After my last Bill Veeck blowout, I planned to leave my copy of Veeck as in Wreck alone for a while, but current events keep making me pull it back off the shelf. This time, the impetus was Ozzie Guillen's recent complaints about his players' complaints about the dimensions of Marlins Park.
Marlins players have been upset about the depth of the fences in their brand-new ballpark since right around Opening Day. (Seriously. The articles appeared after a single game.) But their griping has grown louder of late—John Buck called the deep fly ball he hit on Sunday "disheartening" and "frustrating"—and Guillen isn't pleased.
“We’ve got to deal with the ballpark, and we’re going to be negative coming in here every day, ‘Oh, this ballpark is too big’?’’ Guillen asked incredulously.
“We’ve got to play in this ballpark 81 games and I don’t want to hear any more (from) my players, my hitting coach, nobody with this uniform worry about this place (being) too big. If they think this place is too big, let me know. I’ll put somebody else in who can hit bloopers behind shortstop.’’
In the last decade, we've heard complaints of the same nature voiced by players at Petco Park, Safeco Field, Comerica Park, and Citi Field. The disgruntled hitters eventually got their way in Detroit and Queens, and they probably will in Miami, even if it's long after Guillen is gone.
But batters had been complaining about playing in pitcher's parks long before the 2000 Tigers caught sight of Comerica. Here's Veeck (and Ed Linn) writing in 1962 about a creative solution to a similar situation he faced as the owner of the 1947 Indians:
The playing field at Cleveland Stadium was the biggest in the majors. There was so much pastureland in the outfield when I arrived that I expected warfare between the sheepmen and the cattlemen to be renewed momentarily. Because the home players tend to become discouraged after they have hit a few balls 450 feet and seen them caught, I installed a temporary wire fence around the field, measuring 320 feet along the foul lines and curving out symmetrically to 410 feet in center. (There is an interesting psychological effect in bringing fences within reach. After we put up the wire fence there were almost six times as many balls hit over the wire fence and into the old stands.)
As far as anyone knew, our fence was permanent. Sleeves were driven into the ground and the fence poles were inserted, at regular intervals, into the sleeves. Actually, we had five or six sets of sleeves, nicely spaced so that we could move the fence in and out as much as 15 feet. We didn't buy television time to make a public announcement of what we were doing because we didn't want to disturb the Commissioner's office or upset the opposition. We moved the fence stealthily, in the dark of night.
Before the Yankees came in with all those big strong healthy boys of theirs, the fence would be moved back just as far as it would go. When our little friends from St. Louis paid us a visit, we would move the left-field fence in as far as we could and keep the right-field fence as deep as we could. The Brownies had no right-handed power, but they did have a couple of left-handers who could hit the ball out.
It was a most obliging and adaptable fence.
- Marlins Park is 418 feet to dead center field. Before Veeck installed his wire fence, Cleveland Municipal Stadium was 470 to dead center. Even Giancarlo Stanton would have been hard-pressed to hit one out in that direction. According to the unimpeachable research of anonymous Wikipedia contributors, no player ever did.
- The Marlins couldn't install a movable fence even if they wanted to, since the league banned the practice after Veeck's gambit got out. That doesn't mean the big park can't work to their advantage, though. As Guillen said, "If I have seven guys who can hit a home run every time they're at the plate, of course I'd move them in. But I only have one." (The one, of course, is Stanton.) Guillen believes that the Marlins' opponents are hurt disproportionately by the big ballpark, since his team isn't built for power. And he might have a point: the Marlins are tied for third in the NL in road homers, but in light of the lineups they're running out there these days, that rank probably overstates their present ability to hit home runs.
But even if we grant Guillen that and assume, as he does, that the big park doesn't make it more difficult to recruit free agents—for one thing, free agents follow the money, and for another, the dimensions are an additional incentive for pitchers to sign—there are still the psychological effects to contend with. If staring at those distant outfield fences leads to disheartened hitters, the effect on team morale could (theoretically) outweigh any edge imparted by tailoring the team to the park. And if Veeck had his post-wire fence figures right, it's possible that the dread of facing the deeper fences night after night could turn as many batted balls into extra outs as the dimensions themselves.
- Veeck would have loved the Marlins' home run sculpture. He probably would've moved the fences in just so he could see it light up more often.