Henning: Comerica Park’s deep dimensions must be fixed

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — An opportunity exists for the Tigers and for Comerica Park.

They can make Detroit’s big league shrine special and distinctive. They can turn it into a conversation piece whenever America’s best ballparks are discussed.

They can do this by allowing landscape experts to conceive an outfield backdrop — think Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Camden Yards — with terracing or whatever creative design architects in their genius might imagine. There are brilliant people out there, guaranteed, who would have ideas both affordable and transformative.

I know, because 15 years ago I consulted such people and showed some of their work to Gary Vitto, then a Tigers executive who a year later passed away.

Such a makeover would have dual advantages to Detroit and to the game. It would render Comerica Park special and more nationally prominent at the same time an equal and more essential goal would be achieved. Reconfigured fences could be adjusted to make a ballpark fair. It would be truer to baseball’s integrity than Comerica Park and its extremism now permits.

Long outs

Monday’s game at Comerica Park, a 2-0 victory by the Chicago White Sox over the Tigers, was the first act from a day-night doubleheader. It also was the latest example of how cockeyed is too much of Comerica’s outfield.

In the seventh inning against Jeff Samardzija, J.D. Martinez hit another of his classic 420-foot-plus blasts to deep right-center, a foot or two in front of the recessed auxiliary scoreboard. Martinez’s drive was caught. That’s nothing new for Martinez, a skilled hitter who has lost at least five home runs, and perhaps closer to 10, because of Comerica’s absurd distances: 427 to the flag pole in left-center, 420 to deep center, and 430 to the most distant region of right-center.

Another Tigers outfielder, Tyler Collins, had almost an identical experience in the second inning. His drive was snagged a couple of steps in front of the scoreboard, perhaps 420 feet away.

Samardzija pitched a lovely baseball game. But the one-hit shutout was deceiving. Martinez and Collins’ blasts would have been home runs at the White Sox’s ballfield, or at just about any other big league park.

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus was right to say afterward that Monday’s breeze, blowing in, was a factor. But only because Comerica’s distances from left-center to right-center are so indefensibly vast did Monday’s breeze become a factor.

“What are you gonna do?” Martinez asked after the game. He has 37 home runs but has lost two in recent days. He has lost a good many more that could keep him from becoming the sixth Tigers player in history to slug 40 homers in a season.

“I couldn’t have hit it much better,” he said.

In his voice and in Collins’ was the usual resignation you hear from all players who know what Comerica Park was designed to do: thwart hitters.

“What are you gonna do?” asked Collins, with a shrug, as he sat on a stool next to Martinez’s locker.

Across the clubhouse, Miguel Cabrera had picked up on the conversation. He joined the chorus.

“Write it! Write it!” he said, urging attention to what has been a far more disturbing reality than Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, or the Tigers front office, has been willing to concede.

Pitchers’ paradise

Everyone knows it. Every visiting player understands Comerica Park was designed, intentionally, to be punitive to hitters. The theory, by the men then in charge, John McHale and Randy Smith, was that free-agent pitchers would be more enticed to sign with Detroit if the ballpark was pitcher-protective.

“We talk about it all the time,” Martinez said of his conversations with opposing players who visit Comerica and who shake their heads, not quite believing that Martinez and Cabrera and Victor Martinez, etc., play half their games at a death trap.

Statistically, of course, Comerica ranks acceptably with other parks in offense and homers. That’s because the Tigers tend to feature a surplus of power. Another reason is left field and right field happen to be fair. But that’s only because 13 years ago Dave Dombrowski, after a year on the job as general manager, took a look at the park and ordered repairs to the worst regions of a flawed design.

He moved in the ridiculous left-field fence, shifted the bullpens from right field, and filled in the old bullpen area with seats. He thereby added attractive ticket space and created a fairer, more intimate, ballpark in left- and right-field.

Dombrowski, though, could only go so far in 2003. He fixed the most egregious points in an outfield that still needs realignment.

Now is the time for a more thorough review and plan by the Tigers. The game will be honored by overturning some early mistakes.

And if that happens — it is inevitable necessary changes will be made — good will come from the revisions. Maybe most pleasing to Comerica’s customers, a re-designed outfield, with landscape artists forwarding their best and brightest ideas, could yet make Comerica Park something special. Something nationally recognized, which is how it once was at a site called Tiger Stadium.