October 13, 2016
Tal's Hill, the Performative Quirk
Tal’s Hill was never supposed to last this long. Its death via forthcoming stadium renovation was discussed in the abstract for years before being announced in the definitive last summer and scheduled for last fall. But then came an unexpected Astros playoff run, prolonging the inevitable and giving us one more season with the weird little slope in Minute Maid Park’s center field.
That season is over now and, as of this week, so too is Tal’s Hill. It’s easy to mourn this as a great loss for ballpark quirks. So easy! The imagery is almost obnoxious in its obviousness— bulldozing something that made a stadium unique, literally flattening out its character. But to mourn the death of Tal’s Hill simply as a delightful park oddity is to overlook why Tal’s Hill existed at all.
It’s true that Tal’s Hill was killed because it was too different (“unsafe” and “distracting” are, at their core, variations on “too different). But being different was the reason that Tal’s Hill was built in the first place. It was not a ballpark quirk born from a strange setting or a demand of its time or a weirdly individualistic architect. It was a ballpark quirk born out of a team’s desire for a ballpark quirk.
Tal’s Hill was designed to be different, and it was—but only so much as we can accept manufactured difference for difference’s own sake as being different.
The design alone, stripped of context, is weird. It’s a hill and a flag pole in the middle of a ballpark! It’s very weird! There’s nothing wrong with this, in and of itself, and maybe even something very much right with this. Weird can be good, weird can be inspired, weird can be fun. It is the foundation of where we might put a pit on the field. Weird gives a place its sense of self, and it allows us to build something human into a structure that would otherwise be anything but. It’s what makes ballparks individual, which is what lets us make ballparks personal.
This weirdness manifests itself in different stadium quirks, and it comes with different origin stories. It stems from a desire to keep a park private (Fenway’s Green Monster), or from baseball put in a stadium that was built for something else (the catwalks of Tropicana Field), or from a Bill Veeck beautification project that took root and never left (Wrigley Field’s ivy).
Some ballpark quirks are largely adored, others are not; some are simple background color for the baseball they hold, others are written into the rules themselves to participate in the game. But they are all weird, and even when there is something of a gimmick to them or their history, their weirdness is authentic and it comes with context.
The weirdness of Tal’s Hill, meanwhile, has no motivation apart from its own novelty—it is weirdness that exists not just to be weird, but to be noticed as so. Designed in the 1990s by then-Astros president of baseball operations Tal Smith, Tal’s Hill was intended as an homage to the slope of Cincinnati’s Crosley Field from the 1910s. The hill in Crosley Field was a result of expanding an originally small outfield and balancing the difference between the park and street level; the hill in Minute Maid Park was a result of trying to imitate Crosley Field. It was a nod to tradition, but it was disconcerting and it was forced. The outcome was a ballpark quirk with no context other than its own quirkiness, a contrived performative weirdness of sorts.
There is something depressing in acknowledging the artifice of this history, because Tal’s Hill was fun. Watching people run up a hill and sometimes fall down it is, generally, very fun. But it is much less fun to consider that the hill was created only so that they might fall down, that the hill was designed to amuse you, that the hill would not have been built were you not there to think it funny. This makes Tal’s Hill feel less like a ballpark quirk and more like a corporate gimmick masquerading as such.
Which is all to say—mourning Tal’s Hill is overly sentimental and naive and requires allowing yourself to fall for a marketing scheme built on forced nostalgia, but mourning Tal’s Hill makes sense. Mourning Tal’s Hill makes sense because Tal’s Hill once caused Andruw Jones to wipe out spectacularly, only to give him a backdrop to redeem himself on the very next pitch, and really, how can you not mourn something like that?