Has time for change arrived at Safeco Field?
Calls to move the fences in at The Safe are nothing new, but the Mariners' struggles on offense are making the clamor louder than ever.
Seattle Times baseball reporter
It's hard not to think seriously about reconfiguring Safeco Field when you hear quotes like this:
"I think people are grumbling about it a little bit. There have been some balls really hit hard. A couple outfielders even overran them, balls that would have been out in (another park). But we can't make a big issue about it. We're here. We have a beautiful ballpark. Doubles and those things are just as good."
Justin Smoak? Jesus Montero? Kyle Seager?
How about Russ Davis — after the very first series ever played at Safeco Field, in July 1999. The "other park" referred to by Davis was the Kingdome, the homer-happy stadium to which Safeco's pitcher-friendly configuration was a stark contrast.
The dimensions have been a talking point from the day Safeco opened. Actually, before. The original plans called for a 422-foot distance just to the left of dead center. That was changed before the opening. The proposed height of the wall was also lowered.
Still, players have grumbled through the years about how hard it is to jack a ball at The Safe. Alex Rodriguez once called it "the hardest park in the history of baseball" to hit in, and suggested way back in December 2000, right before he hit free agency, that the fences be moved in.
The Mariners did once make a major change in the dimensions of their ballpark — moving the fences back at the Kingdome after the 1990 season, following endless complaints that the park was unfair for pitchers.
Now, of course, it's the opposite complaint. Here's what Mike Cameron had to say about the issue in a chat with The Seattle Times last month:
"I definitely would change that little triangle in left-center. Balls get sucked up there really fast. I would bring the bullpen area in, too. ... It would definitely have impact on right-handed hitters with power. Guys don't want to come in here when their mantra is hitting with power. It can work, but it's hard."
The Mariners looked hard at the issue after the 2000 season — their first full year at Safeco — and have revisited it many times since. Each time, they have come to the conclusion that it didn't make baseball sense to change the distances.
But never has there been such a crescendo of voices calling for the fences to be moved in. It's hard not to look at the Mariners' offensive disparity at home and on the road without coming to the conclusion that the issue must be re-addressed. It's hard not to watch the frustration of Smoak, Montero and others after well-struck drives are hauled in at the track without concluding this is getting into the heads of Mariners hitters.
It's not just a Seattle problem. The Mets moved in their fences at Citi Field after last season (and find themselves contending in the NL East), and the Padres are seriously considering doing so at Petco Park next year, having already done so after the 2005 season. The Tigers made cavernous Comerica Park more hitter-friendly after the 2002 season, and Marlins hitters are already lobbying for changes at Marlins Park.
Here's what Jack Zduriencik told me Wednesday: "I've been here 3 ½ years, I've seen how the park plays. I've seen how other parks play when you go on the road. You're cognizant of everything that goes on. This particular issue is something we're going to talk about.
"We're going to sit down as a group, sit down with the staff, sit down as a front-office group with those above me and have nice dialogue about it. ... But I do think the game has changed a little bit from what it was 10 years or so ago. Let's just see."
As an aside, Safeco is not a particularly cavernous park; the issue, in my opinion, is that the ball doesn't carry well, particularly to left-center. Whether it's the marine layer or other atmospheric influences, I don't know. I just know that hitters believe they aren't rewarded for balls they crush.
"I don't think it gets in guys' heads," manager Eric Wedge said Wednesday. "But people talk about it, you guys talk about it, their friends and family talk about it. I think that's part of it. This game is all about discipline. The dimensions of the ballpark aren't going to change this year. Maybe they revisit it in the offseason, I don't know."
Padres manager Bud Black had an interesting comment when it was related to him that Smoak said he couldn't hit a ball any harder than Tuesday's drive against San Diego that was hauled in at the wall. (Actually, what Smoak said was, "That's all I got.")
Said Black: "Yes, he can (hit the ball harder). Yes, he can."
But Black, dealing with much the same frustration at Petco, added, "It's real. It's a constant dialogue with the team, with the guys. The ultimate goal is to win the baseball game. It's not for particular players to hit balls over the fence. I get the fact that when you hit a ball hard and an outfielder runs it down, it's frustrating. But ultimately, why we all come, why the Mariner players come and Padres players come and Tiger players and Cardinals players, it's to win that night's game.
"I don't know if you use it to your advantage. You have to get the players to first understand that's what the goal is. But I know the same questions are asked to me, to (Giants manager Bruce) Bochy in San Francisco because of their ballpark. We heard it in New York last year. Early Comerica. It's a topic."
Indeed it is, and a topic whose time has come in Seattle. I understand all the counterarguments — the Mariners did just fine at Safeco in the early days; the other team has to hit there, too; moving the fences in will hurt the Mariners' pitching.
Well, the game has changed considerably since the early days of Safeco Field, as Zduriencik noted. The other team gets to leave after three days, too quickly for the park to have adverse psychological effects. And how has the pitching/defense philosophy worked for the Mariners lately? If the Mariners' young pitching phenoms are as good as touted, they'll thrive in any ballpark.
The Mariners finally have a core of young hitters to get excited about. My thinking has evolved on this matter: It's time to give them a ballpark they don't have to dread.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.