Q. I notice most Major League baseball teams have dugouts on the first-base side when playing on their home fields, but there are some home teams that use the third-base dugout. I assume home teams can select which side they prefer?
— Charles Lee and J.B., of Millstadt
A. Indeed they can, and the reasons for their choices apparently range from Mother Nature to the whims of a Steinbrenner. In today’s Major Leagues, you see nearly a 50-50 split — 18 down the first-base line (including the Cardinals and Yankees) and 12 on the third-base side (including the Pirates and Dodgers). Oddly enough, there’s an identical 9-6 divide in both the National and American leagues.
You might think that in their desire for uniformity, baseball rule makers would have added their 2 cents’ worth on the subject. After all, dugouts have been around since the earliest days of pro ball.
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“(It) is the place from which the orders come, and it is here that the battle is planned and from here the moves are executed,” Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson wrote way back in 1912. “The manager sits here and pulls the wires, and his players obey him as if they were manikins.”
Just when or where the first dugout was installed seems to be lost in time. As best as historians can surmise, teams sitting or standing around at field level in the early stadiums would have interfered with the view of fans who had the best seats — those in the first rows along the first- and third-base lines near home plate. So to give those spectators a better view, owners began digging out areas so players could cool their heels below field level — hence, “dugout.”
Over the years, rule makers have had to take the new structures into account to govern play in and around the dugout. For example, it’s a legal catch if a player reaches into a dugout to make a snare as long as at least one of his feet is on or over the playing surface. Afterward, baserunners advance at their own risk. But if the player falls into the dugout while making the catch, the ball is ruled dead and baserunners are awarded the next base. However, the rules have been silent on which dugout goes to which team in any given park.
As various baseball references point out, there’s not even a historical precedent. In the two oldest parks still in use today, the Cubbies perch themselves on the third-base side of Wrigley in Chicago while the Red Sox enjoy the comforts of the first-base dugout at Boston’s Fenway. Even individual teams sometimes can’t make up their minds. From 2005 to 2007, the Washington Nationals used the third-base dugout at RFK Stadium reportedly because it was both larger and newer than the other one. But when they moved to Nationals Park in 2008, they took over the first-base shelter.
Reasons given for an individual team’s choice are mostly anecdotal. Some historians say the third-base dugout was the choice of most home teams, because, years ago, managers often served as third-base coaches, so they had a shorter walk to their post when their teams came up to bat every inning. Others argue that since so many bang-bang plays happen at first base, home-team managers wanted the first-base dugout so they had a better view and, hence, faster access to arguments with the umpire. Some say home teams, like the Nationals, picked the dugout that was larger and plusher. And there’s also the theory that home teams had to take the dugout that faced the executive suites in the stands so the Buschs and Steinbrenners could constantly monitor what was going on.
But the primary reason may lie in a simple fact of nature — the sun. During day or early evening games, how would you like to be on the side where you were constantly baking in the summer heat and squinting as you watched the action on the field? Well, according to this theory, neither did the players and coaching staff, so they chose the side that would be most often in the shade.
Now, according to baseball rules, this might have made the choice simple. According to the latest rulebook, Rule 2.01 still states, “It is desirable that the line from home base through the pitcher’s plate to second base shall run East-Northeast.” This means that all parks should have been built with an identical orientation as to sun, so all home teams would want the same dugout.
But, of course, it hasn’t turned out that way. “It is desirable” is merely a suggestion, not a mandate. So because of reasons ranging from winds to the placement of owners’ boxes, you can find parks in which home plate faces due north (as at Arizona’s Chase Field) to stadiums where home faces almost due south (as at Detroit’s Comerica Park). So if the sun is the reason, this would provide plenty of hot evidence, especially when many baseball gurus say that colleges, high schools and other amateur leagues usually make their selections based on which dugout faces away from the sun.
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Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: On Aug. 17, 1786, frontiersman and folk hero Davy Crockett was born near the town of Limestone in east central Tennessee. Nearly two centuries later, the tiny hamlet of 5,000 was able to start boasting of a favorite daughter, too. On the final season of “The Beverly Hillbillies” in 1970-71, Daisy May Moses — usually known as Granny — revealed on episode 23 that she, too, hailed from Limestone, where, presumably, there were no cement ponds.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, firstname.lastname@example.org or call 618-239-2465.