if we can play baseball with black lights?" Martin thought.

In his initial research, Martin found no instances of baseball played under black lights. He couldn't find examples in other sports, either. Individuals did things like knock tennis balls around under black lights, but, as Martin put it, "It was just guys messing around."

So he reached out to local lighting company J.W. Electric to see whether it was possible to light a baseball stadium with black lights. J.W. Electric was intrigued, and that led to various other conversations within the industry. The feedback was almost universal.

It's not possible.

In theory, Martin was told, it would require dozens and dozens of black lights, perhaps even hundreds -- and probably a lot more money than Martin was willing to spend -- but in reality, it just wasn't doable. So that was that.

"I thought it was dead," Martin said.

That is, until Chad Lawson came along.

'I jumped on it'

Lawson, a manufacturer's rep with Federated Lighting of Virginia in Richmond, was the only one willing to give the idea a serious go and work with Martin and J.W. Electric to find a solution.

"When they approached me with the idea, I jumped on it," Lawson said. "When he used the term 'Cosmic Baseball,' it just kind of clicked for me. I was like, 'This could be something really big; really cool.'"

Still, it took a long time. So long that Martin had moved on from the idea when he got a call from Lawson about six months later. Lawson found a manufacturer to develop a single prototype black light, and he delivered it to Martin, though nobody involved had any idea what to expect.

"I was very transparent with him from the beginning," Lawson said. "I said, 'This really hasn't been done before, so I can't make any promises.'"

But then ...

"The results were astounding," Lawson said, noting that the one light was more than sufficient to cover an entire section of infield bleachers.

Martin was amazed, too.

"I looked at this thing and was like, 'Aw, man, we could actually play baseball with this.' I was throwing balls up as high as I could and catching [them] with my bare hand," he said. "I was like, 'Man, we could do this. Let's see how many we can install.'"

The initial prediction of dozens and dozens of lights turned out to be way off. Still, the installation process was just that -- a process.

Unlike traditional stadium light installation, which is guided by industry software that gives specifications for every aspect, there is no guide for installing black lights.

"So we had to figure out, 'How many lights is this going to take? How high do we put them? What angle do we put them at?'" said Tony Cannon, owner of J.W. Electric. "So it all had to be done at night, in the dark, with us having to lift up there, trying to aim these things to get rid of shadows."

In all, they installed 18 500-watt black lights around the field, using brackets to attach them to the normal light poles.

"It was fun," Cannon said. "It was different from how we do normal projects."

Fun and different, yes, but not cheap. The total cost came out to "well over $100,000," Martin said. It would've been more if not for some generous discounts along the way. But Martin seemed game for anything, his contractors said.

"He went into this almost with an open checkbook," Cannon said, "which had to be scary on his part a little bit."

'I thought it was going to be really hard'

Since Martin pitched the Cosmic Baseball idea to his players, they've become "geeked out" about it, he said. But that enthusiasm took a minute to arrive. It wasn't until the first practice under the black lights that players got the full picture and felt much more at ease.

"It's darker, but it's not as dark as you think it would be, just because you have that kind of ambient light at all times," said catcher Jacob Lee, 18, who's committed to play at Virginia Commonwealth University. "And the ball actually glows a lot, so it's pretty easy to see it."

As a catcher, Lee initially thought there would be a struggle with depth perception both behind the plate and as a hitter. He assumed he'd have to concentrate harder "so I don't catch a baseball in the teeth." But aside from a brief initial adjustment of the eyes to the glowing ball and unusual ambiance, it didn't take long to feel like regular baseball.

"I thought it was going to be really hard. I thought there was going to be no way. You were just going to be guessing up there trying to hit the ball, and even catching it," Lee said. "But I was actually really surprised that it was easier than I thought it was going to be to get used to it."

Infielder/outfielder Colby Motley said the Cosmic Baseball experience even has an advantage over a normal night game.

"Playing at night with a regular baseball and regular lights, it's almost harder to see than in Cosmic Baseball under the black light, because the ball's just glowing and it's just a little brighter and easier to see for me," said Motley, 19, another VCU commit. "I thought it was going to be completely different than what it was. I was just shocked that I could actually play, be just as good under the black light as regular light."

This eventual level of comfort playing under black lights is why the Chili Peppers have invited their first Cosmic opponent, Greenbrier Knights of the Tidewater Summer League, for a joint practice/scrimmage ahead of their June 1 matchup. Once they field a few grounders, catch a few flies and hit a few BP line drives, any skepticism should fade quickly, Chili Peppers players said.

"If you can get everybody out there in practices and feel comfortable and have everybody relax while they're playing, I think it's going to make it a really good experience," Lee said.

There is one relatively minor limitation. The glow of the ball makes it hard to pick up spin, so hitting a curveball could be a challenge, as could judging fly balls to the outfield. To remedy that, the Chili Peppers are trying to get a baseball with seams that glow in a different color than the rest of the ball. But that isn't likely to happen by June 1. So for the first Cosmic game, at least, batters and outfielders will need to concentrate a little harder.

But otherwise, it's just normal baseball.

"It's been really, really cool to watch," Martin said.

Going viral

The Chili Peppers posted a hype video to X on May 2 that showed players throwing and hitting balls under the black lights, with the glow of the bats, balls and uniforms offering a near-psychedelic viewing experience that hints at what fans can expect June 1.

Since that post went live, interest in Cosmic Baseball has been non-stop. Tickets for the game sold out in 24 hours, and Martin said he's heard from college players around the country who want to join the team.

"We get a lot of emails about people wanting to play for us [before this], but never this much in this fast of a period," he said. "We've gotten emails, phone calls, social media contacts. Everybody seems to want to play in an atmosphere that's different and fun. So it's been great."

The response from the community has also been huge. The Chili Peppers already have a passionate fan base, Martin said, but even that didn't prepare him for the groundswell.

"We honestly were not expecting for this to blow up until after the first game, when everyone saw us playing on the field," he said. "As soon as we put that video out there showing players barreling up baseballs and taking a couple of ground balls and playing catch, I think it honestly painted a picture to everybody that we can actually do this and play at a high level. It was one of those things that the community immediately rallied around it."

Just the beginning?

June 1 will mark the first of four Cosmic Baseball games this season. The others are scheduled for June 15, June 28 and July 20. The first game will be streamed live on the team's YouTube channel. The concept isn't likely to go away after this season. In fact, it could be just the beginning.

Everyone involved sees potential for the Cosmic concept to grow, and not just in baseball. Lawson sees possibilities in soccer, golf and even skeet shooting, but he can imagine all kinds of potential.

"I think it would be an incredible thing to see across all sports," he said.

With each Cosmic game the Chili Peppers play, there are likely to be discoveries that lead to tweaks with the black lights. This is an experiment, after all.

"There's always ways to make it better," Cannon said.

And that's the idea: Give fans a new and exciting experience. Motley likened it to what the independent Savannah Bananas have done, turning baseball games into a unique show for fans.

Perhaps with Cosmic Baseball, the Chili Peppers will become a kind of Banana brethren.

"They changed the game of baseball," Motley said. "And I think we're kind of trying to do the same thing."