Oriole Park opens the gaps for excitement in new, roomier outfield

John Steadman

March 30, 1992|By John Steadman

Baseball, the greatest game God gave man the opportunity to invent, doesn't need to be altered, revised or modified. Because of its rigid infield dimensions, there is a perpetual sameness. Yet there is a way to change the sport, to open it up, so to speak, and that is what is going to happen in Baltimore's new downtown stadium.

The size of the outfield, including distances to the fences and the heights thereof, will bring about a dramatic difference in the style of baseball played there, as contrasted with Memorial Stadium. It will produce longer hits resulting in exciting outfield pursuits and more spectacular catches, all of which will enhance the viewing enjoyment.

Because of the spaciousness of the outfield, extra-base hits will become numerous as balls find their way "up the gap." There'll be an increase in attempted inside-the-park home runs and also triples and doubles. This will add to the importance of outfielders making quick recoveries and then, in turn, locating the cut-off, or relay, man.

Speed, which can't be taught, is going to be an important element at the new playfield. This is a quality the Orioles lack, so in years to come, the team will have to be stocked with a different type player if it's to take maximum advantage of the ballpark.

Whether Eli Jacobs, the Orioles owner, had this in mind when the plans were drawn isn't known. But Jacobs did tell this reporter two years ago the first proposal from the architect resembled, what he called, "a spaceship." So the final design, inside and out, is what the Orioles leader wanted.

Righthanded batters are going to be singing the blues when balls that would have been well over the fence at Memorial Stadium (their home from 1954 until this year) end up as nothing more than loud outs.

Defensively, the previous centerfielding gems of Paul Blair, Jim Busby and Chuck Deering make for fond recall in that each of them would have been perfectly equipped, with their quick acceleration and sure hands, to cover the position in the new park.

The extra territory for tracking fly balls is a plus for the pitchers. Their pitching mistakes won't hurt them in Baltimore as in the past. It'll keep them out of trouble, meaning they'll be able to stay in the game. A high drive becomes an out instead of for extra bases.

At the same time, the bare minimum of foul territory will cause pitchers' mental torment. It's a trade-off, an equalizer, that is going to be particularly bothersome.

Naturally, they would prefer to have it both ways, large outfields and huge foul areas, but that's impossible. An appreciable number of pop fouls are going to carry into the stands, out of reach of being caught, providing the batter an instant reprieve.

This translates into granting extra swings and considerably more chances to hit safely than has been the case in Baltimore, excepting the first seven years at Memorial Stadium before it was scaled down. It caused Gil Coan to lament, "you need five outfielders to play here."

Behind home plate in the new park, the catcher will have about the same area, or a trifle more, to cover as in Memorial Stadium. But from the stands to first base and third base the distance is 20 feet closer. The foul lines to left and right continue to sharply reduce the space separating the seats from the playing field, which again will provide a bonus for the hitters since few balls will be caught in what is only a sliver of foul ground.

What remains an unknown factor, which, again, excites pitchers, is whether the Baltimore skyline in centerfield will reflect sunshine off tall buildings. Batters will be distracted if it does. Sixteen of 61 home games are in the afternoon. A check yesterday at 3 p.m. showed it represented no problem. How about later in the day?

Close proximity of the stands to the field will place some of the down-front spectators in a position to actually hear dialogue between the players, coaches, managers and umpires. The language, at times, may be shocking to the audience. Commissioner Fay Vincent might wash their mouths with soap or insist they make a confession. Maybe both.

The new project, costing $265 million, is not intended to revolutionize baseball. Pitcher-to-catcher and the base lines still carry standard measurements. But expect it to provide a more "open" game than Baltimore has been watching for the last 38 years.

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