Yesterday’s column here on the eminently approaching decision about Tal’s Hill stimulated some of the best real discussion we’ve had in some time on one of the built-in anomalies on the Houston baseball venue we now call Minute Maid Park, In fact, it spilled over into several other recognizable peculiarities of our base, most notably, the presence of the Crawford Boxes in left field.
The Issues Beyond Tal’s Hill
(1) Pitchers have learned over the total 13 seasons in residence to play MMP as it is. What happens next isn’t simply about Tal’s Hill – or the Crawford Boxes, for that matter. It’s about: Do we really want to alter the ballpark to the extent that it wipes out all the training pitchers have gone through in learning how to perform successfully in Houston?
That was the underpinning thought behind my too brief comment on the throwback similarity of MMP to the old Polo Grounds and its ridiculously short foul lines and impossibly deep center field. Mike Vance picked up on it exactly as I intended it. Beyond the hill itself, pitchers need every one of those 436 feet in dead center to make MMP the park they have all learned to play.
Move those fences in to 390-400 feet, and you create the band box that frightened all of the Astrodome courage out of Jose Lima and a few others back in that first 2000 season. It was learning how to force batters to hit the ball into the big center field pasture that separated the successful Astros pitchers from those who needed to seek work elsewhere.
Do we really want to change that anomaly now? It is my hope that someone from within the coaching and playing membership will get Mr. Crane’s ear on that one. As a former ballplayer himself, he certainly must understand what I’m talking about here.
(2) New “owner” Jim Crane is under great pressure. He has both the need and the right to run things on the Astros his way from stem to stern, as long as he does it under a 24/7 assault of suggestions from everyone, including little people like me, on what he should and shouldn’t do – and as long as his own needs to imprint the franchise with his own brand doesn’t hurt the fans of Houston in the long term.
I’ve always seen it this way when it comes to the real ownership of the Astros: Our fan-passion for the game is your business, Mr. Crane. Please handle both with care – and please maintain a respect for the past while your eye is on the future. The important heritage of Houston Baseball is much older than any single ownership of the current major league club.
Good luck with your practiced balance on these issues too, Mr. Crane. As with everything else, we are all ultimately judged by what we do.
(3) Baseball is a timeless game played on a field of randomly expressed configuration anomalies. As we all know, and very unlike football, baseball is not played by the clock on a field that is invariably the same size. Once we get past the right angles that configure the infield diamond and its four infield stations at 90 feet apart, and a pitching rubber that is 60 feet six inches from home plate, the far away outfield walls appear at random distance from home. At 1912 Fenway Park in Boston, the short wall in left was due to the limitations on additional space – and that led to the latter construction of the Green Monster as one big deterrent wall to cheap home runs. At 2000 Enron Field in Houston, however, the short porch in left was by design.
Call it gimmicky, if you like, but that’s baseball. By requirement or design, baseball has been building these anomalies into ballparks for ages. During the era of the cookie-cutter multi-purpose stadiums that cities built in Houston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and St. Louis, among others, during the 1960s and 1970s, people briefly liked, then rebelled against the sameness. As the world’s first domed stadium, only the Astrodome maintained any unique charm over time, but even that smile had faded by the turn of the 21st century.
Enron Field, now Minute Maid Park (MMP), was a product of planned anomaly, and these included Tal’s Hill, what came to be known as the Crawford Boxes, the train, and the rambling column style of its interior architectural face. If the ball park is now reconfigured into something closer in resemblance to a band box sized cookie-cutter field, it’s not going to be very pretty – and it is going to be boomer baseball for whichever team brings the biggest bombers to games here.
A lot us don’t like a constant dose of bomber baseball, but the Astros are going into the AL WEST in 2013 as opponents of the Rangers and Angels, two of the biggest bomber squadrons in the game. We will need every inch of that 436 feet center field wall – and I’ll take the Hill and flag pole with it too. As for this kind of ball, only the park is sort of ready, via our pitchers’ abilities to “play it like the Polo Grounds.”
We aren’t close to winning any slugfests any time soon. The Astros don’t have an air force. Right now, they don’t even own a plane.