The players may change; the possibility continues to torture some Astros fans, a diamond oddity as curious as it is superfluous. Deep fly ball to center. Beltran's got a good jump. At full speed, his cleats scrape the surface of the warning track. But there's a little bell going off in the fog of his mind -- something trying to remind him the field will soon go vertical.
It is too late. He plants awkwardly and buckles to the ground.
Or worse, he claws up Tal's Hill and gets clocked by the flagpole -- a cartoonish catastrophe on par with Tony La Russa dropping an Acme piano on Jeff Bagwell.
Such is the stuff of Astros fans' nightmares. Richie Deegan had seen enough.
It was a Monday night in mid-June. The 29-year-old was sitting alone in his Galleria-area apartment, bug-eyed from watching his home team continue their slide against the division rival Chicago Cubs. In the fourth inning, Derrek Lee hit a shot to center, which slipped by then-center fielder Craig Biggio's glove as he struggled with the hill.
Deegan, who runs a graphic design company that specializes in logos and Web sites, had groused about the mound since he first spotted it on TV at the ballpark's inaugural series in 2000. Four years later, he's ready to do something. His cause has a name: www.killthehill.com.
"I went right to my computer and designed the site, and I was like, 'This may not have an impact on anyone, but I'm just going to do it to vent my frustrations out there,' " he says.
Two weeks later and his online petition has received a few hundred responses, most of them backing his crusade to level Tal's Hill and push the flagpole beyond the fence. One visitor to the site calls Minute Maid Park "the state of the art stadium with a pimple on its ass." Another pleads, "Remove the hill and stop the laughing from all the other teams in baseball."
With the All-Star Game on deck, the best from those other teams will be arriving next week in a city with 617 square miles of flat terrain -- everywhere but in deep center of its pro baseball diamond.
Outsiders have already weighed in on Deegan's Web site. A New York sports rag favors his campaign, linking the site and sneering, with typical Manhattan pomposity, at "the stupid Astros baseball exec (there's a rare breed!)" who came up with "the stupidest, most dangerous man-made quirk ever." Of course, no mention is made of those same "stupid" execs swiping Clemens and Pettitte from the Boss and bringing them home.
The Astros exec in question is team president Tal Smith, for whom the hill is named. He explains that, after the team had already settled on a design for seating levels and the stadium's exterior, they wanted to tinker with the interior to make it unique.
"I've been in baseball a long time -- this is my 47th year, and I've seen a lot of ballparks and have sorta become a baseball historian, too, on things that preceded me," Smith says. He rattles off vintage spots like Boston's Fenway Park, Detroit's Tiger Stadium and Pittsburgh's Forbes Field and has their oddball charms etched in memory.
Houston's hill is a nod to Crosley Field, the Reds' old home in Cincinnati, which had a similar embankment when Smith started his baseball career there in 1958. The Minute Maid Park slope rises at a ten-degree incline to a height of more than five feet and stretches around 100 feet of outfield wall.
"I thought somebody would say, 'Ah, we don't wanna do that,' or kill it or something because it was different," says Smith. The stadium designers, staff and others referred to it informally as "Tal's Hill" and the name stuck, he explains. "I accuse 'em now of wanting somebody to blame it on." He chuckles gently. No one thought it would endanger players, he says.
"Players fall down chasing pop-ups over by the first and third base line; they fall down making double plays; they collide going after fly balls; they collide at plays at the plate," he says. He also adds that, at about 430 feet from home plate, the hill rarely affects the game. "The fans really seem to like it. Center fielders on other clubs, I guess, would prefer it's not there." He laughs gently again.
Opposing center fielders aren't the only critics. Last summer, Giants trainer Stan Conte suggested to the San Francisco Chronicle that land mines be put in the outfield "so we can all watch outfielders explode. If you happen to go up the hill and nobody blows out his knee, then you get to hit the flagpole with your head."
Smith claims no Astros have complained to him about the hill.
Yet others wonder if recently acquired center fielder Carlos Beltran and his nimble legs -- 12 years younger than veteran Biggio -- increase the odds of a horrifying accident.
A few practice sessions, and the "gifted" Beltran will be fine, Smith says.
Richie Deegan figures that Tal's Hill has hurt the team more than it's helped -- an unscientific estimate, he admits -- and radio talk shows and sports bars continue to debate the embankment.
"Aesthetically, it looks great," says Charlie Pallilo of KILT's (610 AM) Afternoon Drive Time Players. "It's not catastrophic having it out there, but if a center fielder ever gets hurt going up that thing and twists a knee or something, it should be an Astro. They'd be reaping what they sowed. Hopefully, it doesn't come to that at all, but it just doesn't belong on the field of play, frankly, any more than a windmill or a clown's mouth that you putt at the 19th hole on."
Pallilo believes that a fan petition will fail, but a "freakish kind of injury" might change some minds in management.
"Look, Craig Biggio had his face planted in it; a couple of times taken a header," Pallilo says. "I think a notable injury and that thing would be out by the next home stand, because there'd be a real good chance you'd have the players' association saying, 'We're not playing on that again until you get that out of there.' "
This spring, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the Padres raised the height of the right-field wall in their new Petco Park. This came after a couple of players hit the three-foot barrier and flipped into the stands during exhibition games.
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No one, of course, wants a return to the sterile, modernist stadium confines of the '70s and '80s -- the "cookie-cutter" ashtrays at Riverfront, Three Rivers and Veterans. "It was like being at a Holiday Inn; you had to look at your program to see where you were," observes Smith.
And Tal's Hill might draw the same reverence fans hold for the ivy walls of Wrigley Field, if Minute Maid Park was around for 90 years, too. But Richie Deegan can't even imagine the idiosyncrasy surviving that long.
He acknowledges that his petition might be, on some level, just catharsis for disappointed fans who expected a more competitive Astros team at this point. He might not reach his stated goal of "tens of thousands" of signatures, but like fellow consumer advocate Ralph Nader, he'll try anyway.
After all, with the All-Star Game approaching, "Every eye in baseball is going to be on Houston," he says. "And they're going to be talking about that hill."