Ballparks can shape style of teams

Jun 6, 2006 6:06 AM

Baseball is unique in that every ballpark is different in size and field configurations. This isn’t true in any other sport.

A football field is always 100 yards long. Basketball courts are the same length, the only difference being the three-point line. Baseball has several small, hitter-friendly parks like Jacobs Field, Fenway Park, Coors Field, the Metrodome, Tropicana Field, the Ball Park in Arlington, Texas, as well as small parks in Milwaukee, Houston and Cincinnati.

There are several parks with expansive outfields that are tough to hit home runs in. Shea Stadium, Safeco in Seattle, Dodger Stadium, along with ballparks in Oakland, Detroit and San Diego are perfect for pitchers. Smart organizations construct teams around the strengths and weaknesses of the park. Seattle and Oakland have huge outfields and know the importance of speedy fielders like Ichiro and Mark Kotsay.

Fenway Park has very little foul ground around first base and the famed Green Monster in left field. Historically, the Red Sox have paid more attention to offense than defense in forming their ballclub. That thinking has changed this year.

Boston’s thinking used to be offensive success could carry the load through 81 home games. The World Series champion team of 2004 was 43-38 on the road, but a sizzling 55-26 at Fenway! Last season had similar numbers —41-40 road, 54-27 home. This year, upgraded defense helped the Sox to an early winning road mark.

Detroit is the AL’s biggest surprise. The Tigers were constructed around pitching and defense. Veteran Kenny Rogers solidified the rotation, taking the pressure off many of their young arms. Detroit went from 32-49 on the road last season to a 20-7 start this year.

There are others. Tampa Bay started 12-11 at home, but 9-21 on the road. Baltimore began .500-plus at Camden Yards, but just 9-16 away. The Blue Jays upgraded around a powerful offense with sluggers Troy Glaus and Lyle Overbay. Toronto began 19-11 at home, but owns a losing road mark.

Strong all-around defensive and pitching teams can help diminish significant home/road differences. The Twins exemplify a low payroll franchise that stress defense and fundamentals to their players coming up through the minors. This season, Minnesota has speed in the outfield and a fine glove man at second base in Luis Castillo. The changes, plus that artificial turf, have the Twins off to a 16-9 mark in the Metrodome, but less than favorable road results. In 2004, the Twins were 49-32 at home, 43-38 away.

Houston has been remarkable the last two years in the NL — great at home, poor on the road. Despite making the World Series last season, Houston was 53-28 at home, 36-45 away. This season is a carbon copy — 18-9 at home, 9-18 on the road!

With Roger Clemens now back in the fold, it will be interesting to see if he can help jumpstart them, especially with their road play.

St. Louis will be tough to catch. The Cards have a super offensive team, a slew of talented defensive players, and solid pitching. With 3B Scott Rolen, CF Jim Edmonds, 1B Albert Pujols and sure-handed SS David Eckstein, they can turn double plays and run down balls in the outfield that would drop for hits on many other teams.

The Cardinals were an incredible 52-29 on the road in 2004! In 2005, the numbers were 50-31 both home and away. This season, St. Louis is above .500 at the new Busch and away.

Bottom line: If teams can adjust, play well on the road and avoid slumps, they are likely to be successful over a 162-game season.