The realization that the Detroit Tigers have less than three seasons left to play in 85-year-old Tiger Stadium elicits mixed emotions. On the one hand there is delight that a new ballpark, expected to be ready for Opening Day 2000, will provide a boost to inner-city Detroit. On the other hand there's also a touch of sadness that the last of the deep outfield fences—440 feet to straightaway center—will disappear when Tiger Stadium is torn down, likely to be replaced by one of those standard-issue 410-footers. This development is especially worth contemplating in the wake of the 1996 season, in which a record 17 players hit 40 or more home runs, and Ken Griffey Jr.'s major league record 24 dingers at the end of May this season.
A number of explanations have been offered for this offensive explosion, ranging from the anemic pitching that inevitably follows expansion, to livelier balls, to players' use of what Lenny Dykstra once referred to in this magazine as "funny vitamins." But don't forget that outfield fences have been creeping steadily toward home plate for years. The first time I went to Yankee Stadium, in 1975, the centerfield fence was 461 feet from home plate. After the House That Ruth Built was renovated in 1976, the deepest part of the park was 430 feet, in left center. The fence was moved in twice after that, with centerfield now the farthest reach for hitters, at 408 feet. One of the previous outfield fences is still visible beyond the present one. a reminder that many home runs hit now would have been doubles, triples or long outs in times past. So home runs we've got. More than ever, in fact. "I guess that's what the owners feel fans want," says Bob McConnell, editor of the Home Run Encyclopedia. "I'd rather watch a guy hit the ball and run like mad than watch him stand there admiring it."
Consider the precious plays baseball has pushed to the brink of extinction. All but gone are catches like Willie Mays's over-the-shoulder, full-tilt grab of Vic Wertz's smash to deep centerfield at the Polo Grounds during the 1954 World Series (above), probably the most famous defensive play in baseball history. Mays was about 460 feet from home plate when he ran down the ball, which means that there isn't a major league stadium left where he or anyone else could make that catch. In today's cramped stadiums Mays would turn, take a few steps and then stop and merely watch as the ball cleared the fence.
A speedy outfielder in full flight is a glorious sight to behold, the inspiration for some of the game's best lines, like, "Willie Mays's glove—that's where triples go to die." Or my favorite, which I first heard applied to the graceful Philadelphia Phillies centerfielder I watched with admiration in the 1970s: "Two thirds of the world is covered by water, the other third by Garry Maddox." Far from being mighty oceans, today's outfields are ponds.
Another endangered species is the triple, the most exciting hit in baseball. After the ball leaves the bat, time seems to stand still as the eye darts back and forth between the ball and the base runner, measuring one's chances of arriving at third base ahead of the other. You don't see many triples these days. For the first third of this century the number of triples hit in the major leagues matched the number of games played. Since then triples per game has fallen by nearly two thirds, from 1.04 in 1930, to .75 in 1940, to .64 in '50, to .53 in '60, to .48 in 70, to .51 in '80 and to .41 in '90. Today players are faster than ever, yet last season there were only .38 triples per game.
Then there's the rarest hit in the game, the inside-the-park home run. The old ballparks with deep outfields and angled fences that produced wild caroms greatly increased the chances for inside-the-parkers. In this era of cramped outfields and symmetrical fences, the inside-the-park homer usually occurs as the result of a fluke play, such as when two outfielders collide.
Owners moved the fences in, and they can move them back out. After constructing a generation of stupefyingly ugly ballparks, they've come to their senses in the 1990s and built stadiums that show imagination and a welcome respect for a city's past. Wouldn't it be nice if the Tigers—or the Milwaukee Brewers, the San Francisco Giants or the Seattle Mariners, all of whom are planning new facilities—had second thoughts before they finish their new stadium and pushed those fences back again, not for nostalgic reasons but to restore excitement to the game?