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Field of Screams With all its bells and whistles and architectural quirks, Houston's new dinger-friendly Enron Field is every bit as thrilling as the Astrodome was dull. But, as the Astros are finding out, it takes some getting used to

May 22, 2000
May 22, 2000

Table of Contents
May 22, 2000

Field of Screams With all its bells and whistles and architectural quirks, Houston's new dinger-friendly Enron Field is every bit as thrilling as the Astrodome was dull. But, as the Astros are finding out, it takes some getting used to

Drayton McLane sits in a booth behind home plate at Enron Field.
The scene in front of him was once a vague image in the back of
his head. A daydream. Now it's a reality, filled with a sellout
crowd of 42,280 people.

This is an article from the May 22, 2000 issue Original Layout

"I remember going to the Astrodome, when we'd have crowds of
12,000," McLane, the owner of the Houston Astros, says. "I
wondered if we could ever get people to come to baseball.
Houston is the fourth-largest city in the United States, and we
were still a small-market team. Why was that? High school
football in my hometown [Temple, Texas] drew more people on a
Saturday night than we did."

What would make the people come? This downtown scene in front of
him is what he thought could work.

He can see...well, there is so much he can see. He can see the
life-sized, 48,000-pound locomotive and coal tender traveling an
800-foot trip along the top of the wall extending from dead
centerfield to the leftfield corner. He can see the stock
quotations on the modern megaboard in right. He can see his
office in the refurbished Union Station building, which is just
beyond the wall in left; his office windows are of ordinary
glass, and a 422-foot marker below them is a target for home run
hitters. He can see the flagpole and the 30-degree incline in
deepest center, both in play. He can see the short porch in left,
the Crawford Boxes containing some 800 seats, located along
Crawford Street atop the old-time, hand-operated scoreboard. He
can see actual grass and actual clouds and, every now and then,
the actual sun. He can see baseball. Real baseball. "The
Astrodome was so antiseptic," he says. "The crowds were so quiet.
The games... if you got a 3-0 lead, the game was over."

Excitement. That's what McLane can see. He has built a ballpark
with more nooks and crannies than an English muffin, with angles
and wide spaces that will create doubles and triples, action
everywhere. He has built a ballpark in which the ball not only
can fly over the fences, setting off, on Astros homers, the
train and the 12-foot-tall model of a Conoco gas pump in left
center, celebrations all around, but also can bounce off the
fences and roll forever. McLane and the architects from HOK of
Kansas City, Mo., have built a ballpark with idiosyncrasies and
intrigue. "Things are going to happen here," he says. "I don't
know what they are, but strange things are going to happen."

The only problem now is that the strange things are happening to
his team. Last Saturday the Astros lost 8-7 to the Cincinnati
Reds on a two-run, two-out homer by Ken Griffey Jr. in the ninth
inning. One night earlier Houston lost 7-3 in the 11th to
Cincinnati, a pair of home runs sealing the Astros' fate.
Through Sunday, Houston, the three-time defending National
League Central champion, was 6-12 at its new home; the Astros'
15-21 overall start was their worst since 1991. Can there be
such a thing as too much excitement?

"It'll get better," Houston leftfielder Daryle Ward says. "The
more we play here, the more we know about this place, the better
we'll get. The trouble now is that home court advantage is no
advantage. We don't know anything more than anyone else. It's
just as new to us."

Leftfield--where Ward plays on or near the warning track for
every pitch and deals with caroms off the scoreboard, only 315
feet down the line--seems to have all the vagaries of the new
park wrapped together. From the blueprints it appeared that
leftfield would be the place to hide a marginal defensive player
in order to get a bigger bat into the lineup. In reality the
best defensive player available had better be in left. "There's
so much to learn," says Ward, a below-average outfielder. "If
the ball comes off the steel in the scoreboard, it comes off
real hard. If it comes off the numbers, it dies. At the bottom
is a concrete strip. A ball hit there the other night--it came
back so hard that the shortstop fielded it."

The short fence invites the cheap homer. ("There'll be plays
when I'll say, 'I've got, I've got it...oops,'" Ward says.) At
the point where the Crawford Boxes end in straightaway left, the
outfield wall takes an abrupt, 90-degree left turn and recedes
for nearly 30 feet before it makes a 90-degree right turn and
stretches out toward centerfield. That means that sometimes a
fielder tracking a ball along the front of the Boxes will have
to make a 90-degree turn to make a catch. There are also pillars
in left center, with Dr Pepper signs on each of them, that can
create havoc.

