"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 sinker-ball 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 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."