Let me show you a baseball picture.
Photo credit: Bob Levey/Getty Images
That's a man sitting on a hill, staring at a mitt where a baseball should be. The baseball isn't there. No, the baseball is a helpless servant to gravity. The baseball player is, too, and both are returning to their natural, earthbound existence. The player gazes in bemused wonder. What hath God wrought?
That scenario, that kind of picture, is doomed. The Astros are getting rid of Tal's Hill, the affected quirk that was instantly and rightfully ridiculed as an abomination. Good for the Astros. How sad for us. It's about time for everyone. Aw, man, do they have to?
This might be the most confusing topic in sports, and we have to confront it head on. This stupid, dumb, nonsensical, marketing mistake was a secret delight. When balls are hit 425 feet, there doesn't need to be a flaming hoop for the center fielder to jump through. The 425-foot part is exciting enough.
And yet, jump through that flaming hoop, circus lion. Jump through that flaming hoop.
It's impossible to reconcile the two. They can't exist together. There is no compromise. We have to pick just one.
Point: Tal's Hill was a joke, a marketing travesty
There was an ol'-timey ballpark boom back at the turn of the millennium. Ol'-timey ballparks sure were weird, alright. Have you ever seen the Baker Bowl that used to be in Philadelphia?
That was 280 feet down the right-field line. Here's an super-professionally Photoshopped approximation of what that would look like in Minute Maid Park.
Can you imagine? The right fielder might as well be a sixth infielder. The wall was higher at the Baker Bowl, sure, but you can see the potential for cheap, pop-fly home runs. That's how baseball used to be back then. Ol'-timey fun! Except the wall in the Baker Bowl was like that because it had to be. That was the land available. There were railroad tracks directly behind it. Figure it out. That's how ballpark quirks were made.
Tal's Hill was inspired by the older ballparks, including Crosley Field in Cincinnati, that had inclines in the outfield. Except those inclines weren't put there to be cute. They were put there for a reason.
Terraces were not unusual in old ballparks. Most of them were constructed as a way to make up the difference between field level and street level on a sloping block.
Those silly people back then couldn't send cat pictures from phone to phone, and they sure as heck couldn't figure out how to level out a construction site for a ballpark. The risk was injury -- gory, ligament-shearing injury. The reward was a ballpark. Without that risk, there is no reward, and it wasn't a choice at all.
Take AT&T Park, with its funky angles and a high right-field wall. It's there because that was the land they had to work with. The wind came in from a predictable direction, which meant there was only one tenable orientation of the park. The wall was actually against Major League Baseball's rules and required a waiver. There was just no other way to build it.
Tal's Hill is there because someone thought, herp, let's put a hill there because of manufactured nostalgia. The risk was injury -- gory, ligament-shearing injury. The reward was manufactured nostalgia. Oh, and, yeah, let's put a flagpole in the middle of the playing field because fractured skulls are also manufactured nostalgia if you're in the right mood. Putting a fake-necessary hill there was like a guitarist wearing thimbles on his fingertips as an homage to Tony Iommi. Except Iommi's fingertips were cut off in an industrial accident, so he kind of needed to wear them. The homage would be transparently dumb. So goes Tal's Hill.
Drew Magary recently wrote about the different dimensions of ballparks, and the vibe was very similar to a I-don't-really-watch-this-sport-but-here's-why-offsides-should-be-legal piece about soccer, but there were some valid points raised. Weird ballparks are weird, and it can be unsettling. More specifically: look at Tal's Hill, which is absolute crap.
Good riddance, Tal's Hill. You really were the worst.
Counterpoint: Look at those players run up the hill and fall down
Baseball players should fall down more. That's not really up for debate.
Look, this is a safe place. You can be honest. Bear traps, pits, snares attached to bendy tree branches, all of them would make baseball more watchable. It would make it worse, sure, but it's not like you would change the channel. And, here, a mile away in center field, where baseballs go about .01 percent of the time, is a pit underneath a bear trap tied to a bendy tree branch. It's fun.
Look at this guy:
That's Carlos Gomez, one of the best athletes in the world. He has a face full of hill. Hills are jerks, really, but Gomez overcame this obstacle and made the catch. Are you not entertained?
This is from a couple weeks ago:
Sam Fuld made a great catch that would have been a great catch in any ballpark. But with Tal's Hill, there were bonus points. Do you like bonus points? Sure, everyone does. Sam Fuld got bonus points.
If you want the best argument for Tal's Hill, here it is, from 15 years ago, featuring one of the very best outfielders in baseball history.
That's Andruw Jones, an indescribable wizard in center field, falling down in his first fight with the hill. And then, on the very next pitch, he conquers the hill. It's perfect, the physical manifestation of baseball's inherently unpredictable nonsense. Every once in a while, there's a hill in center field, too. There's a hill when a runner rounds third base, sometimes. They're just metaphorical hills. What's wrong with a little physical reality to reinforce that dynamic?
And here we are, caught in between. The hill was a gimmick. But watch baseball players struggle against the laws of physics in hilarious ways. It's impossible to choose. Both arguments have their place.
The compromise is that the hill existed in the first place. We had our fun. Jones was tested. Fuld made his catch. Gomez had his moment. Justin Maxwell made it out alive. And over the last 15 years, there were no ligaments torn. That career-ending injury never happened. Willie Mays didn't run into a flagpole trying to catch the ball off Vic Wertz's bat. The worst-case scenario never happened, which meant we got to enjoy the best-case scenario: funky, unexpected baseball.
Tal's Hill was the worst, and I'll miss it. It's good that it's going away, but it's good that it existed in the first place. Both can be true.