Fair share of history passes this foul pole

Orioles: Given a 9-year rest after 38 years at Memorial Stadium, the pole in left field at Camden Yards is back in the swing, fouling up umpires.

September 02, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

When you get right down to it, it's just a big yellow pipe shrouded in steel gridwork, but the foul pole that stands in the left-field corner at Oriole Park has made quite a name for itself over the 41 years that it has been the chief arbiter of home runs and long foul balls in Baltimore.

It was one of the heroes of the "Why not?" season of 1989, back when it stood watch at Memorial Stadium and camouflaged that famous game-winning Mike Devereaux home run against the California Angels ... back before it was installed at Oriole Park in 2001 to improve the sight line for left-field bleacher fans and preserve a little Baltimore history at the new ballpark.

It was in the news again as recently as Aug. 15, when it beguiled third base umpire Jeff Nelson and nearly cost New York Yankees third baseman Aaron Boone a game-turning homer. In April, it did cost Chicago White Sox third baseman Joe Crede a potential game-tying home run and set manager Jerry Manuel up for criticism for not arguing passionately enough after the umpires failed to reverse the call.

OK, so every ballpark has a foul pole in the left- and right-field corners, and every team has a foul pole story. What's so special about this one?

Maybe nothing, except that it is ours and it apparently decided that it wasn't getting enough attention lately.

Boone launched a drive deep into the left-field bleachers to bring the Yankees from behind - and break himself out of a slump - only to go ballistic when Nelson signaled that the ball hooked foul. The umpiring crew reversed the call and video replays showed it was clearly inside the foul pole, but it still evoked memories of the phantom Devereaux homer and illustrated the historical difficulty of reading balls down the left-field line in Baltimore.

Nelson apparently lost perspective as the ball blended into the large crowd in left field. It probably wouldn't have been a problem if the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were in town and those seats were empty, but the Yankees packed them in for all four games of the series.

"That's the thing with a pole bender," Nelson said at the time. "You have to take your eye off it when you turn around, and it's very tough to see when it goes into the crowd."

The crisscross ironwork of the original pole, which can make the ball "strobe" when it passes close by during a night game, doesn't help either.

To his credit, Nelson immediately told his fellow umpires that he didn't see the ball clearly. The other umpires agreed it was a fair ball and the right call was made. Orioles manager Mike Hargrove was ejected from the game for arguing about the reversal, but even he said after the game that it was the right decision.

Crede wasn't so lucky. His shot down the line also appeared to be fair - and a two-run homer would have tied the score - but third base ump Eric Cooper called it foul and no one else on the umpiring crew saw it clearly enough to overturn the original ruling.

There were no memorable disputes during the first nine seasons at Camden Yards, when the original foul pole was in storage. Fans had to settle for countless video-board replays of Devereaux circling the bases after his disputed shot proved that something magical was taking place at Memorial Stadium in summer 1989.

The old pole was installed at Camden Yards - to almost no fanfare - when the Orioles repositioned home plate to increase the cozy ballpark's dimensions in 2001. It had been in storage since the Orioles moved out of Memorial Stadium.

The right-field foul pole also is from Memorial Stadium, but it was installed before Camden Yards opened in 1992. Somehow, it has managed to stay largely out of the news - perhaps because the flag court to the left of it and the B&O warehouse behind it provide a clear backdrop for judging borderline shots.

The pole that stood in left field at Camden Yards for nine years didn't go to waste either. It was given to Cal Ripken as a gift after he announced his retirement in 2001, and he has made good use of it. The 80-foot pole was cut into two 40-foot pieces to serve as the foul poles for Cal Sr.'s Yard at Ripken's Aberdeen baseball complex.

The official explanation for its replacement before the 2001 season was that the Memorial Stadium foul pole was shorter and less obtrusive to fans, but the original pole also had become a piece of Orioles history when Devereaux's fly ball disappeared in the metalwork and triggered one of the most memorable controversies in Memorial Stadium history.

There was no conclusive proof that the ball was either fair or foul, but Angels manager Doug Rader was convinced the umpires had ruled in favor of the Orioles because manager Frank Robinson had threatened to resign earlier in the season because he felt he was being treated unfairly by the umpires.

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