The entire field is constructed this way. A number of
eccentricities from old-time stadiums have been reproduced,
creating a sort of Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum of the
arcane. The scoreboard and wall have been taken from Fenway
Park. The slope in center came from the late Crosley Field in
Cincinnati. The flagpole in center, about 430 feet from home,
came from old Tiger Stadium. The roof of Union Station has even
been spruced up and can be rented by groups that want to attend
a game. That idea came from the sight of people watching Chicago
Cubs games from roofs of buildings on Waveland and Sheffield
avenues across from Wrigley Field.

"The one feature I'm surprised I got included was the hill in
center," says Tal Smith, president of baseball operations, who
contributed many of the ideas and for whom Tal's Hill is named.
"I always figured someone would come along and take it out of
the plans. We'd also planned for an old-time dirt strip between
the mound and the plate, for instance, but some pitcher
complained about the ball taking bad hops and the strip went
out. I figured the same would happen to the hill."

"Oh, it's not bad," says the Reds' Griffey, who stumbled on Tal's
Hill last Friday night trying to track down a triple off the bat
of Matt Mieske, one of only two balls that had been hit to the
slope. "It brings you back to growing up. When we lived at Forest
Park, the condos in Cincinnati, as kids, there was a hill at one
end of the field in the backyard. The only difference was that at
Forest Park we ruled it out of play."

The result of this almost Victorian architecture has been a
dramatic change in Houston's approach to the game. Gone are
those pitching duels at the Astrodome: pitchers protected by
vast areas of synthetic carpet, fences somewhere near Austin, an
environment of dead air climactically controlled. Enron has the
Chicks Dig the Long Ball environment of today's game.

"I think all our pitchers were bothered by the park when they
first got here, Jose Lima in particular," Astros manager Larry
Dierker says of his ace righthander. "What did he say? 'No one
can pitch in this park'? Something like that. What you have to
understand about pitching here is that guys are going to hit
homers. That's going to happen. What you can't do is be too
careful and walk a lot of guys. A home run hurts a lot more when
a couple of guys are on base. I think--mostly in this home
stand--our guys are coming around, especially our starters. Each
of them, except for Jose, has pitched a strong game. The more we
play here, the more guys will understand that pitching is
pitching."

After ranking third in the National League with a team ERA of
3.83 a year ago, Houston stood 14th through Sunday at 5.65.
Lima, 21-10 with a 3.58 ERA last season, had dropped to 1-5 with
a staggering 9.53 before his scheduled start in the series
finale with the Reds on Monday. Worse, in seven starts this
year, he had been tagged for 16 home runs, including eight at
Enron; he gave up seven at the Astrodome all of last year. But
even Lima has made his peace with his new environment. "I can
pitch here," he says. "I didn't win 37 games in the past two
years just because I pitched in the Astrodome. In fact, I won
more of those games on the road than I did at the Astrodome. It
isn't the park. I'm just going through a bad stretch, man. Every
pitcher goes through a bad stretch sometime. I'll get back. I'll
love this park--42,000 people watching you work every night."

The Astros, long at or near the bottom of the league in homers,
were sixth through Sunday with 52, including 31 at Enron. The
new park, named after the Houston-based energy company that
ponied up $100 million for the privilege, ranked third in homers
per game in this season of the dinger, with a startling 3.61
compared with 1.44 last year at the Astrodome. (At week's end
Toronto's SkyDome and Colorado's Coors Field were the premier
parks in which to go yard, averaging 3.76 and 3.75 homers,
respectively, per game.) The long-term change could be even more
noticeable. Or maybe not.

"You definitely think about your park when you think about
acquiring players," Houston general manager Gerry Hunsicker
says, "but you're limited these days. You say, Maybe we should
get some big righthanded power hitters, but with the salary cap
and everything, that's not easy to do. Plus, we've already got
some pretty good ones with Jeff Bagwell and Ken Caminiti. You
say, Maybe we should just get sinkerball pitchers to keep the
ball down. Well, everybody's looking for sinkerball pitchers.
Everybody's looking for someone who can get the ball over the
plate."

