The Inanimate Villains of Major League Baseball

It’s Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS; Aaron Boone steps to the plate in the bottom of the 11th. Though his career will span 12 years, 2003 will be Boone’s only postseason appearance. He’ll hit .170, and yet he is about to massacre a 56-mile-per-hour knuckleball from Tim Wakefield into about the 26th deck of Yankee Stadium. This play sent the New York Yankees to the Word Series, ruining the lives of Boston Red Sox fans everywhere. The Curse of the Bambino, an intangible villain, was given a very tangible face.

Just two days before, Chicago Cubs fans ruined the life of Steve Bartman for “interfering” with a foul ball in Game 6 of the NLCS, deeming this the reason why they lost. The more mystical will claim Bernie Mac’s unique rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (“Root, root, root for the chaaaamps”) as the culprit. The one thing everyone knows wasn’t the culprit was Alex Gonzalez bobbling a would-be inning-ending double play, because that would make too much sense. This time, with the Curse of the Billy Goat, an intangible villain was given several tangible faces.

Every MLB team has its enemies. Those enemies range from the imagined, to the supernatural, to Jose Canseco, but there’s a whole other brand of villain prowling through Major League Baseball:

Unlike those described above, these villains have no allegiances. Some are man-made; some are not. They make ballparks unique, they make ballparks memorable, and they are inanimate bastards with one goal: to alter the game of baseball when you least expect it. These are (some of) the inanimate villains of Major League Baseball.

The Green Monster — Fenway Park (Boston, MA) 

Victims: Flyball pitchers, acrophobics, left fielders

The initial wall in left field of Fenway Park was actually made of wood, and stood just ten feet high. It later burned down, twice, actually—in 1926 and 1934. It was out of these ashes that the modern-day Green Monster was born–all 37 feet, two inches of it.

Despite the modest distance in Fenway’s left field (305-310 feet), the Green Monster makes the park one of the toughest places in which to hit home runs to left field. It turns rocket line drives into doubles (or singles, if a player stands watching like an idiot), and it turns high fly balls into cheap home runs. But without it, Manny Ramirez would never have been able to talk on his cellphone during games. That has to count for something.

483-Foot Center Field Depth — Polo Grounds (New York City, NY)

Victims: Center fielders’ calf muscles, center field ticket holders, OCD sufferers

Baseball loves to talk about things it’ll never see again: Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Cal Ripken Jr.’s 2632 consecutive-games streak, etc. Something else baseball won’t ever see is the 483-foot center field wall that shrouded the Polo Grounds (1880-1963). You’ve seen it even if you don’t think you have. The Willie Mays catch from the 1954 World Series was made in the endless stretch of center field. In one of the photographs, you can see the “483” sign just to the left of Mays.

The level of ludicrous increases when you read the rules for the Polo Grounds center field. If a batter hit a ball through the clubhouse windows that sat in dead center–some 500 feet from home plate–it was a ground-rule double. A 500-foot fly ball that left the field of play was a ground-rule double. That rule never found itself tested.

And just to show how much disdain the designers had for symmetry, Polo Grounds was 258 feet down the right-field line. Obsessive compulsives never avoided a park more diligently.

Tal’s Hill — Minute Maid Park (Houston, TX)

Victims: Center fielders 

“We don’t just want to make our center field deep,” said former Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane, Jr. of the 436-foot center field wall at Minute Maid Park (Enron Field at the time), “we want to make it dangerous.” (Okay, he didn’t actually say that. But he could have.)

The logical conclusion was to build a hill in center field. This was supposed to be a callback to other historic ballparks like Crosley Field, which featured the 15-degree incline of “The Terrace” in left field. Not to be outdone, McLane made Tal’s Hill in Houston a cool 30.

The first question is: how was having a hill was ever considered a smart idea? A second consideration is that Crosley Field’s incline was just part of the landscape; the Astros actually designed Tal’s Hill. And because they could, they stuck a flagpole on it. You know, in case the fielder didn’t get hurt on the hill itself, the flagpole would give one last chance for the park to extract its pound of flesh.

Fortunately, Astros fans are smarter than this. After much moaning from the fans, and a failed petition or two, the Astros announced that for the 2016 season, Tal’s Hill would be removed.

In celebration of unwelcome obstacles in outfields, an honorable mention goes to the beginnings of Monument Park at the old Yankee Stadium. Three monuments– to Miller Huggins, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth–stood in the field of play, a practice not entirely uncommon at the time. It can only be presumed this was because players didn’t mind barreling into pillars of cement at full speed since they were, obviously, tougher back then.

The Air — Coors Field (Denver, CO)

Victims: All pitchers except Hideo Nomo, Rockies’ pitcher-signing ability

The air itself has conspired at the high altitudes of Colorado to bloat home run numbers and psychologically devastate pitchers since Coors Field’s opening in 1995.

The designers, God bless ’em, figured this was going to be the case. Their solution was simple: “We’ll just push the fences back so there won’t be as many home runs.”

It didn’t work.

Not only did the increased distances not stop the onslaught of home runs, hitters now had a gratuitously big outfield at their disposal. In 1995, the stadium’s first season, Coors Field gave up the most home runs, the most doubles, and the most triples. It surrendered 241 home runs–seven short of the all-time record, even though nine home games were lost to the strike from the previous year. In 1996, 271 home runs at Coors Field set the record. In 1999, it was broken again, this time at 303, establishing the present-day record.

The Rockies’ team ERAs from 1995-2002: 4.97, 5.59, 5.25, 4.99, 6.01, 5.26, 5.29, 5.20.

So when a pitcher gets drafted/traded to the Rockies, you’ll hear this if you listen for it:

Somehow, on September 17, 1996, at the pinnacle of Coors Field’s anti-pitcher agenda, Hideo Nomo threw a no-hitter. The Colorado Rockies’ pitching staff made sure to reciprocate with an entirely predictable performance, surrendering nine runs.

The humidor, introduced in 2002, has been responsible for helping control the home run disease, which has led people to pretend Coors Field is just another, if slightly hitter-friendly, ballpark.

Guess which stadium gave up the most runs in 2015? In 2014? In 2013? In 2012?

The Weather — Candlestick Park (San Francisco, CA)

Victims: Everyone, unearned run averages

The Wikipedia entry for Candlestick is blunt in reference to its design: “Architect John Bolles designed the park with a boomerang-shaped concrete baffle in the upper tier to protect the park from wind. Unfortunately, it never worked.”

Whoops.

Hold on, it gets better.

“When the park was expanded to accommodate the 49ers in 1971, it was thought fully enclosing the park would cut down on the wind. Instead, the wind swirled from all directions, and was as strong and cold as before.”

Whoops.

The wind was just the beginning of the blended cocktail of meteorological misery: It was cold, it was wet, and there was fog. The Giants even lost a lawsuit because their “radiant heating system” (doesn’t that just sound like something destined to fail catastrophically?) failed to properly heat, well, anything.

Then everyone tried to play baseball.

***

Brian Davis is a writer and Cubs fan based in Peoria, IL. You should follow him on Twitter.

Photo credit: Dan Levey/Getty Images

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