Marlins have learned to embrace quirky park
Dimensions make it difficult for sluggers, but home-field advantage emerging
Since Marlins Park opened in April 2012, with the distance from home plate to its outfield walls stretching from downtown Miami to just beyond the north side of Tallahassee, the grumbling has been constant and loud.
That's just from Marlins players.
So Marlins officials had enough during the offseason. They politely told anybody wearing black, silver, teal and white to just go out there and play.
Guess more than a few Miami players got the message. With the season nearly a month old, the Marlins are flashing signs of turning the ballpark into their version of baseball heaven. They entered Friday night's three-game series against the Mets in New York with a 1-8 record on the road compared to 9-5 at home. Plus, they've scored more runs (76 to 22) inside of Marlins Park than elsewhere, accumulated a higher batting average (.293 to .220), ripped more home runs (nine to eight) and have a better slugging percentage (.437 to .331).
The Marlins also have a better attitude these days when they take the field at their beautiful place along 17 acres of Little Havana, but they still must deal with those ugly dimensions for sluggers: 334 feet down the left-field line, 386 feet to the left-field power alley, 418 feet to dead center field, 392 feet to the right-field power alley and 335 feet down the right-field line.
To those of another baseball generation, the Polo Grounds comes to mind, with Willie Mays running forever for a catch over his head. If not that, they recall the Yankee Stadium of the Ruth, Gehrig and Mantle eras, when the outfield was so vast that the Monuments and The Flag Pole were in the field of play.
To those of this generation, when the conversation involves outfield distances such as the ones at Marlins Park, they think of … Yellowstone Park.
But the hometown hitters don't say as much.
"I'm probably the wrong person to ask about this subject," said versatile infielder Jeff Baker, laughing while playfully glancing around the visitors' clubhouse recently at Turner Field.
Still, facts are facts. Baker has slammed five drives this season at Marlins Park that would have been homers elsewhere. Instead, each of them dropped into the glove of outfielders on the warning track.
"I obviously don't know the history of what happened at this ballpark before, but I just know that we've tried to spend this year using the big part of the field," said Baker, a nine-year Major League veteran with his sixth team after spending last season with the Rangers. "You don't try to hit homers [at Marlins Park]. It's more about trying to stay in the gaps and let the triples come. Guys kind of roll with that, and that's why we're having success at home."
Pitching and defense also are essential in a huge ballpark, and the Marlins are emphasizing both. Then there is that attitude: Figuring out how to make your ballpark work for you, then adjusting accordingly and saving your complaints for when you join another team.
I recall the early 1980s, when I covered the Giants for the San Francisco Examiner during the days of cold, windy and flavorless Candlestick Park. With mostly losses outnumbering victories during that post-era of Mays, Marichal and McCovey, Giants players frequently blasted their playing conditions at home more than they did their inability to pitch, hit and field on a consistent basis. Frank Robinson arrived as Giants manager in 1981, and he told his players to let their opponents do the grumbling about Candlestick. Then he told them to use the wicked breezes to their advantage, along with the troubled spots in the field and the sometimes tricky sun during their many day games.
He also told them to stop their grumbling.
The results? If not for a hot streak by the Braves down the stretch of the 1982 season, Robinson's silent Giants -- at least regarding their dislike of frigid Candlestick -- would have captured the old National League West.
Marlins catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia knows about working with a quirky ballpark. Prior to joining the Marlins this year, he spent four seasons in Boston. I'm pretty sure he discovered a few things at Fenway Park that Red Sox players used to their advantage.
"It was the way the ball hits off the wall in left field -- not just The Monster," Saltalamacchia said. "With the foul line in left field there, if it hits off the wall, it bounces toward the shortstop as opposed to the left fielder, so we always took advantage of that. In left-center, the way the ball hits off that wall, it shoots for that little triangular in right-center. That right-center gap right there, most outfielders kind of give up on it, because they think it's off the wall. But [former Red Sox center fielder] Jacoby Ellsbury always did an unbelievable job of continuing to go after that ball and always making a catch on it.
"There's a lot. There's a lot of little things at Fenway."
So what about Marlins Park?
"Even though it's a big place, there aren't too many things about it that are tricky," Saltalamacchia said. "When I first came to [Marlins Park] and saw the chain-link fences in left field and right field with pads on them, I thought we could use that to our advantage. But I've seen balls hit off them a few times this year, and it hasn't been anything. I do think that, knowing the ball is going to skip really fast when it gets into those gaps, we already can start thinking, 'I'm going to get to second, and I might have a chance to get to third.'
"That's an advantage, because in most of those situations, the other team is only thinking about stopping at second."
Actually, when it comes to Marlins Park, the other team mostly is thinking about getting out of town.
Unlike the Marlins these days.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.