Salt Lake Bees: There's more to playing outfield than catching flies
Spring Mobile Ballpark's outfield looks lovely, benign and inviting at first glance. Are outfielders a lucky bunch or what?
Then there's this:
• The short porch down the right-field line and an outfield wall full of quirks and tricky angles.
• The bullpen mounds right next to the right- and left-field lines. They are obstacles, and in-play.
• The large, rolled infield tarp just past first base. Another in-play obstacle.
• And finally there's the sheer size and geography of the Spring Mobile outfield. Right-center is called "triples alley." And just before twilight, the setting sun has caused more than one left fielder to freeze like a statue as unseen baseballs sail on by.
It's tougher than it looks.
"I've played in some tricky [ballparks]," said Salt Lake Bees outfielder Scott Cousins, who played 129 games in Sun Life Stadium, which the Miami Marlins used to share with the Miami Dolphins. "The fence formed a triangle in center field that shot the ball in every direction. There was a hard left-field wall, and the center fielder had to back up the left fielder, even on routine balls."
Added fellow outfielder Brad Hawpe: "It had that rubber outfield [warning] track. I hate those."
Salt Lake City baseball fans have been fortunate to witness a bunch of great outfielders subdue Spring Mobile. The likes of Torii Hunter and Mike Trout roamed the length of the Bees' outfield, often taming the spacious dimensions with speed and smarts.
Emphasis on smarts.
Early on, Salt Lake outfielders must learn to be careful negotiating line drives down the right-field line in Spring Mobile, a spot where the ball hugs the base of the wall. Aggressive play has turned more than a few routine doubles into triples.
"You get a feel for it," said Hawpe, a former outfielder for the Colorado Rockies. "If you play long enough, you get used to them. You're going to make mistakes, but that's part of the game.
"Do not do something silly that turns a double into a triple or a homer."
Cousins calls Spring Mobile a "pretty basic yard." The outfield walls, though, are hard as are the caroms.
"At a new park, I'll walk the corners," said Matt Young, another Bees outfielder who has played with Atlanta and Detroit. "I'll throw balls off the wall to see how the [baseball] bounces. An outfielder's best friend, no matter where you are, is batting practice. Just take a couple rounds live and see how the ball [reacts]."
By and by, a ballpark will reveal itself after a few rounds of batting practice.
"Sometimes a coach hits balls to you," visiting Tacoma right fielder Eric Thames said. "But pretty much you're on your own. If a ball gets by you, it can be the difference. In Vegas, the walls are like concrete."
Spring Mobile may be basic, but its sheer size is a challenge. The ballpark goes just 315 feet down to the short porch in right field, but "big" describes the rest of the layout. It's 345 down the left-field line and 420 to center. The power alleys where the homers usually fly out check in at 375 to 385 feet.
And that's not all. The notch, or angle, in deep right-center field is believed to be 425 feet. Like Coors Field in Denver, an outfielder has an awful lot of real estate to cover.
"It's a big yard, man," Cousins said. "I don't like to play a super deep outfield, but I look behind me and the center-field wall is like 150 feet away."
That's why, he added, continuous chatter is vital.
"Communication is important, especially here," Cousins said. "If all three guys aren't on the same page, stuff is going to fall in and pitchers aren't going to like you."
And while pitchers may love it when outfielders can take away an extra-base hit or home run by climbing the wall, running into them can be bad for one's health.
More often than not, the padding isn't very good in minor league parks. So it's important to learn the warning track.
"Some are smaller than others," Young said. "Outfielders talk about it right away."
Thames, who's played for Toronto and Seattle, doesn't really feel the track.
"It's more like an instinct," he said. "When you're in full stride, it's like one step to the wall."
There's not a whole lot of give to the Spring Mobile Ballpark walls, either. More than one dazed outfielder has been dumped into a heap on the red-cindered track. But hesitation can cause an outfielder to T-Rex it, or not extend his arms fully to catch the ball.
"The worst is when someone says you have room and you really don't," Cousins said. "It happened last year in New Orleans, and I slammed into the wall, knocked my hat off and fell to the ground."
Some major league ballparks are famous for their rare dimensions. But minor league parks have their quirks, too, including the Pacific Coast League.
At Las Vegas' Cashman Field, the walls are high and hard. At Albuquerque's Isotopes Park, there is an incline in center field, much like the Houston Astros' Minute Maid Park.
"[Isotopes Park] kind of ate me up a couple times," Cousins said.
Even the outfield grass is examined. Does the baseball snake through it or does it run straight and true? Are there potholes out there?
Thames said Fenway Park's Green Monster, with its dented steel facing and scoreboard, has been the most difficult wall for him to play.
Whatever the puzzle, the successful outfielder learns to unlock them all.
"If you're too anxious, you look stupid," Cousins said. "No one wants to see the back of your jersey."
Three outfield commandments
Learn to love the walls • Bees outfielder Matt Young: "An outfielder's best friend, no matter where you are, is batting practice. Just take a couple rounds live and see how the ball [reacts]."
Be patient • Bees outfielder Matt Hawpe: "Do not do something silly that turns a double into a triple or a homer."
Keep talking • Bees outfielder Scott Cousins: "It is important, especially here [Spring Mobile Ballpark]. If all three guys aren't on the same page, stuff is going to fall in and pitchers aren't going to like you."