Total Eclipse of the Park: The Guardians’ home opener coincides with a rare solar eclipse

CLEVELAND — Befuddled birds will start chirping. Drivers trapped in a boundless traffic snarl will halt their honking. The temperature will plunge. Sluggers swatting batting practice tosses at Progressive Field will pause for a cosmic intermission.

At 3:13 p.m. ET on April 8, the springtime sky above downtown Cleveland will host a total solar eclipse, as the moon’s shadow sweeps across the middle of the country and eclipse chasers scramble to locate the perfect spot to witness the spectacle.

The orbits of the sun, the Earth and the moon will align so that the moon blocks out the full disc of the sun, casting darkness along a path that will extend from Mexico to Dallas to Little Rock to Indianapolis to Cleveland to Buffalo to Caribou, Maine. The phenomenon occurs every 18-24 months, but usually over vast oceans or uninhabited regions like Antarctica.

This one is headed for the spotlight, and it’s also on a collision course with the Cleveland Guardians’ home opener.

For two years, Cleveland officials have planned for an event in which the ensemble carries out its performance millions of miles from the front-row seats on Lake Erie’s shore. The showcase is expected to attract visitors to Cleveland from Canada, France, Ireland and Zimbabwe, plus states near and far. The city won’t land in the path of totality again until 2444.

To grant the Guardians an extension for their ongoing ballpark renovations, the league booked them a three-city, 11-day trip through Oakland, Seattle and Minneapolis to start the regular season. They’re one of three teams, along with the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays, following that sequence, but they’re the only one with celestial complications.

The Guardians are now faced with a decision: Do they host their home opener that day, or that night, or shortly after the three-minute, 49-second phase of totality when day masquerades as night?

“Everybody talks about where they were when the Cavs won the championship,” said Chris Hartenstine, an education coordinator at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. “Everybody can say, ‘I was in the arena,’ ‘I was at the watch party,’ ‘I was watching with friends.’ This is one of those moments. It’s in science, not necessarily sports. The cool thing about the Guardians is you can get a little bit of both. ‘I was there on Opening Day when the eclipse happened.’”

The preparation for April 8, 2024, for many, began on Aug. 21, 2017, the date of the last total solar eclipse visible from the U.S. That’s when Cleveland restaurant owner Sam McNulty first entered a reminder on his phone’s calendar. Now, he’s fast-tracking the completion of a rooftop bar at Market Garden Brewery to accommodate the out-of-towners who have reserved tables for April 8.

For some, it started a bit earlier.

“I’ve been thinking about 2024 since I was a kid,” said Mike Kentrianakis, who has witnessed 14 total solar eclipses since 1979 from Indonesia, Chile, Gabon, Australia, China, Russia, Greece, Aruba, Canada, and — while over the Scotia Sea — north of the Antarctic Peninsula.

He watched the 2017 eclipse from Carbondale, Ill., and at the end of March, he’ll hop in a rental car in Queens, N.Y., and start his 15-hour trek to the same site, the rare city to fall in the path of totality in both 2017 and 2024.

“I’ll do anything for an eclipse,” Kentrianakis said.

Hartenstine anchored NASA’s public presentation from the path of totality seven years ago in a tent on the grassy area in front of the state capitol building in Jefferson City, Mo. He wasn’t sure what to expect. Hartenstine went from sweating buckets in Jefferson City’s 90-degree summer heat to needing a sweatshirt. As darkness descended in the middle of the day, crickets and cicadas and birds chirped in confusion. Shadows sharpened to what Hartenstine described as “video game” levels as the moon impeded the sun’s effect, before it all returned to normal with disappointing speed.

“Four minutes is a song on the radio,” Hartenstine said. “You can totally miss the experience. You have to know ahead of time to know what you’re looking for and then you can really embrace it.”

While some embrace it, others have to plan around it. The eclipse coincides with the NCAA Women’s Final Four at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse and the Cleveland International Film Festival at Playhouse Square. And, of course, the Guardians’ home opener – which, in at least some capacity, will have to surrender to the quirks of science for a once-in-a-lifetime total eclipse at the park.

Over the past few months, the Guardians have consulted with everyone from local authorities to NASA scientists as they tried to determine the best Opening Day approach. The Guardians have slated seven of their last eight home openers (in which fans were permitted) for 4:10 p.m. ET, but that time will fall in the partial eclipse window, and trying to barrel a 90 mph slider while sporting solar-filtered glasses is a tall order. If they choose a late-afternoon start time, fans could potentially view the eclipse from ballpark seats that have a view of the midday sun. Even if they opt for a night game, there will still be traffic-related challenges to sort through.

Few baseball teams have had to consider such questions before, but there is at least one example — and they leaned hard into the eclipse festivities.

