Tale of tape comes up short down lines at Memorial Stadium

John Steadman

August 23, 1991|By John Steadman

Through the last four decades of Baltimore Orioles' history, or at least since the American League returned in 1954, the acknowledged home run dimensions in Memorial Stadium have been exaggerated. What reads 309 feet in right and leftfield are, in truth, 303 feet.

A measurement taken yesterday by a reporter showed 304 down both lines but a more exacting survey, carried out in the past by three members of the Maryland Department of Transportation, using a sophisticated system, produced figures of 303 feet, 5 inches to right and 303 feet, 2 inches to left. A difference of almost six feet from what's advertised.

The 303 distance as opposed to what shows on the barriers, 309, in the context of baseball history, which prides itself on accuracy in so many areas of the game, is somewhat surprising. Elsewhere in the stadium, the 405 feet to dead center is actually 401 and the power alleys, left-center and right-center, are 18 inches shorter in left and 17 inches shorter in right than the 376 figures posted.

The latter numbers are of such minor variance, almost frivolous, they are hardly worth noting. But down the lines, 6 feet less than what has been noted all these years, qualifies as a noteworthy discovery. Since this is the final season in Memorial Stadium, and with time running out on the Orioles using it as their home park, it was appropriate to attempt to learn if the fences are as long as they've been said to be for the last 37 years.

Our tape line, unlike the sophisticated methods used by a professional three-man surveying crew, including Al Kuhl, Bernie Melsage and George Hadel, was off only slightly from what they determined by utilizing a laser beam projected via an Electronic Distance Measuring Machine.

When Jim Palmer, the Orioles' Hall of Fame pitcher, heard of the discrepancies and was approached for reaction, he answered facetiously, "Maybe this would be a way to add 32 more wins to my carer for an even 300." But then, more seriously, he registered surprise over the findings. "I believed the foul lines were longer than 303 and I can't comprehend why there wasn't more credibility involved. That in itself is kind of hard to understand."

Fence markings in major-league parks have, of course, been suspect in the past. Joe Falls, when he was writing baseball for a Detroit newspaper, carried his own tape on road trips, much after the fashion of a tailor or a surveyor, and took ballpark measurements. He found numerous instances of where they didn't agree with those reported by the teams.

Bill Murray, in charge of ballpark operations in the office of the commissioner, explained that all measurements in baseball, with the exception of the height of the pitcher's mound, are made at ground level. "I don't think I've ever been asked the question before," Murray said. "The line starts from the back point of home plate to the front of the fences."

In 1987, 235 shots flew out of the park in Baltimore, making it the most in the American League and a true home run haven. This is explained by what happened after a Diamond Vision replay and message board was erected in rightfield. It altered the pattern of air currents flowing through the stadium and, thus, more balls began leaving the playing field.

Last year, 156 homers were hit here, making it third behind Detroit, the perennial leader, and Toronto, where the dome has enhanced home run production. In the 1950s, hitters moaned about the difficulty of hitting home runs in Baltimore. But that changed when then manager/general manager Paul Richards made major alterations to the size of the park.

In 1954, the first year the Orioles were in the stadium as a major-league franchise, they hit only 19 the entire season, which was four less than the combined opposition. The next time around, 1955, it was worse for the Orioles who had only 15 while their rivals collected 42.

Let's take a look at the dimensions back then. It was always 309 (rather 303) along the lines but centerfield was 450 and the power alleys 446. Those original distances, compared to the present, were 46 feet longer in center and 76 feet longer in the power alleys. Little wonder those enormous fly ball outs caused grown men to cry.

Memorial Stadium, during its life span, went from being an enormous facility, where the park gave up a handful of home runs, almost rationed them, in fact, to one that permitted an accelerated amount of homer production. The home run was indeed cheapened.

Henceforth and forever more, in the interest of accuracy, the lines are revised downward to 303 feet, not quite close enough for a pitcher to scuff his hand when he reaches back to throw but a more inviting target for hitters. Call it a groundskeeper's error. Typographical anyhow.

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