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Mr. Specs: Making sure all the fields are right

Owens responsible for measurements, lighting at MLB ballparks
MLB.com
PHILADELPHIA -- Come to think of it, we don't hear those stories anymore. The ones about a relief pitcher complaining that he couldn't get anybody out because the game mound was so different from the one he warmed up on in the bullpen. Or the whispers about how some teams had mounds higher than the regulation 10 inches to help their pitchers, how others kept them lower to aid their hitters.

And there's a good reason for that.

Mike Owens is the reason. He was at Citizens Bank Park one day last week. The Phillies were off. The place was empty except for the grounds crew and the occasional tour group. Owens spent the day, and part of the night, checking to make sure the measurements and the lighting were what they're supposed to be.

He came in from Washington and Baltimore, where he looked in on Nationals Park and Oriole Park at Camden Yards. His next stop was Boston's Fenway Park.

"Major League Baseball, probably about 15 years ago, set up a routine where every [two years] they'd come in and check the fields, check the dimensions and check the lighting at night to make sure it still meets the requirements for Major League Baseball," he explained.

Owens spent 38 years with General Electric in Hendersonville, N.C. During much of that time he worked on sports lighting design and, in fact, designed and installed the lighting systems for about half of MLB's stadiums. After he retired in December 2007, MLB asked him if he'd be interested in becoming a consultant.

"It was kind of funny because one of the comments they made to me at the time was, 'We know you know how to measure lighting. We're going to teach you how to measure dirt,'" he said with a laugh. "At the time, being naïve, I went out on a field and actually started looking at some of the things that were being measured and [realized], 'This is not as easy as it looks.'"

It's sometimes said that baseball is a game of inches. That's not strictly true. When dealing with field dimensions, it's a game of fractions of inches.

For example, it's common knowledge that the bases are 90 feet apart. But it takes constant vigilance to make sure that's the case.

"When you think about it, they slide in. They're sliding into the base, right? A lot of pressure coming in," he explained. "You think, okay, that doesn't sound like much. Well, they water the field. Get a little rain. There's a little gap and the water washes in. Now the next game it maybe gets pushed a sixteenth of an inch. Then you do that for 16 games and what's happened? It's moved a full inch. So, yeah, it's not uncommon.

"What we're concerned about it when somebody goes to slide into second base, we want to make sure that when he's sliding he's sliding to a base that's 90 feet away. We don't want anybody to say, 'Well, it was one inch further away so therefore I was tagged out.' That's why we check it so diligently."

Same thing with the mounds. Not just the height, but the slope: one inch for every foot. "A pitcher's sense of balance is very acute. You can be a quarter-inch off walking down something in your stride or your step, if you're going downhill, you know it. You sense it," he said. "And the 60 feet, six inches. As with the bases, the pressure exerted on the pitcher's rubber can cause it to creep back."

Owens' job is to make sure everything is within no more than a quarter of an inch of where it should be. And it usually is since most teams measure at the end of every homestand.

When all that's done, Owens turns his attention to the lighting. He places small orange flags in a matrix, 16 in the infield and usually between 31 and 35 in the outfield, depending on its size. He'll return shortly before sunset and take pictures of the light standards. The color of the bulbs can tell him if there are problems. When it's fully dark he takes a reading at each flag, looking for both the average light level and uniformity.

By comparing to his previous readings, he can also give the team a heads-up on when the bulbs are likely to need to be replaced. That's helpful since it can cost between $200,000 and $400,000 to re-lamp an entire park.

There is no maximum lighting level. During a day game, on a bright day, the light on the field can measure between 7,000 and 10,000 foot candles, a measure of illuminance. For night games, the level at most parks is between 300 or 400 foot candles.

Here's the funny thing, though. While his job is to be certain that every park is as close to the same as possible in certain areas, what he enjoys most are the little things that make each venue different.

At Detroit's Comerica Park, the "circle" around the plate is shaped like the plate itself. There and at Chase Field in Arizona, there is a dirt path between the plate and the mound. The infield cutouts and first and third bases vary.

"All those are strictly up to the individual teams, and I applaud those," he said. "Because I think it's a great thing. Those are not any sort of violation of any rules. They're the uniqueness of every ballpark. You go into every ballpark and from the seating on down to the field there are unique things. The walls behind [the plate]. Some have different color bricks. Some have sandstone. The variety is amazing to me and you just have to appreciate that."

