Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Fields of Dreams – and the Occasional Nightmare

You know it's summertime at Candlestick when the fog rolls in, the wind kicks up, and you see the center fielder slicing open a caribou to survive the ninth inning. ~Bob Sarlette

I was going to write about something else just now, but I ran across the quote above and was sucked in by a wave of nostalgia for old ball parks. Take Candlestick Park. I used to love it when the Braves went out there, because it was a hoot to see people in California wearing parkas in July. There's something about the geography of San Francisco that causes this aberrant weather. Not only does it generate cold, but it produces some genuinely wicked winds.

The Braves had a slugging third baseman named Rob Horner, who was playing because of his skill with the bat, not the glove. In his first season, balls clanked off his mitt-of-stone with awsome regularity, but most of these were ordinary “oops” errors. I believe everyone who followed the Braves was looking forward to his first visit to Candlestick. Sure enough, early on, there was a popup to third. Horner circled, came in, went out, darted left, darted right, and finally tumbled over backward as the ball blew over his head, for an 85-foot double.

To his credit, Horner stuck with it, but I don't recall that he ever managed to actually catch a fly ball at the Stick.

Ball parks used to be more interesting places because they were built inside of cities. They had to conform to street layouts, which generated weird outfield dimensions, the most familiar of which is the legendary Fenway Park in Boston. It's no coincidence that most of the great Red Sox hitters were left handed, like Ted Williams and Carl Yazstremski. Most righthanders ruined their swing trying to poke a ball high enough to clear that short left field wall. Sure, they had Jim Rice, but Rice was one of the few who was smart enough to know that if he deliberately tried to hit it over the wall, he wasn't going to succeed. So he just let it happen. He was just as happy to lace one off the wall for a double and get the RBI.

That wall also turned many a pitcher into a nervous wreck. A little popup might end up over the fence if the wind was blowing to left. The story is told about a night when the Sox got down by nine runs early in the game. The manager decided to let Yazstremski have a rest and pulled him from the game in the fourth inning. Yaz showered and headed home. As he stopped at a toll bridge, the operator said, “What the hell are you doing here?”

Yaz said, “What's the matter?”

“The Red Sox just tied the score and have two men on in the eighth!” the operator shouted.

The game was never out of reach at Fenway.

The Giants, when they were in New York, played at the Polo Grounds, which was a truly weird park. Right field was a “short porch” if you could drive it down the line, but center field was known as Death Valley. Every Cleveland Indians fan, including ones who weren't even born in 1954, know about center field at the Polo Grounds. That's where Vic Wertz hit a monster shot that would have been a home run in any other park in the league. But, we all have burned into our brains the image of Willie Mays, running hell-bent-for-leather, back to the infield, catching the ball over his shoulder, turning in a single motion, and firing the ball back into the infield. The Giants went on to sweep the Indians, who had set a record for regular-season wins, in four straight in the series. It would be a very long time before Cleveland would see the World Series again.

There was Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Baker Field in Philadelphia, Briggs Stadium in Detroit, and Crosley Field in Cincinnati. Each had it's own oddities and charm. Others, like Comiskey Park in Chicago and Municipal Stadium in Cleveland were more regular, harbingers of things to come.

In the 1970's, there was a spate of ball park building. Aside from a couple of gems (Chavez Ravine and the Kansas City Royals park), they were cookie-cutter affairs with artificial turf, symmetrical outfields, and green outfield walls. If you tuned in a game where Cincinnati was playing Philadelphia, you couldn't tell where they were playing. Where a club could once build a team to take advantage of their home field, now they and the visitors were on a so-called level playing field. In theory, this sounds fine. In practice, it's a bore.

I think the Yankee Stadium refurbishing was the first attempt to stem the tide. Rather than build a new park, the Yankees updated and remodeled their stadium but kept it's basic style and dimensions. They did put the monuments behind a wall, removing the chance we used to have to watch center fielders trying to catch up to a ball caroming off the memorials. Keeping the stadium in the Bronx was a brilliant idea, hearkening back to the days when ball parks were in the city, not out in some unrelated suburb.

Baseball stadium construction in the last decade or so has shown that even the Lords of Baseball can figure out what the fans want. In Baltimore, they built Camden Yards; Cleveland got “the Jake” or Jacobs Field. Even Houston moved out of the dome into the stadium-formerly-known-as-Enron. It's now Minute Maid Stadium (unless they change it again). They may have gotten the parks right, but this business of selling the naming rights still takes a little something away from the charm of the new parks. I mean, if the name changes every couple of years, it's hard to have the same sense of history.

Here's some of that history for you. When Cleveland Municipal Stadium was built in 1933 (or thereabouts), it had a huge outfield. Home runs were unheard of where outfielders could roam the Elysian Fields of Cleveland. Later, they added a fence that gave hitters a chance. It is a fact, though, that no one ever hit a ball into the center field bleachers on the fly – or even on a single bounce. Not in a game, not in batting practice, never, ever. The Stadium is gone now, so no one will ever hit one into those bleachers.

The Jake is prettier and probably more comfortable, because when the wind blew in off Lake Erie, it got really cold at that old concrete and steel structure. But, the Stadium had it's history, even with a mediocre bunch like the Indians there. And it had those bleachers, mocking Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and a host of other sluggers.

I'll bet when they tore the old place down, the bleachers gave the Jake the razzberries.

No comments:

Post a Comment