Comerica Park fair to hitters, pitchers

Comerica Park fair to hitters, pitchers alike

DETROIT -- The outfield jokes will start arriving in Detroit before the All-Stars do:

• How does a Home Run Derby work at Comerica Park? Does the first player to leave the yard win?

• Since when did Major League Baseball play All-Star Games at national parks?

• Is the warning track in left-center that Eight Mile Road we see in the movies?

• Has anyone ever gotten lost in those shrubs out beyond center field?

Like more than a couple jokes about Detroit, though, perception is an exaggeration of reality. Undeniably, it's a long shot to get the ball out in the gaps and center field. Compared to last year's All-Star Game at Houston's homer-friendly Minute Maid Park, it'll seem like a different area code. But it's not next to impossible to homer. In fact, it's neither last nor next-to-last in home runs among American League parks.

With the All-Star Game just five weeks away, let's take a look at Comerica Park, which in its sixth season, has developed a style of play all to its own.

"This is our ballpark," manager Alan Trammell said. "We've made the conditions better. It's a fair ballpark in my estimation. When we take good swings, we've scored runs here. Last year, this wasn't the worst ballpark to hit home runs in. It was right in the middle."

The Tigers and owner Mike Ilitch designed Comerica Park in the late 1990s with the idea of making a ballpark different from cozy Tiger Stadium, the memories of which usually involved home runs. The most prevalent memory of the last All-Star Game in Detroit -- at Tiger Stadium in 1971 -- is Reggie Jackson's blast off the light tower in right field. Most visiting outfielders' recollections include chasing a ball to the warning track and waiting for it to land in their glove, only to have it land in the overhang of the upper deck.

Tiger Stadium's successor would be different. Comerica Park's outfield dimensions were deeper down the lines and into the gaps, though the deepest part of the park -- an estimated 435-foot trek to left-center -- was actually shorter than the 440-foot deep point of Tiger Stadium. Most infamous was left field, which stretched out from 345 down the line to 395 feet in the gap. It was the latter number, more than any other point of the stadium, that gave birth to the nickname of Comerica National Park.

Right-handed sluggers could put all they had into a ball, only to watch incredulous as it died on the track or hopped to the wall for a double. Left-handed pitchers, of course, relished the forgiveness it provided for a mistake pitch.

By the park's third year and president/general manager Dave Dombrowski's first, the team closed in the dimensions in left. Up went a shorter fence, knocking down the distance in the gap to 370 feet. It cost the stadium an homage to Tiger Stadium, taking the flagpole in left-center out of play, but it was a needed move.

"If we could move the fences out to the [french-fry stand] and win a pennant, I'd be all for it," Dombrowski joked at the time.

Since then, the ballpark has played less hitter-hostile yet still pitcher-friendly. Comerica Park had given up fewer home runs than any other AL facility from 2000-02. Since then, nearly 100 home runs have landed in the area in between the old and new fences, and "The CoPa" has moved from the home-run cellar up towards the middle of the pack.

The makeover of the team playing in it also helped. The Tigers hoped to build a National League style offense when the ballpark opened in 2000, and instead ended up with a team based around right-handed sluggers. Juan Gonzalez grew frustrated enough that he left town after one season.

By contrast, the ballpark has always been fair to left-handed pull hitters, who have found the 325-foot drive down the right-field line inviting and will likely have a distinct advantage in the Home Run Derby. Bobby Higginson enjoyed a career-best 30-homer season the year Comerica Park opened, and Carlos Pena led the team with 27 homers last year, though only 10 of them came at home.

When Dombrowski revamped the club after 119 losses in 2003, he found hitters who could use the space as an advantage rather than a hindrance. Ivan Rodriguez and Carlos Guillen both succeeded in 2004 in part by hitting line drives to both of the ballpark's vast outfield gaps.

Therein lies the offense in Comerica Park, which has had the highest triples tendency in the Majors in each of the last three seasons. Whether it's a speedster like Nook Logan or an average runner like Guillen or Brandon Inge, a solid drive that hits the quick outfield grass and rolls to the wall almost always means three bases.

Yet it remains a long enough distance to the gaps that even Tigers players still get frustrated on occasion.

"My power is to center and right-center," Rodriguez said recently, "and it's 420 [to center] and 4,000 feet to right-center."

With all that territory, a fast center fielder is almost a prerequisite, though fan balloting isn't likely to take that into account. Nearly every Tiger to hold down center has been a natural athlete, none moreso than the speedy Logan. Twins All-Star Torii Hunter thrives there as well. Those teams without speed in center tend to pinch their corner outfielders closer to the middle, choosing to give up the potential triple in the corner to take away the gapper.

Comerica Park isn't alone in bucking the trend for homer-friendly fields. San Diego's PETCO Park brought that dimension back to the National League when it opened last season. However, Comerica Park was built around the same time as the rash of bandbox ballparks. In that aspect and many others, it's an original.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.