The Last Stand for Tal's Hill at Minute Maid Park
The Astros are getting rid of Tal's Hill, one the most unnecessarily kind of awesome ballpark quirks, at the end of the season.
Carlos Beltran summits Tal's Hill in 2007.
In 2000, the Houston Astros christened a new ballpark. It was called Enron Field, at least until it turned out the "Smartest Guys in the Room" were actually dumb-ass crooks who drove the company into bankruptcy and scandal. It was renamed Minute Maid Park, because presumably orange juice futures are harder to rig?
Whatever the case, before the park was under construction, the quirkiest guy in the room was Tal Smith, head of baseball operations. He came up with the idea of adding a hill to centerfield to give the park an idiosyncratic-nostalgic nod to old-timey ballyards of yore like Cincinnati's Crosley Field, which had a natural incline. The distinguishing feature was not, however, a serious baseball consideration as Hunter Atkins makes clear in his terrific new Houston Chronicle retrospective:
"[Design firm] Populous spent the next weeks mapping it out, materializing the quirky idea into Tal's Hill, as it was dubbed.
Smith was elated they treated his suggestion seriously. He made it on a lark.
'I didn't think the hill would survive,' Smith admits now. ' I just thought because it was different, somebody someplace along the line would kill it.'
Now, 20 years later, the Astros under Jim Crane's ownership will."
As of Wednesday morning, the Astros are 2.5 games out of the Wild Card with the Mariners and Tigers ahead of them, so barring some major playoff pixie dust, Sunday's tilt against the Angels will mark the end of Tal's HIll. The 90-foot wide 30-degree incline will be leveled as the centerfield fence is brought in from the whopping 436-feet to a reasonable 409-feet so the franchise can add amenities to "enhance fan experience."
To that end, fans at today's afternoon game can get their picture on the infamous incline for a mere $30. Gouge 'em if you got 'em.
Tal's Hill would seem to be a love it/hate it kind of deal, but in reality, for a lot of players and fans, myself included, it was simultaneously both. The Atkins piece lays out the case for (sheer uniqueness, and the fun of watching dudes like Craig Biggio faceplant/Jim Edmonds make incredible grabs) and against (unsporting and kind of dangerous to have a huge flagpole in the field of play, and millennials need space to 4Chan while drinking craft beer, so sayeth the hill killers, anyway.) Tal's Hill always seemed ridiculous, and even after twenty years, it didn't morph into being Houston's main thing like the Green Monster or even a newer touch like Petco's sandbox. However, the grassy knoll wasn't a total gimmick like the Marlins Playskool Fish Party home run disaster, for one main reason.
Biased Mets supporter here, but to me, Carlos Beltran going over-the-shoulder into a pull-the-chair-out to keep the game tied in the bottom of the 14th on 7/7/07 is the best catch Tal's Hill has ever seen. Astros backers will, of course, disagree. They have so many more to choose from, like Lance Berkman "running up the terrace" and "almost bending the wrong way" to haul in a 430-foot shot in 2002.
The smiles on the faces of Berkman, teammates, managers, and fans, is why the eccentric centerfield was worth the experiment. The incline presented an unnecessary challenge for sure, but those who rose to it have astounding YouTube snares forever. From here on out, the Astros are planting their flag elsewhere. It's the last stand for Tal's Hill. It will be missed.