FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Though Camden Yards still isn't regarded within baseball circles as being a pitcher-friendly ballpark, it should begin treating them a little better in 2001.
About 7 feet better.
That's how far home plate has been moved back, altering the outfield dimensions and perhaps softening the reputation of the Orioles' stomping grounds as a claustrophobic bandbox where routine fly balls drift into the first row of seats.
Now, the left-field line measures 337 feet to the fence, while a shot down the right-field line must travel 320 feet to reach it. The deepest portion of Camden Yards measures 417 feet, compared to 410 in previous years.
The left-field and right-field power alleys measure 376 and 391 feet, respectively. They were listed at 364 and 373 in the past, but are marked differently because the plate also has been angled slightly toward left field.
Because the foul poles had to be moved, the left-field and right-field corners have increased by only 4 and 2 feet, respectively.
"We had been talking of possible ways to make the field larger for a year or so," said Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations. "This seemed to be the simplest solution, instead of moving the stands or the fences."
The Orioles also replaced the left-field foul pole with the original used at Memorial Stadium from 1954 to 1991. It's shorter (70 feet) and requires a smaller support structure that will allow more fans in the lower club and upper decks to have an unobstructed view of the field.
Thrift insisted the composition of the Orioles' pitching staff didn't influence the club's decision to create more room in the outfield. At least one spot in the rotation, and maybe two, could be awarded to someone with little or no major-league experience. Ryan Kohlmeier, with only 25 appearances beyond the minors, entered spring training as the closer.
"This could prove beneficial to everyone, including pitchers and defense. There's more room to run, and more room to get doubles and triples, too," Thrift said.
Pitcher Chuck McElroy said the added distance will make Camden Yards more closely resemble Detroit's spacious Comerica Park, which frustrated hitters last season and hastened slugger Juan Gonzalez's free-agent departure from the Tigers. Within the past five years, more home runs were hit at Camden Yards than every other ballpark in the majors except Coors Field in Colorado.
"We can finally challenge hitters now and not get burned," said McElroy, who made two starts in September and could remain in the rotation after appearing in 603 games as a reliever. "You can feel good that, if a guy hits the ball good enough, it might not go anywhere. That's what we want to do - make people put the ball in play. We did a lot of nitpicking last year."
McElroy already had experience pitching in close quarters, having spent parts of two seasons in Colorado, where ERAs inflate like balloons.
"A lot of guys were afraid to challenge hitters there, too," he said. "Even if you jam a guy, he might be strong enough to get it out of the stadium. Now [at Camden Yards], it's going to be a good advantage for us. You go into the season from spring training, you've got to feel good. You can say, `Hey, let's just go after the hitters.' It makes you a more aggressive pitcher, and not an intimidated one."
Moving the plate does come at a cost - the loss of some foul territory, which could prolong at-bats and cost the pitchers some outs. The distance between the plate and screen now measures 52 feet.
"We'll give that up anytime," McElroy said. "Foul territory for distance? We'll take it."
The changes, which include a new drainage system and fresh sod, are the first at Camden Yards since it opened in 1992. The dimensions also have been altered at Cinergy Field in Cincinnati and Comiskey Park in Chicago, and the left-center-field fence has been raised at Enron Field in Houston.
Sidney Ponson, who has surrendered 65 home runs the past two seasons, stressed that mistakes at Camden Yards still must be kept to a minimum. New measurements won't necessarily eliminate all the old problems. They don't provide a license to get careless.
"Going from 364 to 369, or whatever, isn't a big difference. You still have to make good pitches," he said. "If you put the ball in a bad spot, it's going to go out, no matter what. It's all about making quality pitches."
So, the extra distance isn't wanted?
"Oh, I'll take it."