Astros fans are thoroughly familiar with Tal’s Hill. Some like it, and some don’t appreciate this unique feature of the playing field at Houston’s Minute Maid Park. According to sources, the Astros are considering making some as yet unspecified change to the hill. Should they remove it, or leave it alone?
The hill is a 90-foot wide rise in center field that begins at the warning track and climbs at a 30-degree slant to meet the wall at the 436 sign. As if that wasn’t different enough, Tal’s Hill has a flagpole near the top, on the playing surface.
Architect Earl Santee designed the hill, named after then team president Tal Smith, during construction of the ballpark, which opened in 2000.
“There was an aspiration to create magic, and the train, the hill, the flagpole were part of the magic for (Smith),” said Santee.
Tal’s Hill after a game in 2012. Photo by Larry Manch.
The hill does create a big of magic – every time a centerfielder ventures on its lush, green slope. It has rarely affected play, but when it does, it tends to be dramatic.
“I worked on it [in batting practice]. I got a few balls like that in center field kind of like that, and I dropped them,” Gomez said. “It was good practice.”
“You’ve got to change the way you run. If you run the way you normally run, you’re going to hit it and fall down,” Beltran said. “As soon as I hit the warning track I started doing kind of like high knees, and when I felt like I was on top of the hill the only thing I needed to do was look for the ball.”
Andruw Jones had probably the most unique experience on Tal’s Hill. The Braves outfielder chased two fly balls up the slope – on consecutive pitches.
Evan Drellich, reporting for the Houston Chronicle.com in October 2014, indicated the Astros were considering changing or removing Tal’s Hill.
“Tal’s Hill will be reimagined this offseason,” wrote Drellich. “No earth will be moved, but it’s possible this season could be the last for the unique center field design the Astros have at their home ballpark.”
Drellich also stated: “The desire to change and ultimately improve Minute Maid has been consistent and discussed publicly in the past, but the ball is rolling faster now…”
Drellich quoted Astros President Reid Ryan’s comments indicating the team was consulting with an architectural firm, looking at options for Tal’s Hill.
“It won’t be this year. It would be after next year,” said Ryan in Drellich’s article.
A guess at the meaning of Drellich’s comment that “no earth will be moved”, suggests the outfield may be reconfigured. It is possible the team may reposition the fence, taking the hill out of play.
“There was an aspiration to create magic, and the train, the hill, the flagpole were part of the magic for (Smith).” – Earl Santee
Lance Berkman, a man whose adventures on Tal’s Hill are documented, allegedly said, “If the ball rolls onto the hill, it’s not steep enough to roll back, so you have to go get it. Then there’s the chance of running into the flagpole that’s on it and getting hurt.”
“I’m down with it [Tal’s Hill], because it adds a sort of beer-league degree of difficulty, making superstar outfielders look just as goofy as the rest of us every once in a while,” wrote ESPN’s Eric Neel after attending a game at Minute Maid Park.
Watching the video of Berkman, Gomez and the others climbing the hill chasing a fly ball may make you think it is dangerous. However, those incidents, amusing and amazing as they were, are rare. The danger factor on Tal’s Hill seems miniscule compared to the dangers outfielders face near any outfield wall, especially in a ballpark like Chicago’s Wrigley Field. The ivy and brick in Chicago are far more dangerous, however they are part of what makes Wrigley unique, and should not be changed.
I say leave Tal’s Hill alone. Reposition the outfield wall so it runs along the bottom of the hill, shortening center field and making it a little more hitter friendly and fielder friendly. But don’t take away such a unique feature of one of America’s most beautiful ballparks.
What do you think?