A Park Too Far

It appears that the Mets will finally acquiesce to Chipper Jones' demands and change the dimensions of CitiField, perhaps as early as next season. The complaints about its spacious contours bubbled up almost immediately after it opened in 2009, and have continued unabated ever since. Last week, the clearest indication yet came that the team would actually do something about the perceived problem. Granted, those clear indications came from an unnamed "high-ranking Mets official," but as of yet, no less anonymous Met official has disputed this report.

There are some obvious benefits to doing this, the two biggest being David Wright and Jason Bay, who have both seen their longball totals plummet at the new ballpark, even if Wright has suffered some freak injuries the past few years and Bay often looks lost without a map no matter where he's hitting. Case in point: During Sunday's game against Milwaukee, after Lucas Duda's two-run homer tied things up, Bay hit a booming shot to left-center that would have gone out of virtually any other ballpark, but at CitiFeild could only bank high off the Great Wall of Flushing for a double. His teammates failed to drive him in, and the Mets went on to lose 6-2. (The bullpen would probably have found another way to blow this game anyway, but still.)

Personally, I'm not opposed to changing the dimensions per se. The left field fence has always struck me as far too tall, and the jagged dimensions of the Mo Zone in right field are artificially cute at the expense of providing a power porch for lefty batters. But I also think that home runs should be kind of hard to hit. And while I doubt any changes to CitiField will make it Citizen's Bank Park East, I wonder if the criticism of its dimensions is motivated less by a sense of fairness than it is of what we've come to expect of the game of baseball, even in the quote-unquote post-steroid era.

I think we can all agree that home runs are awesome. Home runs are pretty much the coolest thing a guy can do all by himself for a professional sports team--perhaps neck and neck with the slam dunk, depending on what you're into. That's why "home run" is a by-word for "immense success" in every conceivable human endeavor (in this country, anyway). You hit a ball over the wall and everyone has to watch you run the bases, whether they like it or not. That is the definition of power.

Problem is, throughout the 1990s and well into the 2000s, the home run grew in abundance to ridiculous proportions, to the point that people expect it rather than appreciate it. There were a multitude of reasons for this, and PEDs were just one factor. There were many new ballparks built, most of which were hitter friendly than the multipurpose carpet-and-concrete bowls they replaced. (One of the few that wasn't, Comerica Park, was shamed into altering its dimensions by the gripes of many Tigers, including free-agent bust Juan Gonzalez.) Four new expansion teams appeared, which diluted the overall quality of pitching. An acceptance of bodybuilding, which baseball players formerly shunned, was definitely a contributor (steroid aided or not). And though the evidence to support it is circumstantial at best, it is at least possible that MLB deliberately "juiced" the ball for a time.

Whatever the cause(s), guys were suddenly going yard at a rate hitherto unheard of in baseball history. I would compare the effect this had on baseball fans to the changes in people's eating habits over the last 50 years or so. Once upon a time, a sandwich, all on its own, was a perfectly acceptable lunch. Now, many people expect that sandwich to be footlong and accompanied by potato chips and an enormous soda--and to eat this every day. Once people get used to having a lot of something--no matter how artificial or bad for you it might be--it's hard to get them to scale back.

In my studies of the 1999 and 2000 Mets, I've gone back and read tons of newspaper and magazine articles from this period. What I notice in this coverage is an almost spoiled giddiness about the offensive explosion they're witnessing. In covering the prodigious blasts they saw night after night, most reporters wrote like kids gorging on Halloween candy, tearing through one treat just so they can eat the next one sooner. The idea that the "event" of the home run was lessened by having so many of them never occurred to anyone. If it did, nobody bothered to write about it.

The feeling was even more pronounced when Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa visited Shea; looking at the reverence afforded to both players by the press, you'd think they were war heroes rather than guys who hit baseballs. Their 1998 "home run chase" was still seen as something that saved baseball, post-strike, and most writers were perfectly happy to play along with that storyline (until they were later told to switch gears and inform us that Sosa and McGwire ruined the game).

This era may seem like a long time ago, and in our accelerated culture, I suppose it is. But we all lived through it, and fans are still affected by The Age of The Routine 17-13 Score. It would probably surprise most fans to learn that CitiField's park factor is exactly in the middle of the pack when it comes to runs scored (0.974, 16th overall), because we have come to associate offense itself with how many home runs a team hits. It might also surprise them to learn that CitiField is not at the bottom when it comes to homers, but at #23, slightly ahead of Sun Life Stadium, an even more spacious park where the Marlins' young sluggers seem to have no trouble going deep.

There's also the possibility that the stress over CitiField's dimensions is just misplaced frustration with how terrible the team has been since the place opened, and how poorly the previous front office planned to build a team for such a ballpark. As for me, I actually feel a certain sense of justice when I see a ball bank off the wall, or a fly ball get tracked down 420 feet away in right-center, as if this is making up for all those years of moonshots, or all the line drive 300-foot "home runs" hit up in the Bronx. It's a reminder that when home runs are difficult to hit, the ones we see are that much more amazing.

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