COVER STORY | THE BLUEPRINT
After Move, a Breaking In Process
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
A new ballpark, like the one the Washington Nationals will open this weekend along the Anacostia riverfront, is a glorious thing, gleaming and alive, teeming with possibility, made even more vivid by the comparative, crumbling bleakness of the old building that was left behind. Your first glimpse of the diamond's green grass amid all that freshly painted splendor is enough to take your breath away. • A new ballpark sometimes has strange, magical effects over baseball people, too, causing a formerly miserly owner to suddenly throw money around at free agents, or an edge-seeking general manager to bring in, say, a left-handed sinkerball specialist to compensate for what appears to be a short right field porch. • When the Pittsburgh Pirates opened gorgeous PNC Park in 2001, ownership more than doubled the team's payroll over the previous season (though, perhaps tellingly, still finished in last place). When the Cleveland Indians inaugurated Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field) in 1994, they brought in a future Hall of Fame first baseman (Eddie Murray), a three-time all-star pitcher (Dennis Martinez) and a Gold Glove-winning shortstop (Omar Vizquel) the preceding winter. • But those extreme measures, for better or worse, will not be happening here, in this new stadium. The Nationals this season gave the requisite raises to nearly all their significant players, resulting in a payroll increase of more than 40 percent over that of last year's Opening Day roster, but did not enter into any long-term contracts with expensive free agents.
Nor did the Nationals make any significant attempts to add players who might give them a subtle strategic advantage -- for the simple reason that they don't know how it's going to play, whether it will be a pitcher's park or a hitter's park, or a perhaps little bit of both in various places. This is not an obvious bandbox, like Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park, or an obvious pitcher's haven, like cavernous Petco Park in San Diego. The Nationals think their new park may slightly favor pitchers, but in truth they have no idea.
"I definitely think you can build a team to fit a stadium, but within limits," Nationals President Stan Kasten said. "There are some idiosyncrasies for every stadium, but rarely are they extreme ones. . . . Colorado did great job in the early days [of Coors Field] of acquiring the bashers to take advantage of that mile-high air. But it made it difficult to develop a pitching staff. That's an extreme example. Dodger Stadium was always a great park for pitchers, and the Dodgers always had the staffs to match.
"Once we figure out how the park plays, we can start fitting the team to the ballpark. I don't think you can do it in reverse. The team changes every year. The park won't change significantly, ever."
Former Pirates GM Dave Littlefield, who took over the team midway through PNC Park's inaugural season, believes you should always keep in mind the way a stadium plays when making personnel decisions, but not to the point where those concerns govern your choices.
"Everybody is always aware of those things," he said. "Fenway Park [in Boston] has the big Green Monster, so [they always] want some right-handed pull hitters. In Pittsburgh, it's a shorter right field porch, so it was the opposite -- although it's very fair, overall. Yankee Stadium also has that short right field porch, so they always like to have some big, pull hitters. But you also have to be cautious about overdoing it, because the key is getting good players, not just someone who fits the park."
Perhaps no team experienced a more dramatic shift in stadium dynamics than the Houston Astros, who moved from the Astrodome -- one of the most extreme pitcher's parks in history -- to the cozy confines of Enron Field (now Minute Maid Park) in 2000. Although the latter has evolved into a more neutral park (which actually has favored pitchers slightly in recent years), back then the mere sight of its short left field fence was enough to frighten the Astros' pitchers.
"There was some sticker-shock for our pitchers when they first saw that left field wall, and the ball flew out pretty good when the roof was open," said Gerry Hunsicker, the Astros' GM at the time, and now the Tampa Bay Rays' senior vice president. "It got into the pitchers' heads, and we had to manage that a little bit. And the same could be said for hitters. While the short porch might be an advantage to hitters, you had to be careful because all of a sudden guys get out of their swing going for that short porch, and they hurt themselves offensively.
"We were ridiculed all over the country when the new park opened. But four or five years later, it settled back into the middle of the pack. So I really believe it's a little dangerous to try to tailor your team to your park -- because it's the players who have to make adjustments, especially pitchers, more so than the team making adjustments."
Kasten, who was president of the Atlanta Braves when Turner Field opened for baseball in 1997, remembers Braves pitchers being concerned by initial reports that the foul territory in the new stadium would be greatly reduced in comparison to the vastness of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium -- which, if true, could hurt pitchers by carrying foul pops that otherwise would be outs into the stands.
"But I was with [the pitchers] when they all walked out there for the first time," Kasten said. "And [Greg] Maddux looks at it and said, 'Oh, this is no big deal.' He said, 'The truth is, you shave a little foul territory, and maybe it makes a difference in a ball being an out, or not an out, once a week -- and how often does that one out affect a run, let alone a game?' "
Like Houston's Enron Field/Minute Maid Park, Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which opened in 1992, had a reputation in its early days as a hitter's haven -- a notion undoubtedly fueled by the Orioles' high-powered offensive teams of the mid-1990s -- but has actually played neutral, if not slightly favoring pitchers, in recent years.