May 16, 2013 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Miguel Cabrera blast more evidence Comerica needs added charm, less space

Brandon Barnes leaps at the wall to haul in Miguel Cabrera's blast with the bases loaded to end Wednesday's game at Comerica Park. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Jose Veras, the Astros closer during Wednesday's game at Comerica Park, had an ugly ninth inning in what became a 7-5 victory for Houston.

He threw 26 pitches, and heavy in his high-risk ways was walking Omar Infante with two out ahead of hitting Torii Hunter on an 0-2 pitch that loaded the bases for one Miguel Cabrera.

Cabrera two pitches later did what Veras had been struggling to do. Cabrera did his job. He slammed a fat sinker 420 or so feet to the distant auxiliary scoreboard in Comerica's area-code-crossing right-center field expanse.

Brandon Barnes made a nice catch and the game was over. But in a different manner than it would have ended at all but a couple of ballparks in baseball.

As with Cabrera's blast — potentially big numbers for a guy trying to push his team into October's playoffs and maybe win another MVP trophy — Comerica Park had also done its job.

It punished a good hitter and well-hit ball and bailed out a slipshod pitching effort. But then it was designed to do just that when blueprints were finalized 15 years ago.

The theory favored by then-president John McHale and general manager Randy Smith was that a huge ballpark would be advantageous to a struggling Tigers team in need of signing free-agent pitchers.

Comerica Park would thus be built as a polar opposite to a haven that had served Detroit wondrously and had become a revered landmark. And the reason Tiger Stadium had succeeded in becoming a baseball treasure was because, in the manner of the game's hoary venues, it was built in a certain spirit.

It was intimate. Not that it was meant to be a hitter's playpen. It wasn't. Tiger Stadium had its quirks that benefited hitters as much as fans, such as the upper-deck overhang in right field. But it also housed a deep center field (listed as 440 feet but later discovered to have been 425 feet) that good pitchers could use as their escape hatch.

Flawed from the start

Comerica's strategists took historic ballpark wisdom and flattened it with an architectural counter-punch. Forget what had been built in the early days when Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and Tiger Stadium were born and would become hallowed sites. Ignore, as well, what had been brilliantly conceived at Camden Yards in Baltimore and at Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field) at Cleveland.

Go instead in an opposite direction. Build a monster 399 feet to left center (before the fences 10 years ago were mercifully pulled in), 420 to center, 437 to the left-center field flagpole (also since adjusted), and 430 to the deepest part of that right-center field corner where the auxiliary scoreboard merges with center field.

Make hitters pay. Frustrate them. Exasperate them. Allow pitchers, particularly pitchers who need a break, to be the conquerors, because, after all, pitching is how you win.

That was the prevailing philosophy when Detroit's new ballpark was built. But it was a flawed scheme and stood out as such from the moment dirt was moved and steel began to rise.

It was obvious changes would need to be made. And initial fixes were completed as soon as Dave Dombrowski, who had succeeded McHale and Smith, had a full season to digest the distortions in his home-field layout.

We almost forget about the re-arrangements made a decade ago. The worst of the outfield's wacky ways was repaired when the left- and left-center field fences were brought 20 feet closer. That, of course, created a gap between the old and new walls that was deftly filled when the bullpen was shifted from right field and that area was converted to fan-friendlier seats.

The remainder of the outfield's crude stretches, from left-center to that deep recess in right-center, was allowed to remain standing, but only because those wastelands were going to be more problematic to amend, especially the fixed auxiliary scoreboard that Cabrera nearly knocked down Wednesday.

It's not as if the area shortened by the 2003 remodeling was the ballfield's only blemish. It was simply a way to fix the most egregious of liberties taken when engineers decided baseball should be played in a national park.

The same defenders who think Comerica is just fine today are the same who said it was great before the left-field rearrangements were ordered. But the status quo is as impossible to support today as it was before left field was cleaned up.

Center field is 420 feet and, while at least 10 feet too distant, it is at least a concession you can make to savvy pitchers who can artfully pitch with center field in mind. But if you want to retain center field at 420, you need to do something for sure about that fourth Metro Detroit county that rests in right-center. It is a 430-foot absurdity.

National perspective

Bringing some essential justice to the extreme outfield areas would provide Comerica Park with a lovely bonus, as it did when the bullpen was transferred a decade ago.

You can do something distinctive, perpetually so, with a ballpark that lacks any kind of national identity. And that, sadly, is another product of the 1998 construction plan. There was no right-field upper deck, no Green Monster, no Wrigley Field ivy, no Camden Yards-style warehouse in right field — no trademark that a baseball town as old and as remarkable as Detroit demanded for its new venue.

But you can always add just such a feature. Ten years ago, I talked with a number of landscape architects, all of which had amazing, imaginative ideas on how just such a flourish could yet be applied in those center-field or right-center field tracts at Comerica.

It needs to be considered. Seriously considered. Comerica is a terrific destination point, as 3 million fans will tell you. The concourses are wide and offer ticket-holders a circular stroll of the entire facility. The atmosphere crackles. It's an upbeat baseball site.

But you might also have picked up on a somber fact. Comerica is rarely mentioned, nationally. It's, well, nice enough. But listen to a baseball nation talk and the old reverence held for Tiger Stadium and its personality is absent in any conversation about Comerica. It's just too big. It lacks that precious word innate to great ballparks: charm.

It still needs fixing, as it did a decade ago. Change is tough for some to handle. But when a sense for basic baseball justice converged a decade ago with smart design options, a much better Comerica Park emerged.

The same mandate applies today. Otherwise, you'll see a few too many more of those Jose Veras-Miguel Cabrera duels. And even if it's the visiting team, in baseball, the better guy should win.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/Lynn_Henning

More Lynn Henning