Ballpark Quirks is a series on the distinctive features and oddities that make up each of MLB’s 30 parks. Today’s Pick: Minute Maid Park and its centerfield hill. For past stories in the series, click here.
A little touch of magic: That’s what former Houston Astros president Tal Smith craved during the construction of Minute Maid Park. So he wrangled up as much nostalgia as possible, creating a throwback ballpark to match the likes of Cincinnati’s Crosley Field and its famed berm.
But Smith couldn’t tuck his desired berm in left field, where he originally wanted it. There simply wasn’t the space on the stadium site. So Earl Santee, the stadium’s architect with the firm Populous, moved it for him, creating Tal’s Hill in straightaway centerfield.
"We just didn’t have enough room," Santee told SI.com. "Leftfield is basically a little bit of a Crawford box and concourse. That is all the room we had."
But the limitations in leftfield didn’t completely drown out the dreams of a berm, even if the fans weren’t going to congregate on it. “We did some referencing with old ballparks, such as Crosley Field, and came up with the idea of a centerfield hill," Santee said. "Some people call it Tal’s Hill and we probably did call it Tal’s Hill at some point, but we couldn’t achieve what he wanted, which was a berm in leftfield for fans to sit on.”
Merging Crosley’s features with the likes of old Yankee Stadium’s inspiration, Santee also dropped a flagpole in the deepest part of the park, inside the fence and inside the berm. “Once we did the hill, the flagpole came next,” Santee says. “There was an aspiration to create magic, and the train, the hill, the flagpole were part of the magic for (Smith).”
From the opening in 2000, there have been some slight changes made to the hill, including a replanting of grass to better handle the shade-filled section tucked into the stadium’s architecture-filled outfield and a repainting of the pole.
Santee says with such a cramped leftfield, he knew the park needed a place of reprieve for pitchers. The hill offers that up. At 90 feet wide and with a 30-degree slope—“There was no science to the slope, we wanted to keep it noticeable but not too steep,” Santee says—with a warning track before the hill and a fence at 436 feet from home plate, the hill doesn’t come into play all the time. But when it does, it can make for some interesting plays.
“From what I’ve seen over the years, some have figured out how to catch a ball and others not so successfully,” Santee says. At least for the outfielders, there aren’t spectators picnicking on Tal’s Hill. That might make negotiating a flyball even trickier. Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.