Tal Smith on Tal’s Hill
On the heels of the Astros’ decision announced Thursday to get rid of Tal’s Hill for next season, I checked in with the man for whom the hill in center field was named – former Astros president and general manager Tal Smith.
“It was an interesting feature that created some conversation and uniqueness for the ballpark, and I thought it really added a dimension because now and then it was really exciting and fun to see Michael Bourn or Lance Berkman go up the hill make a marvelous catch,” said Smith, who’s still active in baseball by doing consulting work.
Smith said Astros president of baseball operations Reid Ryan called him Thursday morning and told him about the upcoming changes.
“I think over the years the hill has provided a lot of memorable plays without any mishap,” Smith said. “I know there’s always been concern about injuries and so on. As I pointed out, I’ve seen more players stumble over the pitching mound than I have on Tal’s Hill. I’m a proponent that defensive plays can be very exciting and they help provide some of those.”
Smith said when the ballpark’s initial dimensions were discussed, the large center field offset the short 315 feet down the left-field line and 326 feet down the right field line.
“We knew left field and the Crawford Boxes were going to be a hitter’s haven and as we saw in the year 2000, the pitchers learned to use center field to adjust for the short lines, particularly down left field,” he said. “It proved a good balance. It’s going to take a while to adjust. Shortening center field by that much in a ballpark that has a short left and where right field is not all that difficult, it creates somewhat of a dilemma for pitchers.
“It will provide more offense and maybe that’s good. Everybody’s got their own thoughts.”
Astros owner Jim Crane said the removal of the Hill had nothing to do with Smith personally and said the club would still like to honor him in some way under the new configuration.
“From my standpoint, it was never about the nomenclature, a personal tribute,” Smith said. “It evolved as a means of identification. I was asked by [former owner] Drayton [McLane] in a meeting with the designers and architects and other staff members what we could do to make the ballpark interesting.”
Smith the Astros considered the monuments at Yankee Stadium, the ivy at Wrigley Field, the Green Monster in Boston and the hills and inclines at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field when coming up with a concept for Minute Maid Park, which opened as Enron Field in 2000.
“I saw Frank Robinson navigate [the hills at Crosley Field] without any difficulty,” Smith said. “It wasn’t anything I particularly advocated, and the name Tal’s Hill was used for an identification standpoint and it took on a life of its own.”
Smith maintained his sense of humor.
“Facetiously, they did that so they could have somebody to blame for it,” he joked.