Last week when the Astros came off the road for their third home
stand at Enron, against the Colorado Rockies and the Reds, the
action was typical. Two homers by the two teams on Monday night,
four homers on Tuesday, two on Wednesday, an off day Thursday,
three on Friday, seven on Saturday, one on Sunday (chart,
below). This was a long way from almost any week during the 35
years in the Astrodome. Todd Helton of Colorado hit three home
runs, including a 344-foot bloop off the foul pole 315 feet down
the line in left. Caminiti hit a 331-foot fly ball, threw his
bat in disgust and wound up with a grand slam to beat the
Rockies 13-8. "That was definitely an Enron slam," says Dierker.
Griffey, fooled on a pitch, still muscled a 354-foot shot to
right for his first of two home runs on Saturday, in the midst
of a back-to-back-to-back stretch for the Reds.

But the home run of the week belonged to Cincinnati reliever
Danny Graves. In the 11th inning on Friday he knocked a ball
into the Crawford Boxes for not only his first homer of the
season but also the first hit of his career. "It was a mistake,"
he explained. "The ball hit the bat. That's all I can say. I
can't hit home runs. I have never hit a home run in batting
practice. Never. I couldn't hit a home run if I stood on second
base. I still don't know how it happened. Do I get to be on
Baseball Tonight? I didn't even know how fast to run while I was
running the bases. Did they run the train? I don't even know."

The train--no, they didn't run the train--is only for the
celebration of Astros homers and Astros wins. McLane added this
himself. He says he was looking for a different feature, like
the swimming pool at the BOB in Phoenix, something that would
make people talk. Tracks already had been laid atop the wall for
the retractable roof, which will be used during rainy days or
the humid days of summer, allowing the stadium to be
air-conditioned. (Will the roof and air conditioning help the
ball jump even more? Will they hurt, bringing the game back
closer to Astrodome conditions? No one knows. The roof hasn't
been used yet for a regular-season game.) A train seemed to go
along with the tracks. "With Union Station, it gave us a train
motif for the entire stadium," McLane says. "The company that
made the roof for us also made the train. It's a re-creation of
an 1860s steam engine. A giant crane pulled it up to the wall in
two sections."

The train's engineer is Mike Kenny, a 48-year-old former actor.
He has worked for the Astros for five years. Previously he wore
a 19th-century military uniform, playing a character called
General Admission. He stood behind the outfield fence at the
Astrodome and set off a cannon after every Houston homer. He
runs the train a lot more often.

"What you have to do is try to anticipate the home run," he
says. "This is a big locomotive, so it really doesn't jump to 60
miles an hour in a hurry. If I see a ball that looks like it's
going out, I start to get the train moving right then. When I'm
sure it's gone, I start ringing the bell and turning on the
sound effects."

The big trip for the train is supposed to be at the end of the
game. Kenny has the time to cover the entire length of the
track. He can use all the whistles, 8,400 watts of speakers
blasting out the sounds. In the new park, with all the built-in
adventures, the built-in possibilities, the train is the
built-in celebration. "The only thing," Kenny says, "is that we
have to win."

Alas, that's the one part of the vision that's missing.

COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER LANDING STRIP Fans in the Crawford Boxes await the arrival of Caminiti's grand slam on May 9. The leftfield porch is Enron's most inviting aspect for hitters.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: AL TIELEMANS (2) FENCEBUSTERS Griffey and Bagwell hit three of the 19 homers at Enron last week, a rate just off the park's 3.61 a game for the season.COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER LAY OF THE LAND While architects made leftfield a gimme for hitters, Enron goes 436 feet to center and 326 feet down the line in right.COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL FIELD DAY Griffey, Richard Hidalgo (top right) and Bill Spiers learned that playing the outfield at Enron can be a misadventure.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: HEINZ KLUETMEIER [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER IT'S A GAS The pump in left center keeps track of Astros home runs, which at the current pace would reach 140 at season's end.

