After a series of unfortunate events in the 1940s, Major League Baseball decided that it needed to make a change to improve player safety. The decision to install a "warning track" came at a time when a daring Brooklyn Dodgers outfielder named Pete Reiser was routinely crashing into outfield walls and injuring himself -- severely, in some cases.
Early attempts at warning tracks included sloped fields to give outfielders a heads-up that the wall was coming (sounds like a bad idea as they sped up into it), but it wasn't until 1949 that the warning track was formalized by MLB, which required cinder paths or something other than grass in all parks, 10 feet from the walls.
The warning tracks, however, that currently adorn every major league baseball field are essentially useless. (Did you see what happened to Matt Kemp on Tuesday night in Colorado? More on that in a moment.)
We want to believe the warning track is this awesome alarm system that tells a speeding outfielder that the wall is coming up soon. But funny enough, there is no regulation size for a warning track -- guess the 10-foot thing went out the window. In one stadium, you have enough room to rescue a beached whale on the track, but then you go to the next town on that same road trip and it may be too small for a guppie. So if you rely on standardization of safety features (which would make sense), you will be disappointed. Of course, if you get used to a larger track at home but find smaller ones on the road, you better get ready to call your dentist to get all green padding out of your teeth, because that one-foot shorter track is going to cost you your smile.
Maybe "useless" is too strong a word. Maybe it does a little for safety if you just want to bail out as soon as you figure out you are on the track, but that does nothing to help you make a play. In fact, it scares you away from making it. Is that the purpose? If so, my bad -- or I should say "too bad."
In the minor leagues, we learned how to use the warning track in practice. We would stand near the track, a coach would either hit a ball or throw a ball over our heads. We would run back, count the number of steps we had before the wall smacked us in the face and then store that number in our muscle memories.
The idea being that when I am in a game, if I measured that I could take three steps before hitting the wall, I would say to myself "1! 2! 3! Wall!"
Why is this ridiculous in a real game?
• No two approaches to a wall are the same -- ever. Maybe it takes three steps if the ball is right over your head and you go straight into the wall. When does that happen? Not that often. Most times you are running at an angle, you are stutter-stepping, you are adjusting to something. It could take five steps at one angle to the wall, eight on another.
• The elements play a big role. Is it sunny? Is it raining? Is the wind howling? Are the lights in your face? The warning track kind of works off the idea that you will not use those two things inside your head called "eyes" -- a feature all major league outfielders have the good fortune of having a working set.
• In most game situations, the fastest way to track down a ball is to have some window of time when you are not looking at it. I know, it sounds weird, but trying to run and look at the ball the entire time slows you down. You end up running against your body, fighting it to wherever you are going. The fastest way to get from point A to point B is to look where you are going, plain and simple. So you pick up the ball, make your instinctive calculations and run to a spot where you think it is going to land, and find the ball again. Problem is many outfielders, even at the big league level, are afraid to take their eyes off the ball for fear of not finding it again, so if you never take your eye off the ball, you surely can't see a wall coming.
• No two warning tracks are the same -- crushed gravel, sport court, pixie dust, Tang? They all feel different under your spikes, and they don't feel that different than grass when going full speed while focusing on a small white ball with every ounce of your being (and I use the word "feel" very loosely).
For example, take Kemp, who left Tuesday's game with a bruised right knee after crashing into the outfield wall at Coors Field. Keep in mind Kemp is a Gold Glover, so it has nothing to do with being a good outfielder. (Yes, like anything else, some outfielders are just naturally gifted, so you can't base an approach to the wall off players like Torii Hunter or Mike Trout.)
The warning track is like driving on a highway with a speed limit of 70 mph, then all of a sudden you're in a school zone and the speed limit drops to 25 mph, with a brick wall staring you right in the face. By the time you "physically" realize you are inside the 25 mph warning track area, it is too late to do much of anything except save yourself. So if you get a second chance to drive on this highway, you would know to put your foot on the brake way before you get into that 25 mph warning area to avoid colliding with that wall. (Once again, it also depends on the stadium.)
Outfielders end up creating their own warning tracks to the warning track. While running, they are thinking, "When I am going to feel the dirt?" Congratulations warning track, you just destroyed my best chance of actually catching the ball. Fine, I didn't get hurt, but I just allowed three runs to score. Warning track, you stink.
Keep in mind, outfielders are still smashing into walls even with this Yorkshire Terrier alarm system. We saw two pretty good outfielders in Jon Jay and Chris Young end up on the disabled list after running into walls this season. What did the warning track do for them? Absolutely nothing. Jay thought he had another 20 feet left when he hit the wall, and Young reacted too soon to what he thought was the warning track and practically fell into the wall. When you are running full speed, in spikes, fighting everything you need to fight to catch a hooking, dipping ball, do you really feel the change between grass and dirt through a layer of socks over socks over socks on top of a Nike Air Sole on top of plastic, with spikes all over the place?
Probably not in any way that really helps you. (The warning track is great, however, for pregame festivities like driving cars and sausage races.)
So yes, it may sound bold, but the warning track doesn't warn anyone except those watching on the TV or in the stands, certainly not an outfielder going full speed trying to catch a laser hit by Albert Pujols. (Correction: It warns you that if you slow down in anticipation of feeling it, you just gave the hitter a sure double, and if you slow down after you actually feel it under your spikes after going full speed, you will need a new jaw.)
Is it good for anything? Maybe it helps a tiptoeing first baseman going near the railing. Maybe it helps when you have all day to get under a Giancarlo Stanton moon-scraping fly ball near the wall.
You can feel your way around in the sands for a minute, but for the most part, the warning track is eye candy. We might as well put sand out there, put out some lawn chairs and a wet bar. At least an outfielder would actually know something has changed when he bangs his knee on a bar stool. But to make great catches at the wall or to know when to back off to play it for a double, you need to know where that wall is way before the warning track tells you, and if that is the case and the wall is padded anyway, why do we even need it?