I never saw Willie Mays play, but I hear he may have been the greatest ballplayer to ever live. The praise is filled with wonder more than numbers and it’s highly contagious.
Suddenly it’s 1954 and I’m standing in the hollow of Coogan’s Bluff hoping to see Mays race back on a fly ball with my own eyes. The massive outfield cannot be completely seen, but I don’t care. I look to the right or maybe it’s to the left and there’s the “Sugar Hill” Fats Domino sang about in “Take the A train.”
Anything seems possible and the Polo Grounds feel untouchable and then suddenly it’s all gone. I walk among the ruins and the smell is strangely delicious, like something new. This must be a sin. I keep my revery to myself as I sneak out of town. I must have walked a long time because a newspaper tumbles up to my ankles and it says 1992.
Baltimore is breaking ribbons to celebrate a brand new retro style stadium-Camden Yards. Owners take notice and build retro stadiums of their own. Only Boston’s Fenway Park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field remain untouched. They need no retro-fication. They’re already classics. Oakland’s multipurpose Coliseum also still stands. It’s where foul territory is a diamond unto itself and souvenir pop flies become easy outs and a pitcher’s best friend.
I walk and walk all over America and see traces of yesterday in stadium facades, but only in Houston are the dimensions bizarre and asymmetrical enough to really evoke some time travel. There is no three acre outfield but Minute Maid Park’s center field stretches 436 feet and is suddenly interrupted by an embankment and a flag pole.
Tal’s Hill is named after former Astros President Tal Smith. The incline is 90 feet and modeled after Cincinnati’s Crosley Field and other parks that no longer exist.
The left center field alley is also over 400 feet, but down the line, it shrinks to 315 with a 19 foot home run fence. This Minute Maid Park is truly a strange place, a real retro look where it matters most; on the actual field. This place has the potential to be a slug fest or a 1-0 pitcher’s duel.
And yet Astro players past and present have pointed their fingers at management. “Bring the center field fence in closer! Remove the flag pole and the embankment!” Well, they weren’t whining in 2005 when the Astros made it to the World Series.
The opposition says it’s dangerous and impossible to prepare for, but isn’t that the whole idea of home field advantage? The Yankees have their schmaltzy traditions, big pocket books and media zoo. Why shouldn’t the Astros preserve a climate of not so friendly confines? Cripes. They’ve lost 100 games for three consecutive years. They have nothing to lose. Why not add a similar obstacle somewhere in the infield and train Astro players to turn a nuisance into a competitive advantage?
The Astros have an impressive tradition of winning excellence at home since entering the league in 1962. In fact, they rank 6th all time in highest home wining percentage-.550. That’s based on teams from 1945 and up. Their previous venue-the Astrodome was a glorious place for pitchers and so the Astros focused on pitching.
And maybe now it’s time to focus on obstacles and how to get around them. The Astros don’t spend much money these days, but they did sign Dexter Fowler a few weeks ago. The former Colorado Rockie is 6’4,” runs fast, plays center field and is probably in for the time of his life. Not even Willie Mays can say he ran up an embankment and around a flag pole to snare a deep fly ball.
To be continued….