Tal’s Hill: The Bigger View

Minute Maid Park: It may be quirky, but that’s baseball. And it’s ours.

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.

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8 Responses to “Tal’s Hill: The Bigger View”

  1. Greg Lucas Says:

    Bill, I am a fence sitter regarding the train, but see no reason why Tal’s Hill…or at least the current distance to the CF wall needs to be adjusted. In 12 seasons no one has ever be hurt in dealing with the hill. I agree that with the current measurements of the ballpark a deep center field is a necessity. Remove the hill? OK, but don’t change the distance. There is nothing for which the space where the hill currently is can be used. The “batter’s eye” must remain in deep centerfield so no seats, restaurants, flower gardens or anything of that ilk can be placed there. Before the sponsor boards went up in left field I felt removal of the train would have allowed a seating area larger than the Crawford boxes thus allowing for the alteration of the Crawford boxes to allow for a more coventional distance to left field and no loss (maybe even increase) in seating capacity. As far as the train. Build a pavilion for it and place it outside the park on display to continue to recognize the history of the site, but take it out of active service.

    Just some thoughts. If they make none of them I would be satisfied, but if they make changes to satisfy people with no feel for history of the game–or otherwise, then I am opposed.

  2. Doug S. Says:

    Remove half the Crawford Boxes and place the Astros bullpen in a cage like the visitors currently are. The seating could be offset with the addition of seats in Right Center. This would make the park play a little larger – remember the Evil Pujols (actually a great guy but Astros fans don’t know him) is coming to town next year. No matter what though flatten Tal’s Hill – I can only imagine the screams back in 2004 if Carlos Beltran had jammed his knee or rolled his ankle while running like a gazelle when he hit the slope.

  3. mike Says:

    Bill and Greg mention the precise salient points that are most important about leaving the 436 distance in center field. Batter’s eye precludes any other use, and the pitchers have become accustomed to pitching for that large center field. One of these days, we will again have a full and seasoned major league-caliber pitching staff. Those dimensions are called home field advantage.

    We had one of the best ballparks in the majors in 2000, and horrible eyesore extra signage notwithstanding, the same quirky things that made it great then still work today. Leave it alone! The esthetic beauty, the architectural lines, are part of that experience whether you conciously think about them or not. As Greg says, the history of the game is what makes baseball different than other sports. You can’t successfully rule by poll results in sport, in business or in government.

  4. Bob Hulsey Says:

    The ironically named “Climbing Tal’s Hill” website also notes the possibility that the seats in the Crawford Boxes be removed and relocated to right-center with the scoreboard existing beneath it. Put the Astros bullpen next to the visitors bullpen underneath the left field walkway. Then fence off the Hill and you’ll have dimensions more similar to most ballparks.

    Either way, the Astros aren’t going to match the firepower of the deeper AL teams. That’s probably going to be true for the next five years or more so the only way to competitively offset that is to make home runs as difficult as possible to hit in your home park.

  5. Michael McCroskey Says:

    Thousands of dollars were spent for a professional design which resulted in a beautiful ballpark. It was reported that seating was intentionally limited in order to create more demand and a more intimate setting. Now that there are 20,000 empty seats every game, I am reading discussion about spending money to bastardized the original design in order to add even more empty seats! Does this even make sense?

    As a long time season ticket holder, I have yet to be asked my opinions on either the hill or the boxes. My answer would be keep them both and use the remodeling money to create a revenue producing Houston Sports museum. there is a building for sell on Texas avenue, u3 blocks away from the Crawford boxes that would serve that purpose beautifully.

  6. larry joe miggns Says:

    Maybe they could talk NASA into giving an old capsule or lunar landing craft for display in the area where Tal’s hill now resides. There is nothing at the park that ties the ASTROS name with NASA. I’m sure they have a few mothballed in a storage facility out there somewhere. Growing up they used to be one right off 610 in Meyerland in someone’s front yard. Anything to bring more fans to the game but if it where the fans could go up and take a picture beside it then everybody wins. The Astros sure could use more of those.

  7. John Watkins Says:

    Doug S. has it just about right. Flatten the Hill (and move the damn flag pole), but don’t leave half the Crawford Boxes. That would still make for those pop-up home runs that give the ballpark a bad name. As for the train, who really cares? It’s not a baseball matter.

  8. Neil M Says:

    Keep Tal’s Hill and the Crawford Boxes, but please remove those ridiculous Chick Fil-A Fowl Poles which block the view of hundreds of seats behind right field. I love CF-A, but this the big leagues, not the bush leagues.

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