by Paul West
Imagine, if you will, if an NBA team was allowed to lower its rim to 8 feet, and stack the team with big men so nobody could shoot over them. They’d draft rim-protectors, spend 48 minutes in a packed-in zone, lob alley-oops all game, and win 57-42. Or if a team drafted jump shooters, and raised its rim to 11 feet. Sure, the rim’s the same height for both teams; but the team full of shooters might be able to shoot from deeper, taking the other team’s paint players out of the equation if they got hot. Or, say, if the team full of big men decided to narrow their court so they wouldn’t have to outrun guards for long rebounds and teams with cutters and slashers would have no room to roam. Similarly, let’s say an NFL team with a sideline-to-sideline offense decided to widen its field, while a team with two tight ends shrunk its end zones so they could throw red-zone jump balls while the other team’s crossing routes and timing patterns were neutralized?
How about this: an NHL team with an outsized goalie making its nets bigger, favoring its Ron Hextall-like netminder over that of a team with a Felix Potvin type?
That’s exactly what we’ve got in Major League Baseball, where outfield dimensions and fencing vary so widely.
In baseball, a team with a short porch–there are several, so this isn’t only aimed at the Yankees–can field a lineup with hitters who pull to that side and elevate the ball. Teams with cavernous outfields can field lineups full of speedsters, whose line drives would be doubles in most parks but triples in front of the home crowd.
“Triples alley” and “death valley” have actually been the monikers of parts of functioning MLB ballparks.
The Houston Astros built a new park in 2000, and put a hill—with a pole!–in center field. On purpose. They eventually removed it, in part thanks to Carlos Beltran risking injury to make a game-saving catch while running up the hill.
Some parks have fences that are below the hips of many players; others have fences that are stories high. Some have padding, some have actual finger-busting metal in their outfield walls…and Wrigley Field still has an actual brick wall behind outfielders who often have to sprint full-tilt towards it with their heads turned in the other direction. Said wall is covered in ivy, which at times has made batted balls hard to locate. Players have reported hiding baseballs in the ivy to throw back to the infield in lieu of fishing a batted ball out of its thickets; and Joe Pepitone actually said he hid drugs in the ivy in the days when he got Mickey Mantle high.
This just doesn’t make sense.
The argument can be, and has been, made that both teams have the same number of chances at hitting over or around these aforementioned hazards. This is true; but players have also spoken openly about reorienting their approaches when they change home parks, and it’s not as easy to change a swing from game to game as many make it sound. Elite hitters can hit anywhere; roleplayers, or even average players, not so much. Park factors like wind gusts, humidity, ball flight, and temperature can’t really be controlled when the game is played outdoors–as it should be, whenever possible–but weirdly specific ‘quirks’ shouldn’t be allowed to affect play to the extent that they do.
Ballparks can be distinctive and have ‘charm’ based on countless factors: food choices, layout, coloring, branding, staff, and the fans in attendance. The game has enough charm to sustain itself without continuing to allow bizarre outfield configurations which make the same ball play remarkably differently from one park to the next–not to mention the actual physical hazards to the players.
MLB ballparks can have charm and distinctiveness without literal and figurative hazards in the field of play.