Ever since Minute Maid Park opened in 2000, the presence of Tal's Hill in center field has been a source of disagreement. To some, it's a unique part of the Houston Astros home ballpark, a throwback to another era in stadiums when "stuff" was in play. To others, it's not a feature — it's a bug. Like, they put a 90-foot-wide hill with a 30-degree incline and included a flagpole — in play? On purpose?
Not long ago, Carlos Gomez of the Milwaukee Brewers conquered Tal's Hill with a great catch on Jason Castro's 400-something-foot drive to center. But most players just look silly out there if they suddenly have to run uphill chasing a fly ball that would have been over the fence most other places.
Enter Houston's Brandon Barnes, who gave a game effort on a drive to center by Yunel Escobar of the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday. It's hard to say that Barnes would have caught up to the ball, which fell in for a two-run double in the eighth inning. But with the hill there, Barnes had no chance whatsoever.
Watch this repeating animation of Barnes falling on his face while saying, "Why are you hitting yourself? Why are you hitting yourself?" over and over.
The hill is named after former Astros president Tal Smith, one of the more respected baseball men of the past 50 years. Apparently it was his idea to add a gimmick to the new stadium that mimics old ballparks with naturally occurring hills, like Crosley Field in Cincinnati. Of course, the flagpole being in play — reminiscent of Tiger Stadium, Yankee Stadium and other out-of-date places — adds to the obstacle course. Is this American Gladiators or Major League Baseball?
Petitions from puzzled fans aimed at removing the hill and flagpole have come and gone, as has Tal Hill the person. He was fired in 2011. It's true that nobody has been seriously hurt climbing the hill. Nobody has blown out a knee, or stumbled into a concussion — that we know about. But it's still possible someone could get hurt someday. And yet, the hill remains. What should we do with it? Here are 10 options:
10. Hollow it out, add a window and two seats for fans to watch the game. Rename it "The Killer B's Bunker."
9. Re-hire Tal Hill but make him sit out there in a lawn chair so he can see how dumb it was to put a hill in the outfield, jeez, Tal.
8. Add a putting green and a golf hole to the top of the hill so players can practice driving for easy birdies during boring old batting practice.
7. Build another hill around the area by home plate, so at least there's symmetry.
6. Place a fence from left center to right center to cut the outfield dimensions, making them reasonable for batters and safe for outfielders — but make the fence with chocolate.
5. Keep Tal's Hill and the flagpole, but don't mow the grass or maintain the pole out of spite. Eventually, they'll figure out that they're not wanted and will leave on their own.
4. Let the defense add a 10th man, but make him climb the flagpole and stay there for the entire half-inning, or until a ball is hit to the hill. Then he can slide down like a firefighter, whee!
3. Knock down the hill and keep going until you remove enough dirt to make Tal's Hole.
2. Replace the flagpole with a third foul pole — that'll really mess up the umpires in the head.
1. Keep center field at Minute Maid unique by rotating notable landmarks there. One day it's the Eiffel Tower, the next day it's the Taj Mahal. On Day 3, it's a working soundstage at Universal Studios. And so on.