The view from the bench

Salomon, Paul

If you were to complete what has become baseball’s great pilgrimage – seeing a game in all 30 major-league ballparks – you’d notice a thing or two. It’s always 90 feet to first, and the mound is always 60 feet 6 inches from home, but outside of that, you can do a whole lot of things with a ball field.
First off, you can do basically anything with your seat and scoreboard design. You wouldn’t think this matters, but at the end of this season the San Diego Padres were accused of stealing catcher’s signs using a complicated lighting system. The Minnesota Twins have also been repeatedly accused of blowing Metrodome circulation fans toward the outfield at higher velocities during later-inning Twins at-bats. These are about as likely as the Cubs’ World Series chances, but hey, people love to find excuses for a loss.
As far as the field of play is considered, you can use grass or turf. The infield can be field or dirt. And the stadium can be outdoors, domed, or retractably domed, as in Milwaukee Brewers’ home Miller Stadium. The most noticeable and most significant difference from park to park is definitely the outfield. The most notable example, and at least the most topical, is Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros.
Not only is center field a monstrous 435 feet away, but there’s a hill out there. In the middle of said hill, there’s a huge metal pole simply waiting for a concussion. It doesn’t end there. It’s also a measly 315 to left field, to what is infamously known as “the Crawford Boxes.” Along with great pitching, this “short porch” in left has been the life force of the Astros in the postseason.
Sports writers were quick to call the 18-inning NLDS finale “the greatest baseball game ever,” but take a look back. Down 6-1, and facing elimination, Lance Berkman hit a 320-foot fly ball grand slam in the 8th, and in the 18th Chris Burke hit a walk-off fly ball 320 feet to the exact same spot, giving the Astros the series victory. In almost any other park these would have just been long fly outs, not home runs. In the wild NLCS game 5, Berkman again hit a 3-run fly ball to the Crawford Boxes, giving Houston what would be a short-lived and fleeting lead, but it goes the other way too.
In Game 4 when St. Louis’ Jim Edmonds was ejected mid at-bat, John Rodriguez stepped into a full count and hit a ball over 400 feet to left center. In Houston, what would have been a game-winning home run is just a long fly out.
It’s true that the field is the same for both sides, and the short porch is out there for both teams, but no one has had more practice hitting there than the Astros, who had 81 games to figure it out. I’m not saying this is the decisive element in the NLCS, but I think it’s time to call for a little more regularity to the fields.