In 2017, the Bowling Green Hot Rods, the Low A affiliate of the Rays, faced a similar quandary. Bowling Green, Ky., resided in the path of totality, and when an astronomy professor at nearby Western Kentucky University placed it on their radar a year in advance, the Hot Rods started their planning.

They settled on a brunch-timed first pitch, officially 10:34 a.m., as league rules prohibited them from starting much earlier. The teams, clad in black “moon” and white “sun” jerseys, breezed through the first eight innings, but just as the Hot Rods’ broadcaster expressed relief about the pace of play, the West Michigan Whitecaps pieced together a five-run ninth and the sunlight started to dim.

In 2017, the Bowling Green Hot Rods made an eclipse into a fully themed event, with special uniforms and a viewing party. (Steve Roberts / Bowling Green Hot Rods)

Had the game dragged on any longer than the two hours, 38 minutes it took, the teams would have paused the action. Instead, moments after the final out, players and fans sprawled out on the outfield grass as professors explained the science unfolding overhead.

The Hot Rods attracted a crowd of 6,006, one of the largest in the ballpark’s history, and certainly the largest for a Monday morning first pitch.

The Guardians have sold out every home opener since 1994, and it’s fair to expect that Progressive Field will again sell out its roughly 35,000 seats, eclipse or not. In a normal year, that might qualify as a major event downtown; this year, it’s got a lot of competition.

This is the first total solar eclipse over Cleveland since 1809, nearly a century before the city’s baseball outfit became a charter member of the American League. Destination Cleveland, an organization charged with bringing tourism to the city, estimates that 200,000 visitors will trek downtown that day. Most hotels in the city are already sold out.

“People are going to descend on Cleveland like we’ve never seen,” said Scott Vollmer, VP of education and exhibits for the Great Lakes Science Center.

NASA will broadcast the day’s events from outside the Great Lakes Science Center, where an expected crowd of 50,000 will gather for the grand finale of a three-day festival at the North Coast Harbor.

“It’s literally once-in-a-lifetime,” Vollmer said, “and all you have to do is look up to see it.”

Downtown Cleveland isn’t the only place expecting to be overrun with eclipse tourists. The suburb of Avon Lake, Ohio, about a half-hour west of downtown Cleveland, sits directly on the center line of totality, hence the town’s new slogan, “Totality’s best seat.”

Erin Fach, Avon Lake’s director of parks and recreation, has studied Hopkinsville, a small town in southwest Kentucky that welcomed visitors from 48 states for the 2017 eclipse. Fach and his team even dined at Ferrell’s, a Hopkinsville burger joint with one stove and a dozen barstools that, five years after the landmark event, still featured on its menu an eclipse burger — a double cheeseburger with bacon and a sunny-side-up egg.

Fach expects the town’s population of 30,000 to double or triple on April 8. He has prepared the city’s planners by describing the day as their annual July 4 fireworks show coinciding with the biggest high school football game they’ve ever hosted while another milestone event unfolds at the primary community park.

Now organizers and eclipse tourists alike are simply hoping the weather holds up and everyone can see the show. Cloud cover is a concern in Cleveland, but Hartenstine relayed cautious optimism that the temperature of Lake Erie will create a barrier of cold air that pushes a stagnant, overcast sky away from the waterfront. Colleagues at the Johnson Space Center in Houston have asked Hartenstine why eclipse chasers would venture to Cleveland on April 8 instead of Dallas or another city with a more accommodating spring forecast. Hartenstine pointed out that Cleveland has had clear skies on that date the last two years.

“The pinnacle (is) the totality,” Hartenstine said. “The last little glimmer of sunlight disappears behind the moon and then you have to take your eclipse glasses off or you won’t see anything. When you take those glasses off, you can see the corona of the sun radiating across the sky.

“That was the moment for me in 2017. I still didn’t get it. But once you take the glasses off and see the show, it becomes however long you have in that path of totality, whether it’s 20 seconds, or 3 minutes, 50 seconds, like Cleveland has. You have to take it in.

“That’s four minutes of visual phenomenon, amazement — and then it’s gone.”

The Guardians are expected to decide on their start time in the next few weeks. Whether they build the eclipse into the home opener or try to work around it, it will be a baseball experience with little precedent.

Kentrianakis plans to wait until 18-24 hours before the climax of the event to determine whether he’ll stay in Carbondale or hightail it to Cleveland. The city with the clearer forecast will win out. It’s the last total solar eclipse that will be visible in the contiguous U.S. until August 2044.

“It’s an indescribable experience,” he said. “It’s unlike anything you could imagine.

“Everyone’s gonna say, ‘That was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.’”

(Top image: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; Photos: Bill Ingalls courtesy of NASA; Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Images)

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