One of the more distinctive features of Minute Maid Park is going away.
In the relatively short, rapidly changing history of Major League Baseball in Houston, nothing in recent years has represented the Astros’ brand of baseball more distinctively than Tal’s Hill, the idiosyncratic incline in Minute Maid Park’s center field that has confounded outfielders and entertained fans since the park opened in 2000.
With the 2016 season, that landmark will be no more.
Tal’s Hill, named for former Astros executive Tal Smith and designed to replicate the quirks of 20th-century ballparks for the enjoyment of 21st-century fans, will give way to a $15 million redesign that includes a center-field observation tower, a field-level club section, and gathering spots for groups, season-ticket holders and fans who want to enjoy baseball from multiple angles rather than a single seat.
The Astros, who will pay for the alterations to the publicly funded ballpark, announced plans for the redesign Thursday afternoon. The ballclub will solicit bids next week for the project, which required approval from MLB and the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.
Tal’s Hill lasted 16 years as a defining characteristic of Minute Maid Park, drawing praise from some for its throwback elements but criticism from others as a nuisance, an eyesore and even a danger zone, even though no one was ever injured flagging down a well-hit ball.
Eliminating Tal’s Hill will allow the Astros to move the center-field fence in from 436 feet, the deepest in Major League Baseball, to 409 feet, at roughly the outer edge of the current warning track.
Seating capacity will be reduced by about a hundred seats, but eliminating Tal’s Hill, with its 30-degree incline, will create more space for the Astros to entertain fans at, potentially, premium prices.
Elements of the redesign include:
A field-level club in center field with about 50 seats, located behind a 10-foot-high outfield fence.
A new section of seats atop the field-level boxes, on the right-field side of the batter’s eye backdrop in center field.
Moving the Budweiser-sponsored patio section from behind Tal’s Hill to atop the batter’s eye along the Home Run Alley concourse section.
A 92-foot tower with a winding staircase, enclosing an elevator between the main concourse and mezzanine equipped with LED lights and, at the top, the Astros’ name and logo.
A smaller, self-contained section of mezzanine seats in center field, replacing three sections of current seats that will be removed as part of the redesign, and about 35 feet of ribbon boards that will display team statistics, plus an icehouse-style bar and concessions area.
Additional retail stores, bar areas and concession stands on the main concourse and space that could house, among other things, a public set for Root Sports Southwest pre- and postgame broadcasts.
This related Chron story mentions the Hill’s homage to Crosley Field, the old home of the Cincinnati Reds, which had a notorious incline in its outfield. I once read a story about Babe Herman, a colorful outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1920s and 30s who was much better with a bat than with a glove. His manager, Wilbert Robinson, a/k/a “Uncle Robbie”, once had a friend and former Reds outfielder give Herman some tips on how to navigate the hill at Crosley Field. At the game that night, a batter hit a fly ball to deep right with runners on first and second. Herman expertly ran back to catch the ball, then fell flat on his face as he tried to throw it back into the infield. The runners rounded the bases as the ball rolled away from him during his pratfall. After the inning, Robbie accosted Herman in the dugout. “What happened? I thought he showed you how to go up that hill!” he yelled. “Yeah, but he didn’t show me how to come back down,” Herman replied.
I have no idea if that’s a true story, but really, does it matter? I kind of liked Tal’s Hill, but it was far enough out there that it was easy to ignore most of the time. I hadn’t given it much thought since the stadium formerly known as Enron Field first debuted, with Tal’s Hill the subject of much fanfare and derision. The main effect of this change will likely be to make Minute Maid even more homerun-friendly than it is now, though probably not by much. What do you think? Hair Balls, Sean Pendergast – both of whom are happy to see Tal’s Hill go – and Swamplot have more.