Goodbye, Tal's Hill - Baseball's Last True Ballpark Quirk
The modern day ballpark has many exciting features that draws your attention.
Big scoreboards, views of downtown, waterfronts, restaurants, and clubs all bring fans into the park to watch a game of baseball.
But lost in all this modernity is the old school nature of baseball’s past.
Ballparks of the olden times were built in a palatial manner, while squeezing it into a small lot in the inner city, creating funky looking field dimensions.
Fences were tall and short, long and far, solid or practically invisible. Past parks sometimes include ridiculous features such as bushes, cliffs, goat paths, or trees littering the outfield.
Some fields didn’t even have a fence at all, and the ball could just roll forever. It made baseball weird, and making baseball weird is part of making baseball fun.
Modern day major league parks try and emulate that kind of retro feel to it, while including the modern amenities people of the 21st century have come to expect.
The perfect example for this is Minute Maid Park, in Houston, Texas, home of the Astros.
The park has a large video board, tons of restaurants, fan experiences, and even a retractable roof for climate control (I’m sure you know, it gets hot in the summer there). The park also features some of the most unique field dimensions in baseball.
The Crawford Boxes sit in left field, just 315’ from home, boasting a 21’ high fence with a manual scoreboard. Moving toward center, the fence features columns, dips in height, and the home run line painted on the wall, all underneath a set of train tracks where a train sits and moves with every Astros home run.
The left field section of the ballpark was actually built in part out of an old train station. Right field has much more standard seating arrangements, with a 9’ high fence running from the foul pole toward center.
Center field is where things got interesting. The fence sat 436’ from home plate, the furthest fence in baseball. For some reason, they installed a small hill, a 30 degree incline behind the center field warning track, called Tal’s Hill (for Tal Smith, a former GM of the Astros).
The hill climbed as high as halfway up the fence, and even had a flagpole in it, which was in play. This led to many funky plays, triples, inside the park home runs, crazy circus catches, and to a lesser extent (unfortunately), injuries.
But, baseball being weird, the higher-ups signed off on it, and there it was.
This led to some predicaments in regard to strategy for the center fielder. Do you play back, in the event that a ball is hit behind you and goes all the way up the hill? Or do you use reverse psychology and position yourself closer to the hitter, practically challenging him to swing for the fences?
It has been quirky, it has been interesting, it has been fun.
2016 was the last season you were able to see Tal’s Hill. Starting in 2017, the Astros are moving the fence in, and building a fan plaza where the hill once stood. It looks nice, and fans are probably going to love the features and shops they’ll have on it.
But to me, at least, it puts to rest the last truly crazy feature of any major league ball field.
You can argue that Fenway Park has the Green Monster and Pesky Pole that cause crazy carroms and home runs. You can argue that Wrigley Field has the ivy covered brick fences and “wells” that eat baseballs whole.
Those two parks stand in a class of their own, and are now pieces of American history.
I will argue, though, that other ballparks might have large or small walls, or funky wells in the dimensions, yet I don’t think anyone will ever replicate Tal’s Hill.
No one will put a hill out in the outfield. No one will put a flagpole in the field of play. Hard to say if anyone will place the fences that far from home plate ever again.
You won’t see players climbing up to play the ball, you won’t see any baseballs ricocheting off the flagpole, and you won’t see any baseballs hit 425’ and still in play. That’s kinda sad.
Baseball is a quirky game, and that comes with quirky places to play. It’s one of the endearing qualities of baseball. Modern ballparks do a great job of reaching out to the past, and building a bridge to the modern day, where we can become infatuated with the romance old time baseball has to offer, and add our own twists on it.
One can only hope that the those features continue to bring out the fun that baseball has always meant to have. It’s just a shame to see one of those features go.