HOUSTON (AP) — When former Astros owner Drayton McLane prepared to spend $265 million of ownership and taxpayer money to build the field of his dreams, he could not expect it to last forever, but he wanted it to be unforgettable.
The Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/2dkMBxE ) reports in 1997 he looked around a drab, cramped, windowless, eighth floor Astrodome conference room for inspiration from his brain trust.
“What can we do to make this ballpark special?” he asked.
President of business operations Bob McClaren, senior vice president of sales and marketing Pam Gardner and three architects from the design firm Populous turned to the group’s venerable historian, an old-timer who expounded that nostalgia would reinvigorate the modern ballpark.
Tal Smith, the head of baseball operations, proposed that they build a hill in centerfield for the impending Enron Field.
When Smith finished his presentation the architects remained silent. An awkward feeling hung while the notion of an obstacle in the outfield settled in.
“It caught them a little bit by surprise,” said McClaren, who liked Smith’s nod to the berm at Crosley Field, the Cincinnati Reds’ old ballpark. “We were hungry for something different and unique and distinguishable.”
Populous spent the next weeks mapping it out, materializing the quirky idea into Tal’s Hill, as it was dubbed.
Smith was elated they treated his suggestion seriously. He made it on a lark.
“I didn’t think the hill would survive,” Smith admits now. “I just thought because it was different, somebody someplace along the line would kill it.”
Now, 20 years later, the Astros under Jim Crane’s ownership will.
In a shift from novelty to practicality, the team began discussing renovations in 2012, general manager Jeff Luhnow said. Other stadiums added sleek bars lined with televisions and plush spaces to congregate in their centerfield concourses. Crane’s crew saw a 90-foot wide, 30-degree incline in the way of increasing revenue similarly.
When this season ends, the Astros will raze the hill, bring the fence in to 409 feet and build out new amenities. The demolition date at Minute Maid Park (as it has been named since 2002) is set for November. The team is considering selling or donating pieces of the hill and flagpole rather than discarding everything.
“They inherited this,” said Smith, who worked 35 years for the Astros before departing when Crane bought the franchise in 2011. “It’s not something that they developed or would take any ownership pride in.”
“How could we keep something for ‘nostalgia’s sake’ when we have a better use for the fans and our players?” reasoned Astros president of business operations Reid Ryan.
Beyond sentimentality, the hill in 17 seasons achieved a mountainous stature. It thrilled fans, relieved pitchers, deflated hitters and incited both fear and gratification in center fielders, some who vaulted the hump and others who crumbled into the sod.
“I literally hit it full speed twice — face-planted,” said Hall of Fame player Craig Biggio, who converted from second baseman to center fielder in 2003. He compared the inclined hill with a staircase. “You don’t understand the severity of the slope.”
“When you’re running up it, it takes your legs away,” said former Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds, who likely made impressive catches on the hill more than anyone.
“It’s pretty comical. People get sniped,” he said, using a term for outfielders that collapse on the hill as if taken out by a sniper. “It made it fun. It was a change of pace more than your everyday ballpark.”
Former utility man Bill Spiers played the inaugural season at Enron Field. The hill did not worry him so much as the protruding flagpole. He said it shocked opponents when they learned it was in play. “You better watch your lips,” he advised.
Speedy center fielder Michael Bourn said fielding batting practice flies did not help him prepare. “I just let my athleticism take over,” he said. He once fell on the hill and caught a fly by extending his glove to a spot on the ground where he guessed the ball would land. “No other centerfield is played like that. It won’t be forgotten.”
“When people saw a game on TV and they saw that hill, they would know it’s Houston,” said McLane, who sold the club in 2011.
Smith expected Houston’s hill would create the type of iconic association that Wrigley Field’s ivy, Fenway Park’s Green Monster and Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park have with their cities. He also argued it would deepen the fence to 436 feet, the farthest in the majors, to compensate for the near, hitter-friendly walls in left and right fields.
Like McLane, former Astros employees are hill loyalists. Mike Donovan, the project manager from Populous, credits Smith’s imagination for stoking the group’s idea for the locomotive above left field. Former broadcaster Brett Dolan liked how much visiting teams had to adjust: the near walls in the corners made legging out doubles difficult and deep center opened up room for bloopers.