PHILADELPHIA -- Come to think of it, we don't hear those stories anymore. The ones about a relief pitcher complaining that he couldn't get anybody out because the game mound was so different from the one he warmed up on in the bullpen. Or the whispers about how some teams had mounds higher than the regulation 10 inches to help their pitchers, how others kept them lower to aid their hitters.

And there's a good reason for that.

Mike Owens is the reason. He was at Citizens Bank Park one day last week. The Phillies were off. The place was empty except for the grounds crew and the occasional tour group. Owens spent the day, and part of the night, checking to make sure the measurements and the lighting were what they're supposed to be.

He came in from Washington and Baltimore, where he looked in on Nationals Park and Oriole Park at Camden Yards. His next stop was Boston's Fenway Park.

"Major League Baseball, probably about 15 years ago, set up a routine where every [two years] they'd come in and check the fields, check the dimensions and check the lighting at night to make sure it still meets the requirements for Major League Baseball," he explained.

Owens spent 38 years with General Electric in Hendersonville, N.C. During much of that time he worked on sports lighting design and, in fact, designed and installed the lighting systems for about half of MLB's stadiums. After he retired in December 2007, MLB asked him if he'd be interested in becoming a consultant.

"It was kind of funny because one of the comments they made to me at the time was, 'We know you know how to measure lighting. We're going to teach you how to measure dirt,'" he said with a laugh. "At the time, being naïve, I went out on a field and actually started looking at some of the things that were being measured and [realized], 'This is not as easy as it looks.'"

It's sometimes said that baseball is a game of inches. That's not strictly true. When dealing with field dimensions, it's a game of fractions of inches.

For example, it's common knowledge that the bases are 90 feet apart. But it takes constant vigilance to make sure that's the case.

"When you think about it, they slide in. They're sliding into the base, right? A lot of pressure coming in," he explained. "You think, okay, that doesn't sound like much. Well, they water the field. Get a little rain. There's a little gap and the water washes in. Now the next game it maybe gets pushed a sixteenth of an inch. Then you do that for 16 games and what's happened? It's moved a full inch. So, yeah, it's not uncommon.

"What we're concerned about it when somebody goes to slide into second base, we want to make sure that when he's sliding he's sliding to a base that's 90 feet away. We don't want anybody to say, 'Well, it was one inch further away so therefore I was tagged out.' That's why we check it so diligently."

Same thing with the mounds. Not just the height, but the slope: one inch for every foot. "A pitcher's sense of balance is very acute. You can be a quarter-inch off walking down something in your stride or your step, if you're going downhill, you know it. You sense it," he said. "And the 60 feet, six inches. As with the bases, the pressure exerted on the pitcher's rubber can cause it to creep back."

Owens' job is to make sure everything is within no more than a quarter of an inch of where it should be. And it usually is since most teams measure at the end of every homestand.

When all that's done, Owens turns his attention to the lighting. He places small orange flags in a matrix, 16 in the infield and usually between 31 and 35 in the outfield, depending on its size. He'll return shortly before sunset and take pictures of the light standards. The color of the bulbs can tell him if there are problems. When it's fully dark he takes a reading at each flag, looking for both the average light level and uniformity.

By comparing to his previous readings, he can also give the team a heads-up on when the bulbs are likely to need to be replaced. That's helpful since it can cost between $200,000 and $400,000 to re-lamp an entire park.

There is no maximum lighting level. During a day game, on a bright day, the light on the field can measure between 7,000 and 10,000 foot candles, a measure of illuminance. For night games, the level at most parks is between 300 or 400 foot candles.

Here's the funny thing, though. While his job is to be certain that every park is as close to the same as possible in certain areas, what he enjoys most are the little things that make each venue different.

At Detroit's Comerica Park, the "circle" around the plate is shaped like the plate itself. There and at Chase Field in Arizona, there is a dirt path between the plate and the mound. The infield cutouts and first and third bases vary.

"All those are strictly up to the individual teams, and I applaud those," he said. "Because I think it's a great thing. Those are not any sort of violation of any rules. They're the uniqueness of every ballpark. You go into every ballpark and from the seating on down to the field there are unique things. The walls behind [the plate]. Some have different color bricks. Some have sandstone. The variety is amazing to me and you just have to appreciate that."

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.