Fox baseball commentator Tim McCarver is a retired baseball catcher whose work as a TV analyst recently got him inducted into the announcers' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He occupies the top TV perch in the sport, and fans either love him or hate him.
If McCarver truly wants to be loved and hated more, there's no better way to accomplish that than link climate change to America's pastime, on national TV, in the middle of a Cardinals-Brewers ballgame. Following two home runs that barely cleared the outfield wall Saturday afternoon, McCarver offered this:
"It has not been proven, but I think ultimately it will be proven that the air is thinner now, there have been climactic changes over the last 50 years in the world, and I think that's one of the reasons balls are carrying much better now than I remember."
McCarver's on-air partner, Joe Buck, offered peer review in the form of a half-hearted Al Gore joke. The game went on. And the blogs went wild.
A blogger for DeadSpin called McCarver's remark "one of the stupidest things ever spoken on a television broadcast today." Predictably, climate deniers' sites like Watts Up With That? lit up with comments. A search of dozens of web items found little support for McCarver, and Major League Baseball, which owns the broadcasts, appears to have quickly invoked its copyright privileges, yanking the video clip from numerous websites.
But could warmer temperatures and thinner air actually make more homers? Or is an old announcer pulling facts out of thin air?
Robert Adair, a retired physics professor from Yale University, gained notoriety a few years back when his book, "The Physics of Baseball," gave scholarly explanations for why a curveball curves and a knuckleball wobbles. He calculated that a two-degree temperature rise will add one foot to a 400-foot home run ball, increasing home run odds by about 1.75 percent. With that rise, Roger Maris's epic 61 home-run season might have been 62. And wispy Braves shortstop Rafael Belliard, who hit two home runs in a 17-year career, still would have hit two.
The National Academy of Sciences estimates that global temperatures have climbed about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century, with about two thirds of that increase coming since George Brett hit .390 for a season (that was 1980 for the general public).
Another scientist, Simon Donner of the University of British Columbia, noticed a dramatic rise in home run production during the particularly hot summer of 1998. But as it turns out the discernible human influence on sluggers like Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa is widely believed to have come from steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, not the weather.
This is nothing new to Penn State climatologist Michael Mann, author of "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars." He has lived through a combination of personal attack and scientific vindication for his climate work, which also invokes sports: Mann compares the recent sharp, upward turn of global temperature charts to a hockey stick.
As someone who has drawn fire for associating climate change with a large wooden sports implement, Mann said via email that he "did find this latest baseball/world climate change dust-up somewhat amusing."
Mann also threw a high, hard one at McCarver's theory, saying that the carbon emissions behind climate change may even lower home runs. "If anything, anthropogenic carbon emissions and global warming should make the atmosphere slightly heavier, because we're taking carbon that was trapped in the solid earth and releasing to the atmosphere (in the form of CO2), and a warmer atmosphere will hold more water vapor. Both CO2 and water vapor contribute (slightly) to the mass of the atmosphere."
A changing atmosphere may be a bit player in the myriad things affecting home run hitters. Several baseball bean-counters have crunched the height and weight listings between now and a century ago. In 1910, the average major league hitter was 5 feet, 9 inches and 170 pounds, according to the roster listings of the day. In 2010, those numbers grew to 6 feet, 1 inch and 205 pounds. Ballplayers have grown steadily bigger and stronger. Diet, training and playing conditions have improved, bats and balls are precision-manufactured, the pitcher's mound has been raised and lowered, the strike zone shrunk and widened. Before we even get to the steroids, there are enough variables to manufacture legitimate doubt about climate change and homeruns.
The science is overwhelming that we're experiencing the first impacts of what could be catastrophic climate change. It's doubtful that shaky evidence from an ex-catcher helps makes the case – even if McCarver may turn out to be the second-ever Fox personality to acknowledge climate change (Homer Simpson was the first). There's a reason that sportswriters call catchers' equipment the "Tools of Ignorance."
Peter Dykstra is publisher of DailyClimate.org, and a big fan of 29 of the 30 major league teams, especially the one in Boston. DailyClimate.org is a nonprofit news service that covers climate change.