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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Denver's Coors Field Doesn't Measure Up

July 12, 1998|THOMAS BOSWELL | WASHINGTON POST

DENVER — Coors Field is a beautiful joke. Those who feel that the home of the Colorado Rockies is one of the half-dozen most gorgeous parks in baseball are absolutely right. And those who feel that the mile-high stadium is an abomination that turns the sport into a third-rate freak show also are totally correct.

No better park could have been built in Denver than Coors Field. Even more than Camden Yards in Baltimore, it evokes the best of the old yards from the 1950s. The deep green wrought iron feels like it has been there forever. "Griffith Stadium," said one writer who covered many Senators games. And that, if faint memories serve, seems right.

However, no adequate major league field can be built a mile above sea level. It's not possible. Physics forbid it. The Rockies draw tremendous crowds that love the sport their team plays. But that game isn't baseball. Or anything even remotely close to it.

Coors Ball--perfectly exemplified by the American League's 13-8 victory in Tuesday night's All-Star Game--is a confused, capricious mess that measures skill poorly, offers little of value, and is barely worth watching. In the long perspective of baseball history, Coors Field serves only one purpose. Maybe, if prayers can be answered, it will prevent another high-altitude park from being built. Ever.

For more than a century, baseball has been an aesthetic joy to millions of fans because of one wonderful accident: The game's dimensions are perfect. Nobody knows how it happened. Why 60 1/2 feet from the pitcher's rubber to home plate or 90 feet between bases? As the sport evolved, the natural distances to outfield fences identified themselves--roughly 330 feet to the foul poles and 410 to center.

With such a configuration, everything worked. It has been an oft-made point for generations. If a fast batter hit a grounder in the hole in 1898 and the shortstop made a clean play, plus a strong throw, the runner was out by half a step. With the slightest misplay, the runner was safe. In 1998, exactly the same is true.

This is equally apt for every other basic play, from those not-quite-perfectly-struck fly balls that die on the warning track to 400-foot relay plays that nip a sliding runner at the plate. Nobody knows how a game got born where almost nothing ever had to be changed. You don't appoint a committee to improve the wheel. Or a baseball diamond.

When baseball is played a mile in the air, all the game's distances are suddenly off. Instead of being a thing of beauty, baseball suddenly becomes not only distorted, but actually defaced and displeasing. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but sometimes ugly can go right to the bone.

Baseball at lowered gravity has many flaws. For example, because the air is thinner, all breaking pitches meet less resistance as they fly and, thus, swerve less. Even a fastball loses some of its movement. In the cruelest illustration of the point, one of the best curveball pitchers of the '90s--Darryl Kile--became a free agent last winter. He decided to become a Rockie. So far, his ERA at home is more than 6.50.

The greatest problem with baseball played under lunar conditions, however, is also the most insoluble: the size of the outfield. It's too damn big. By an acre.

Experts argue, weakly, about how much farther a batted ball flies at 5,280 feet above sea level. But the generally used number is 9 percent. So, if a normal ballpark has outfield dimensions of 330, 375 and 400 feet, then Coors would need to be about 360-410-435 to the corners, alleys and center field to make home runs comparably difficult to hit.

The activity conducted in Coors Field is simply not baseball any more. And, worse, it's not some kind of new, novel, fun variant on baseball, either. What the All-Star Game put on display for tens of millions to see was a 20th-century, commerce-driven practical joke played on a 19th-century American heirloom.

Rockies fans are free to love their Coors Ball if they like. And they do. But it's a hideous, and ineradicable, blight on the game. Why make a fuss? Why spoil the party? Because the point needs to be made, and repeated, that Major League Baseball should never again allow another high-altitude expansion disaster. Nowhere. Never. Not even if Mexico City, Salt Lake City or the Dalai Lama guarantees that 100,000 fans will show up every night and pretend they're watching baseball.

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