One of the great charms of baseball is that no two major league ballparks are the same. The variety in field dimensions is what distinguishes baseball from virtually every other sport, in which the playing surfaces are one size fits all.
Having said that, some ballparks can take the quirky thing a bit too far, to the point where it's just not charming anymore.
The vast outfield dimensions at Petco Park were initially a curiosity. Batters would really have to crush a ball to earn a home run. There would be no cheapies. Pitchers had a wider margin of error. They could afford to make a mistake here and there, knowing that deep fences would provide some cushion.
But no ballpark should have dimensions so distorted that they consistently affect the outcome of games. That's what we have in San Diego, where offense goes to die.
Only AT&T Park in San Francisco averages less offense than in Petco Park—and yes, a 421-foot alley in right-center field has something to do with that. But can we allow that the Giants' fantastic pitching staff is also a prominent reason for keeping scoring down?
As of this writing, the Padres are 5-14, buried in last place in the NL West. Part of the reason the Padres are continually in the cellar is that their home park prevents them from scoring runs. Their 63 runs are currently the third-lowest total in the majors.
Run prevention is an approach that can result in winning ballgames, and Petco Park has helped Padres pitchers string together some impressive performances in recent seasons.
But the concept works better when a team prevents its opponent from scoring. If the home team can't support its pitchers with some offense, the whole exercise seems counterproductive.
Hey Ian, you might say, Adrian Gonzalez has had 40-homer seasons playing in Petco Park. So don't the Padres just need better power hitters?
That would certainly help. But look at Gonzalez's best power seasons. When he hit 36 in 2008, 22 of those were on the road. In 2009, when Gonzalez crushed 40 homers, he hit 28 of them in other ballparks. We're talking about an exceptional slugger who may have hit 50 home runs had he played his home games in a more fair ballpark.
Ultimately, that's what we're talking about: a ballpark that plays fair, one that doesn't impose itself on hitters and pitchers.
As Padres interim CEO Tom Garfinkel told the U-T's Bill Center:
I do believe it is too extreme right now. It will still be a pitcher’s ballpark. But a hitter should be rewarded if he crushes it. And if a team is down 4-0, they should feel there is some hope. It’s just too extreme.
Not surprisingly, both Padres manager Bud Black and GM Josh Byrnes agree with Garfinkel. And they're probably not just sucking up to the boss.
There's no more deflating feeling in baseball for fans or players than for a hitter to launch a ball deep toward the seats for what's sure to be a home run, only to see it land helplessly in an outfielder's glove.
Deep outfield fences get in hitters' heads and mess with them.
As a Detroit Tigers fan, I watched Comerica Park essentially ruin Bobby Higginson as a major league hitter. Dean Palmer went from one of baseball's top sluggers to a pretty good power hitter. And Juan Gonzalez couldn't get away from that ballpark fast enough, no matter how much money (reportedly $140 million) Mike Ilitch offered him.
We've seen the same thing happen to David Wright and Jason Bay with the New York Mets. The team finally admitted its mistake and brought the fences in before this season. Maybe it's a coincidence that the Mets are 10-8 and in the NL East race after making that change. Or maybe it isn't.
Also not likely a coincidence: Mets GM Sandy Alderson worked with the Padres before he went to the Mets. He saw how much the wrong dimensions affected his team. He saw how difficult it was to attract free-agent hitters, thus putting more pressure on the organization to develop power hitters.
A major league ballpark shouldn't take home runs away from sluggers nor make pitchers look better than they really are. Those players should be rewarded for performing well on the field. A ballpark can still establish an identity as a pitcher's park or hitter's park without drastically distorting playing conditions.
Changing Petco Park is long overdue. Hopefully, the Padres have the conviction to follow their instincts on this.