Larry Dierker, who managed the Astros in the Astrodome and Enron Field from 1997 to 2001, thought the hill was “an odd touch,” but he appreciated its unique effects.
“Removing it is a continuation of a trend to homogenize the sport,” he said. “They’ve covered (stadiums) all up with advertising and electronic media and wireless and everything. They’re these electronic profit centers. It’s sad to me. I’m an old guy. I asked my son and my daughter if this bothers them, and it doesn’t bother them a bit.”
The hill debate divided along old school and new school perspectives like so many baseball disputes.
“Millennials have different demands,” Ryan said. He explained that high-speed Internet, craft beer, televisions broadcasting different games and multiple spots to lounge are essential accoutrements these days. The Astros will spend $15 million on the renovations. “The area that was best for that is centerfield. And thus why we take down Tal’s Hill.”
Feelings about the removal are less ambivalent on the field.
“Thank God it’s going,” said Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who complained of the injury risk. “To artificially do something like that to a beautiful ballpark like this, where you have a blank canvas to lay out something special, I don’t think it has a place.”
Angels center fielder Mike Trout backed up those concerns: “It’s in your mind when you’re running back on a ball. You don’t want to be running full speed because you might get hurt.”
Luhnow arrived to the Astros thinking the hill would jeopardize George Springer’s career.
“I had visions of our franchise prospect coming up and twisting an ankle on the hill,” he said. “And you wonder: was it all worth it?”
Smith called these anxieties “ridiculous.”
“There haven’t been any injuries despite the naysayers that thought there would be,” he said. “I’ve actually seen more people trip over pitcher’s mounds than tumble on the hill.”
The flagpole, Smith points out, is thickly padded and so far back that Richie Sexson in 2003 remains the only player to hit it. The ball caromed so forcefully back into play it left a divot in the hill. Sexson wound up with a triple.
Current Astros pitchers are indifferent to the changes because ballparks do not alter their approaches.
“I’m not focused on where the fences are,” Mike Fiers said. “I’ve got to make my pitches. Try to get soft contact.”
Even though center fielder Jake Marisnick helped Colin McHugh earlier this season with a running catch up the hill, McHugh explained why the highlight play was not so momentous.
“It was great,” McHugh said, feigning glee to set up a punch line. “I did give up four homers that game anyway. So I didn’t necessarily think it would be that big of a deal.”
Hitters will benefit the most. Pulling the fence in from 436 feet will liberate them.
“You don’t try to hit up the middle because you’re going to hit it 425 feet and it’s going to be an out,” shortstop Carlos Correa said of the current confines.
Last year, Correa hit a double 434 feet that pelted the fence, narrowly missing a home run that would have tied the game in the bottom of the 9th inning.
“I remember that,” he said. “Two outs. We’re down by one run. We end up losing that game.”
Daren Willman, who created the stats site Baseball Savant, said that a 409-foot fence this season would have resulted in 22 more home runs at Minute Maid Park. That is not to suggest that the closer fence will be advantageous for the Astros: half of the projected home runs would have been by opposing hitters.
Still, a fence so far back seems excessive. In the past 11 seasons, only six home runs have ever been hit far enough to surpass Tal’s Hill, according to Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs. By comparison, 146 home runs have been hit at a similar trajectory in Great American Ballpark, where the Reds play.
With a career-best 465-foot blast, Springer is the only Astros player during that span to hit a home run over the hill.
“The hill’s cool, I guess, but I feel like if you hit it onto the hill it should be a homer,” the right fielder said. “There’s probably eight or nine balls I can remember that were outs that I don’t think should be outs.”
Catcher Evan Gattis, a Dallas native, liked the hill as a kid and enjoyed playing a high school game at Minute Maid Park. His opinion changed in the big leagues.
“I want the hill gone,” he said.
Baseball is in an age when analytics drive out gimmicks. A hill, there for the sake of intrigue, could not survive.
“There will be people, myself included, who will miss it,” Luhnow said. Then he was reminded of the home runs that Tal’s Hill prevented. “To a certain extent.”
Luhnow has given presentations this season using highlights from last year. In a film montage, Marisnick sprints to catch a ball on the hill. He leaves behind a trail of mud carved by his toe.
“He was charging 100 percent,” Luhnow said. “The hill didn’t even faze him.”
It was something that analytics could not measure.
“It’ll be weird out there,” Marisnick said. “Running around without a hill.”
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com