Powering Up...and Down

If early-season trends hold, the Astros' move from the cavernous
Astrodome to cozy Enron Field will result in the most dramatic
upswing in a city's home run production per game since the
ballpark renaissance began, in 1991. On the flip side, this
spring has also seen a dire dinger decrease in Detroit, where
the Tigers relocated to the homer hitter's hell of Comerica Park.
(Statistics for 2000 are through Sunday.) --David Sabino

TEAM
Astros

OLD STADIUM (FINAL YEAR)
Astrodome (1999)

HRS/GAME
1.44

NEW STADIUM (FIRST YEAR)
Enron Field (2000)

HRS/GAME
3.61

DIFFERENCE
+2.17

[TEAM]
Rockies

[OLD STADIUM (FINAL YEAR)]
Mile High Stadium (1994)

[HRS/GAME]
2.11

[NEW STADIUM (FIRST YEAR)]
Coors Field (1995)

[HRS/GAME]
3.35

[DIFFERENCE]
+1.24

[TEAM]
White Sox

[OLD STADIUM (FINAL YEAR)]
Comiskey Park (1990)

[HRS/GAME]
1.18

[NEW STADIUM (FIRST YEAR)]
Comiskey Park (1991)

[HRS/GAME]
1.89

[DIFFERENCE]
+0.71

[TEAM]
Indians

[OLD STADIUM (FINAL YEAR)]
Municipal Stadium (1993)

[HRS/GAME]
1.88

[NEW STADIUM (FIRST YEAR)]
Jacobs Field (1994)

[HRS/GAME]
2.57

[DIFFERENCE]
+0.69

[TEAM]
Giants

[OLD STADIUM (FINAL YEAR)]
3Com Park (1999)

[HRS/GAME]
2.28

[NEW STADIUM (FIRST YEAR)]
Pacific Bell Park (2000)

[HRS/GAME]
2.47

[DIFFERENCE]
+0.19

[TEAM]
Rangers

[OLD STADIUM (FINAL YEAR)]
Arlington Stadium (1993)

[HRS/GAME]
2.00

[NEW STADIUM (FIRST YEAR)]
The Ballpark in Arlington (1994)

[HRS/GAME]
2.06

[DIFFERENCE]
+0.06

[TEAM]
Orioles

[OLD STADIUM (FINAL YEAR)]
Memorial Stadium (1991)

[HRS/GAME]
1.88

[NEW STADIUM (FIRST YEAR)]
Oriole Park at Camden Yards (1992)

[HRS/GAME]
1.78

[DIFFERENCE]
-0.10

[TEAM]
Braves

[OLD STADIUM (FINAL YEAR)]
Fulton County Stadium (1996)

[HRS/GAME]
2.12

[NEW STADIUM (FIRST YEAR)]
Turner Field (1997)

[HRS/GAME]
1.62

[DIFFERENCE]
-0.50

[TEAM]
Mariners*

[OLD STADIUM (FINAL YEAR)]
Kingdome (1999)

[HRS/GAME]
3.19

[NEW STADIUM (FIRST YEAR)]
Safeco Field (1999)

[HRS/GAME]
2.38

[DIFFERENCE]
-0.81

[TEAM]
Tigers

[OLD STADIUM (FINAL YEAR)]
Tiger Stadium (1999)
[HRS/GAME]
2.90

[NEW STADIUM (FIRST YEAR)]
Comerica Park (2000)

[HRS/GAME]
1.19

[DIFFERENCE]
-1.71

*Statistics for the Kingdome are for the first half of 1999;
those for Safeco Field are for the second half of '99.

A Week's Worth of Whacks
Here's a log of the round-trippers hit at Enron Field last week.

