The hill is gone -- soon -- in Houston
For so many reasons, the Astros didn't need to open their new ballpark in 2000 with a center field that went on forever. Not only that, they added a terribly steep hill beyond the warning track. Then they placed a flagpole close to the wall near the back of the hill.
The hill and the flagpole were in play.
Not good. For verification, more than a few center fielders still cringe with memories of looking clueless at Minute Maid Field in search of fly balls.
This is good: Beginning with the 2016 season, Astros officials will remove that hill and flagpole from center. They'll shorten the distance from home plate to the wall in that part of the ballpark from 436 feet to 409 feet, which would drop the Astros' center field from the deepest in baseball to the sixth deepest. They'll fill the space beyond the wall with restaurants and bars, and they'll give fans a chance for a field-level view of the action.
"The new center field will not only be great for fans, but (it) will make Minute Maid Park an attractive ballpark for current and future players as well," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow told reporters, speaking mostly from a marketing point of view. As for those in the trenches, Astros center fielder Jake Marisnick told the Houston Chronicle, "Safety's definitely an issue with it. I mean, going up on that hill, there's nowhere else to do that, and with that pole out there . . . You haven't seen too many balls up there. I don't think it's too much of an issue, but it'd be good if the fence's moved up."
That's the plan. With $15 million worth of renovations coming for Minute Maid Park, everybody wins, except for maybe Tal Smith, the legendary former executive of the Astros. The hill is called Tal's Hill, but no worries. The Astros will find other ways to honor Smith. If nothing else, they can declare the area that will stretch from center field through the new gathering spot for fans beyond the fences something like Tal's Valley.
Now don't get me wrong. Among the many things that separate baseball from its counterparts is the quirkiness of its ballparks. Goodness knows, Wrigley Field gains much of its charm from its ivy. The same goes for its manual scoreboard beyond the center field bleachers, and we're talking about bleachers that have been recently rebuilt on Chicago's north side beyond the outfield walls of more than 100 years old. Even so, those bleachers continue to give the Cubs' home uniqueness for the ages.
You know where I'm going next: The Green Monster.
Just like Wrigley, Fenway Park has been pounded with a few jackhammers in recent years. Still, courtesy of the Green Monster that is the left-field wall (along with other twists and turns throughout other parts of the ballpark), the Red Sox have their Wrigley in Boston.
Yankee Stadium isn't the one that Ruth built anymore. It's not even the one that was renovated in the 1970s. It's the one that Steinbrenner built and opened in 2009, with a slew of modern stuff, but it features many of the things from its predecessors. There is Monument Park, and there also is the distinctive frieze that was part of the roof of Ruth's Yankee Stadium.
The Royals have their water fountains at Kauffman Stadium. The Orioles have their warehouse behind right field. The Brewers have their slide for Bernie Brewer, and the Mets have their Big Apple. There's also nothing wrong with that swimming pool beyond the right-center-field wall at Chase Field in Phoenix, especially since Arizona is noted for getting a little toasty, even during the spring and autumn. Then there are the kayakers in McCovey Cove behind the right-field wall at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
All of those things were unique to those particular franchises, which means the Astros went too far (and too deep into center) regarding their hill and their flagpole. For one, both of those things often were annoying to players. For another, they weren't original. The Astros got the flagpole idea from the original Yankee Stadium that had its flagpole sitting in play in the middle of a massive center field -- you know, like at Minute Maid Park right now.
As for the hill, well, this gets personal.
The Astros built their hill as a tribute to THE hill that served as the warning track in left field at old Crosley Field for the Reds. While growing up in Cincinnati during the late 1960s, my brothers and I were regulars at Crosley, where we enjoyed watching Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Lee May and other members of the Big Red Machine send rockets toward the nearby southern Ohio hills. We also enjoyed watching left fielders tumble down Crosley's little hill.
The only place in the Major Leagues that should have a hill in the outfield is Great American Ballpark since it followed Crosley and Riverfront Stadium as the Reds' home. Great American Ballpark lacks a hill, by the way. But its main entrance resembles the left-field terrace at Crosley, and it does have its own things, ranging from that gap between the stands to give fans a unique view of downtown to the two smokestacks beyond the right-center-field fence to commemorate the steamboats that sailed down the nearby Ohio River.
But back to Minute Maid Park, which still has a train that runs beyond the left-field wall. The Houston Chronicle did a poll three years ago asking readers whether it should stay or go, and 80 percent said stay.
So the Astros should keep the train.
That's unique enough.