I worked on a video crew the first two years of Minute Maid Park, back when it was a brand-new building known as Enron Field. My job was a simple one: I sat at the back of the huge room occupied by the video and scoreboard crew, and I watched the baseball game on a small monitor.
I had earphones plugged in and could choose one of four audio feeds to listen to — Astros TV and radio and visiting team TV and radio. I entered great plays and great visual elements on a log sheet on a laptop, noted funny announcer sayings, then, at the end of the game, I took the video tapes as well as floppy discs containing the logs and handed those off to a messenger service that overnighted them to MLB’s video offices in New Jersey.
I often chose the visiting audio feeds to listen to — nothing against Bill Brown and Jim Deshaies, it’s just that I wanted to know what other broadcasters said about the Astros. And I really wanted to know what they had to say about the brand-new ballpark. And they said a lot of stuff about the brand-new ballpark. Especially when it came to Tal’s Hill.
Among the harshest critics were legends like Vin Scully, the legendary voice of the Dodgers, and Jon Miller, one of the great play-by-play guys in baseball, who was working for the San Francisco Giants. They talked about amusement parks and wanted to know where they could catch a ride on the roller coaster. There was a discussion of the stadium being like a putt-putt golf course because of the hill, missing only the huge hippopotamus head to hit the ball through.
The Astros announced yesterday that this is the last season for Tal’s Hill. And let me just say: Good riddance.
I hated that damn thing when it was first announced, my feelings about it were reinforced when I first saw it in real life, and the mocking and ridicule heaped upon it by visiting teams, fans and broadcasters just served to solidify my belief that the thing should be demolished. It surprises me still that a player’s never been seriously injured trying to make a catch when running up the thing. It’s always seemed like a kind of insult that center fielders, some of the most athletic players in baseball, have to not only worry about keeping track of a ball hit to deep center, but must then worry about adjusting their speed so as to climb a hill.
“As you know, Tal's Hill, some people love it, some people hate it,” Astros owner Jim Crane told MLB.com. “We just thought it would be a better ballpark by moving that in. I think the distance will be 409 or 410, so it will still be a very deep center field. There's always been concern with the flag poles in play and danger in that, and also the injuries going up the Hill, so we think this would be better for the players, utilize the space better and be a very pretty ballpark.”
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I’ve had my differences with Jim Crane in the past, but on this I am in full agreement, and wish only that this decision had been made sooner. It should be further noted that the project, which is estimated to cost $15 million, will actually be funded by the Astros, which is quite something when you consider that Bob McNair wants taxpayers to pay for every thing done to NRG Stadium, so Crane deserves some praise for that, too.
“We've been working for some time to look at how we can improve the ballpark, and we've gone through a number of renovations, including the diamond club, the club level, the locker rooms, the offices,” Crane said. “This is one of our big projects we knew we wanted to do. We did a lot of studies on other ballparks on the entertainment areas in center field, and ours is very outdated over the life of the stadium, which has been great.”
The plans include moving the centerfield fence in from 436 feet to 409 feet. The additional space will be used, according to the Astros, for more bars and food courts, and it will also allow the team to install some premium seating on the field level, the first field-level seating of any kind at Minute Maid Park. Personally, I’d prefer to see the Astros turn that more into a picnic area and not sell seating there, instead turning it into more of an area for all fans to gather and watch baseball. But for once, I’m not going to argue with Crane. He’s the one actually paying for the renovation, so I’m not going to begrudge his making some cash off of it.
The Astros are still considering other changes and additions to the park, like adding an Astros Hall of Fame beyond center or inside Union Station. But that’s a different project from the removal of Tal’s Hill. For now, I’m just happy to see that damn hill’s finally being removed, and that Minute Maid Park will more closely resemble a baseball stadium than it does a theme park.