DAY, DATE
Monday, May 8

HITTER, TEAM
Todd Helton, Rockies

INNING
Second

COUNT
1-and-2

SITUATION
One on, none out

PITCHER
RH Chris Holt

DIST.-DIRECTION
344' to left

[DAY, DATE]
MONDAY, May 8

[HITTER, TEAM]
Richard Hidalgo, Astros

[INNING]
Fifth

[COUNT]
3-and-1

[SITUATION]
None on, none out

[PITCHER]
RH Pedro Astacio

[DIST.-DIRECTION]
402' to left

[DAY, DATE]
TUESDAY, May 9

[HITTER, TEAM]
Jeff Cirillo, Rockies

[INNING]
First

[COUNT]
2-and-0

[SITUATION]
One on, two out

[PITCHER]
RH Scott Elarton

[DIST.-DIRECTION]
400' to left

[DAY, DATE]
TUESDAY, May 9

[HITTER, TEAM]
Helton

[INNING]
Third

[COUNT]
1-and-0

[SITUATION]
Two on, two out

[PITCHER]
Elarton

[DIST.-DIRECTION]
410' to right

[DAY, DATE]
TUESDAY, May 9

[HITTER, TEAM]
Ken Caminiti, Astros

[INNING]
Fifth

[COUNT]
1-and-1

[SITUATION]
Three on, two out

[PITCHER]
LH Scott Karl

[DIST.-DIRECTION]
331' to left

[DAY, DATE]
TUESDAY, May 9

[HITTER, TEAM]
Helton

[INNING]
Eighth

[COUNT]
3-and-2

[SITUATION]
None on, one out

[PITCHER]
RH Doug Henry

[DIST.-DIRECTION]
397' to left center

[DAY, DATE]
WEDNESDAY, May 10

[HITTER, TEAM]
Mitch Meluskey, Astros

[INNING]
Second

[COUNT]
0-and-1

[SITUATION]
One on, none out

[PITCHER]
RH Masato Yoshii

[DIST.-DIRECTION]
354' to left

[DAY, DATE]
WEDNESDAY, May 10

[HITTER, TEAM]
Jeff Bagwell, Astros

[INNING]
Third

[COUNT]
0-and-0

[SITUATION]
None on, one out

[PITCHER]
Yoshii

[DIST.-DIRECTION]
364'to left

THURSDAY, May 11 Off day

[DAY, DATE]
FRIDAY, May 12

[HITTER, TEAM]
Aaron Boone, Reds

[INNING]
Sixth

[COUNT]
0-and-1

[SITUATION]
None on, two out

[PITCHER]
RH Octavio Dotel

[DIST.-DIRECTION]
331' to left

[DAY, DATE]
FRIDAY, May 12

[HITTER, TEAM]
Pokey Reese, Reds

[INNING]
11th

[COUNT]
0-and-0

[SITUATION]
Two on, one out

[PITCHER]
RH Mike Maddux

[DIST.-DIRECTION]
390' to left

[DAY, DATE]
FRIDAY, May 12

[HITTER, TEAM]
Danny Graves, Reds

[INNING]
11th

[COUNT]
1-and-0

[SITUATION]
None on, one out

[PITCHER]
Maddux

[DIST.-DIRECTION]
349' to left

[DAY, DATE]
SATURDAY, May 13

[HITTER, TEAM]
Daryle Ward, Astros

[INNING]
Second

[COUNT]
1-and-2

[SITUATION]
None on, none out

[PITCHER]
RH Osvaldo Fernandez

[DIST.-DIRECTION]
390' to right center

[DAY, DATE]
SATURDAY, May 13

[HITTER, TEAM]
Hidalgo

[INNING]
Seventh

[COUNT]
2-and-0

[SITUATION]
None one, one out

[PITCHER]
Fernandez

[DIST.-DIRECTION]
347' to left

[DAY, DATE]
SATURDAY, May 13

[HITTER, TEAM]
Roger Cedeno, Astros

[INNING]
Seventh

[COUNT]
0-and-0

[SITUATION]
Two on, two out

[PITCHER]
RH Scott Sullivan

[DIST.-DIRECTION]
423' to right center

[DAY, DATE]
SATURDAY, May 13

[HITTER, TEAM]
Michael Tucker, Reds

[INNING]
Eighth

[COUNT]
1-and-0

[SITUATION]
One on, none out

[PITCHER]
RH Jay Powell

[DIST.-DIRECTION]
364' to right

[DAY, DATE]
SATURDAY, May 13

[HITTER, TEAM]
Ken Griffey Jr., Reds

[INNING]
Eighth

[COUNT]
3-and-2

[SITUATION]
None on, none out

[PITCHER]
LH Yorkis Perez

[DIST.-DIRECTION]
354' to right

[DAY, DATE]
SATURDAY, May 13

[HITTER, TEAM]
Dmitri Young, Reds

[INNING]
Eighth

[COUNT]
0-and-0

[SITUATION]
None on, none out

[PITCHER]
Perez

[DIST.-DIRECTION]
371' to right

[DAY, DATE]
SATURDAY, May 13

[HITTER, TEAM]
Griffey

[INNING]
Ninth

[COUNT]
0-and-2

[SITUATION]
One on, two out

[PITCHER]
LH Billy Wagner

[DIST.-DIRECTION]
407' to right

[DAY, DATE]
SUNDAY, May 14

[HITTER, TEAM]
Meluskey

[INNING]
Fifth

[COUNT]
0-and-0

[SITUATION]
Two on, two out

[PITCHER]
RH Steve Parris

[DIST.-DIRECTION]
397' to right center

Eccentricities of old-time stadiums have been reproduced at
Enron, creating a sort of Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum
of the arcane.