Stadium works its magic for Bombers, against O's
NEW YORK -- The walls across town were moved closer to the plate last winter, and the change caused a stir. Outfield walls have been moved in the general direction of the plate for decades -- in Milwaukee (for the Braves, not the Brewers), San Diego, the old place in Cleveland, Candlestick, the Launching Pad in Atlanta. And, by George, Death Valley in the Bronx was made less lethal before the 1985 season in an effort to assist Dave Winfield. The Boss announced the alteration the day the Mets acquired Gary Carter -- just by chance, of course.
The appeal of home runs has prompted many a reduction in outfield acreage.
These days, these pressure-treated days of October when the margin for error is as thin as Kent Tekulve, the walls in the Bronx move closer to the plate every inning. The change is subtle to all except the opponent on the mound, his manager, his pitching coach and the guys who patrol the outfield for the visiting team. But it happens.
"It gets louder and louder," Baltimore's Adam Jones said late Wednesday after Yankee Stadium lived up its reputation as the world's loudest bandbox. "And as it gets louder, the walls move in. I know the dimensions. I know the numbers on the wall don't change, but the place gets smaller the more innings you play."
The Yankees didn't beat the Orioles in Game 3 of the American League Division Series because the home runs Raul Ibanez hit in the ninth and 12th innings were cheapies. They weren't Citizen Bank Park specials, L.A. moonshots or anything akin to the overhang home runs in the Polo Grounds.
"They would have left any yard," Jones said.
But in October, the dimensions of Yankee Stadium II, the breezes that blow and the ghosts that Derek Jeter insists made the move across the street all work against the visiting team from the first pitch. It all gets in the heads of the folks dressed in gray, so much so that in a casual conversation before Game 3, Orioles manager Buck Showalter said that he would add one innovation to the four-year-old ballpark.
"I would like to have a button I could push to make the fences taller and deeper when they're up and move the fences in when we're batting," Showalter said.
Showalter also would like a dirt path connecting the mound with the plate like the one installed at the D-backs' park -- then Bank One Ballpark -- in 1998. But that wouldn't have helped his current team on Wednesday night. He needed all the walls to be the height of Fenway's Monster and erected just this side of the El.
"Maybe in Fenway, [Ibanez's] first one doesn't get out. But the second one ... Forget it," Jones said.
Managers now familiar with YSII say that the stadium wears down pitchers the way Wrigley does when the winds blow out or the way Coors did before the humidity was introduced. Even a pitcher who works effectively, as Orioles starter Miguel Gonzalez did for seven innings on Wednesday night, can suffer mental fatigue from the environment.
"You've got to have some place you can pitch to," Showalter said a few hours before the first of Gonzalez's 99 pitches (69 of them strikes). He noted that left-center in YSII isn't as forgiving as the Death Valley that Joe D and Mick patrolled.
Of course, the Stadium giveth and the Stadium taketh away. The home run that Ryan Flaherty hit off Hiroki Kuroda in the third inning might have hit the wall in right-center in the old, old Yankee Stadium. But it was hit legit, as was the one Manny Machado hit in the fifth to put Orioles in their favorite circumstances -- up by a run. Even when Ibanez, pinch-hitting for Alex Rodriguez, struck in the ninth, he was -- in a way -- playing into the Orioles' hands, as they are baseball's premier after-hours club. The loss on Wednesday evening was Baltimore's first after 16 extra-inning victories. Better late than ever.
Then again, the Yankees hardly are unfamiliar with the circumstances, as they are responsible for all three of the Orioles' extra-inning defeats this year.
Of course, none of this might have happened if Jones had played right-center properly in the third inning. Jeter's run-scoring triple, the Yankees' lone extra-base hit other than Ibanez's pokes and a double by Russell Martin, was a catchable ball. As well hit as it was, a good center fielder, let alone a former Gold Glove winner, should have had it. The wind might have played a role, though Jones discounted that.
"I don't make excuses," he said. "That ball should have been caught. I should have caught it. I'm supposed to make the play. It went up normal, but it carried more than I expected."
Jones must live with that now, as well as the fallout he may have caused by blowing bubbles as he chased Jeter's fly. The bubbles will be an issue even though, as he said, "I made a diving catch here a couple of years ago, and I was blowing bubbles all the way. That's not why I didn't catch it."
But the non-catch will stick to the shoe of his image as a defender and a special player like bubble gum, unfair as that may be, since mistakes in the postseason are reported and recorded in indelible ink.
Perhaps Jones can scrape the gum off with a special play on Thursday. Coco Crisp redeemed himself in the other ALDS series, robbing a Prince and plating a game-winning hit. But if Jones doesn't, and if the Orioles don't recover from the Game 3 loss, he will be remembered, to some degree, as Curt Flood is for his 1968 World Series faux pas, as Carlos Beltran is (in New York at least) for taking strike three six years ago, as Johnny Pesky is for holding the ball, as Jeremy Giambi is for not sliding, as Lonnie Smith is for being deked by the Twins.
There is no Magic Slate for the postseason.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.