Longer fences going, going, gone for O's?

Club plans to return old dimensions to Yard

January 08, 2002|By Roch Kubatko and Joe Strauss | Roch Kubatko and Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Changes at Camden Yards for the 2002 season aren't being restricted to the clubhouse and ticket booths. The numbers on the outfield fence apparently won't look the same, either.

Two weeks removed from revealing price increases on most seats at the ballpark, the Orioles are expected to return home plate to its original location after pushing it back 7 feet last year.

Club spokesman Bill Stetka confirmed that the Orioles have contacted Major League Baseball, which must grant its approval for the dimensions to be altered. He said "no permanent decision" has been made, but an announcement should come soon.

"It basically would be putting the plate back where it was for the first nine years of the ballpark, which would shorten the dimensions," Stetka said. "That's the thing that's undergoing discussion now, the possibility of returning it to its original playing field."

The Orioles apparently have used the more hitter-friendly dimensions as a selling point to free-agent outfielder Juan Gonzalez, who received a two-year contract offer from them last week. Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president for baseball operations, is monitoring the club's early conditioning camp in Sarasota, Fla., and couldn't be reached for comment.

Moving up the plate again would require relocating the foul poles and pitcher's mound and adjusting the base paths.

"It didn't have some of the desired effects that we had hoped, as far as sight lines for fans," Stetka said. "Where it improved things one way, it didn't improve the other. We were hoping it would bring the fans a little closer to the action, creating a little different effect."

Camden Yards' reputation as a bandbox perished last season when it surrendered only 152 home runs, fifth fewest in the majors to Comerica Park (129) in Detroit, Pacific Bell Park (146) in San Francisco, Safeco Field (147) in Seattle and PNC Park (150) in Pittsburgh. Batters went deep 229 times at Camden Yards in 1996, and 214 times in 1998.

Few teams fit their surroundings as poorly as the 2001 Orioles, whose 30-50 home record ranked last in the American League and better than only the Cincinnati Reds (27-54). The combination of Camden Yards' extended dimensions and a less experienced roster caused the team's production to plummet from 90 home runs in 2000 to 58 last season - a 35.5 percent decline. Opponents hit 94 home runs at Camden Yards last season, down from 106 in 2000.

More spacious confines didn't translate into more doubles, either. The Orioles hit 109 doubles at home compared with 153 on the road. They hit 131 at home in 2000.

Known as a pitcher's nightmare, Camden Yards became friendlier to Orioles arms last year. But the team's home ERA improved less from the previous season (5.09 to 4.27) than its road figure (5.96 to 4.80).

Having averaged 105 home runs at Camden Yards the previous five seasons, the Orioles' slugging decreased at home for a third consecutive season. The presence of only one player with a 20-home run season since 1997 (Mike Bordick in 2000) explained much; however, moving back home plate only worsened the team's power disadvantage.

So far unable to land a projected cleanup hitter, the Orioles find it easier to alter the look of their ballpark than the composition of their lineup.

"More home runs for us also means more home runs for the opposition," Stetka said, "so that's a wash."

That's a chance the hitters are willing to take.

"You saw a lot of balls that were hit really well last year to center field, and that extra 7 feet would have been home runs," outfielder Larry Bigbie said. "It gives you a little more confidence going to the plate knowing that if you hit one good, you've got a chance of getting it out."

Moving in

Here are the dimensions of Camden Yards last season and in previous seasons. The shorter dimensions are expected to return this season:

Field...2001...Prev.

Left field...337...333

Left-center...376...364

Center field... 417...410

Right-center...391...373

Right field...320...318

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