By Pat Borzi
MINNEAPOLIS -- The trees are back. Just not the same kind, and not in the same place.
At Target Field last weekend, 14 narrow Spartan Juniper evergreens swayed gently in forest-green planter boxes behind Section 334 high above center field, just below the Minnie and Paul sign. Installed before the season, the trees are a living reminder of the one perceived flaw in the stadium's original design.
When Target Field opened in 2010, the green batter's eye in center featured 14 black spruce trees, an aesthetic element that tickled the front office but irritated the players. From the first month of the season, Twins hitters griped about shadows that made it difficult to pick up the ball. Manager Ron Gardenhire half-jokingly threatened to cut down the trees with a chainsaw. He never had to; the Twins removed them after the season.
Hitters are as particular about the batter's eye, or hitting background, in a ballpark as they are about their bats, their gloves and their favorite restaurants on the road. The darker and wider the "eye", they say, the easier to see the ball out of the pitcher's hand.
But for the last three years, the missing trees haunted the Twins. After going 53-28 at home in 2010, tops in Major League Baseball, to win the AL Central, the Twins followed with marks of 33-48, 31-50 and 32-49. A curse, perhaps? Lousy Twins starting pitching had more to do with it than any arbor-related hex, but it made a nice story. Now the background is black, with a little slope of grass at the base.
"It wasn't just the trees," said outfielder Jason Kubel, a Twin from 2004-11 who rejoined the club this season after stints in Arizona and Cleveland. "(The background) was painted green, so it was kind of the glare from the sun, too. And the shadows would show up on the batter's eye, too. Now they don't. It's definitely a lot better now."
The notion of darkening the background behind the pitcher to help batters see the ball dates to the 19th century. Michael Benson, in his book Ballparks of North America, cited Cincinnati's League Park, the home of the Reds from 1884 to 1901, as the first to paint the center field fence black.
The third edition of the Dickson Baseball Dictionary lists the earliest uses of the term "batter's eye" as 1906, when stories in the Atlanta Constitution and the Chicago Tribune describe clubs darkening fences.
Yet many of the ballparks built in the early 20th century -- the original Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, to name three -- featured bleachers in center field. The new wave of ballparks in the 1960s, with Candlestick Park, Dodger Stadium and Shea Stadium, brought freestanding black batter's eyes into widespread use in major league ball. The Metrodome might have been the last modern stadium without one; retracted blue seats provided the background until the Twins left after the 2009 season.
Over time, older stadiums fell in line. The Cubs closed Wrigley's center field bleachers in 1952, reopened them in 1962 for that season's second All-Star Game, then shut them for good, covering the area at various times with Astroturf, a tarp and junipers.
The remodeled Yankee Stadium opened in 1976 with center-field seating removed and the flooring painted black. The so-called "black seats" remained that way until the stadium closed in 2008. (The Yankees also blackened the 408 marking in straightaway center; the rest were white.) Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, a Twins coach, called the black seats his favorite hitting background, even though his .289 average there fell well below his career .306 mark.
"It was expansive enough where you didn't have to worry about tall pitchers or sidearm pitchers that might come outside the limits of the actual width of the batter's eye" he said. "It was dark. Didn't have much issue with sunlight or shadows. It was just fairly consistent."
In Boston, after decades of complaints, the Red Sox finally stopped selling seats in three straightaway sections of Fenway's center-field bleachers in 1997. The Red Sox long resisted because too many of their lefthanded starters with three-quarters deliveries, like Bruce Hurst, benefited from throwing out of the shirts of fans. Now those seats are only sold for night games.
The danger for hitters was never more apparent than on July 18, 1993, a sunny Sunday afternoon, when hard-throwing Seattle lefty Randy Johnson beaned Mike Greenwell with a fastball. Greenwell said he never saw the pitch until it was two feet from his head. I was there working for the Portland Press Herald, and the scary clack of the ball striking Greenwell's helmet above the earflap brought a gasp from the crowd of 33,795. Greenwell left the game, but wasn't seriously hurt.
Baltimore shortstop J.J. Hardy shuddered when I told him the Greenwell story recently. He said Fenway can still be problematic. "Sometimes they don't even put that hitter's eye up there, and the ball is coming out of white T-shirts," he said. "That's not good."
So what makes a good batter's eye? Wide and dark, like the two-level background at Chase Field in Arizona.
"For me, a good park to hit in is a batter's eye that's all black," said Detroit right fielder Torii Hunter. "Minnesota is all black. Seattle is all black. At our park (Comerica), it's dark green and some black, so you can kind of pick up this little white ball.
"If you see anything light out there, or they try to create a fun area back there, it's not fun for the hitters. We hate that. But a batter's eye that's dark, I think it's really friendly for hitters."
Added Toronto's Jose Bautista: "Obviously, the darker the better. You just want to make sure the ball isn't coming out of bright or light-colored background. A screen would be really bad. But I think most parks in the league are pretty good.
"There are a couple of exceptions. Baltimore, during the daytime with a left-handed pitcher on the first base side of the rubber, that one is pretty bad, but not necessarily because of the batter's eye. There are seats, and a Southwest sign on the wall. Boston is kind of tough because sometimes you can see the people in the back, like people waving when you're shooting free throws. But they're really far away, and I don't notice it too much."
Anaheim can be troublesome in the daytime, Kubel said. "If Jered Weaver is throwing and he's way off to the side, you lose balls in the rocks," he said. Progressive Field isn't the greatest for left-handed hitters, either.
"For me, Cleveland was always a tough place because left-center is a big wall with a bunch of bright lights," Dodgers left fielder Carl Crawford said. "It always seemed like I had problems there picking up the ball. Other places, it's not too bad."
And though Miller Park in Milwaukee features a wide batter's eye, other factors negate it.
"Day games in Milwaukee are probably the worst, because the sun comes through those windows on the side, behind home plate, and put a glare on the hitter's eyes, so the ball comes out of a glare," said Hardy, a former Brewer. "Some day games in Milwaukee, it's just really dangerous because of the glare out there."
Hardy, a Twin in 2010, much prefers the treeless look at Target Field. Funny thing: The foliage never seemed to bother Toronto. The swaggering Jays crushed six home runs on Sept. 30, 2010, when the black spruces were still in place, two by Bautista, who led the majors that season with 54. Two years later, without the trees, Bautista hit three in one game and five in a three-game series. His 11 career homers in 14 games at Target Field tops all visiting players.
"Now that you mention it, I don't even remember the fact that those trees were there," Bautista said with a laugh. "I don't pay that close of attention. If it's fine and it feels good and you don't notice anything, it's got to be good, right?"
* * *
Pat Borzi, a former Yankees and Mets beat writer for the (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger, has covered major league baseball since 1988. His work appears frequently in The New York Times.