THE OLD BALLYARD
Imagine yourself hitting a high fly ball to deep left field. “It’s going . . . going . . . “
Before we know whether or not “it’s gone!” we have to clear up one detail.
Where are you?
If you’re at Hoover High School, for example, you just may have that picturesque homer you were thinking about. Your ball probably cleared the “Brown Monster,” disappearing over a 20-foot brown wall that the sign next to the foul pole tells you is a measly 305 feet from home. If it’s early enough in the game, you probably just sent a couple of tennis players, hard at practice, scurrying for cover on the other side.
At El Capitan, your fly ball may not leave the park, but it may bring a chuckle or two, unless you care quite a bit about the welfare of the left fielder. That’s him, trying to negotiate his way up a 20-foot dirt bank that leads up to the left-field fence. If he can get to the top without falling, he may have a shot at robbing you of a double.
At Oceanside High, your fly ball may be going, but it probably isn’t going far enough. At “The Airport,” you haven’t even made it halfway down the runway. It’s 397 feet to the fence in left field, and just in case you still think you can reach the promised land, a stiff wind is always blowing in.
“That’s a graveyard for fly balls out there,” Oceanside Coach Dave Barrett said. “We’ve got to be one of the few teams who play their fastest outfielder in left instead of center. At our park, there’s just so much more room to cover.”
There’s a reason for that; at Oceanside, the center-field fence is only 326 feet away. And if your fly ball goes in that direction, you may want to stop and see whose car you just hit. Directly behind the center-field fence is the southbound Mission Boulevard on-ramp to Interstate 5.
“We used to have a beautiful baseball field at Oceanside High School,” Barrett said. “We had ivy growing on the walls, and the park was perfectly symmetrical. Then, about 15 years ago, the state came and took away our center field and replaced it with an on-ramp. I guess now we have the most unique hitting background of any school in the county.”
Unique, indeed. (Three-hundred-and-twenty-six feet to center?) But there are other fields in San Diego that also have their own special look. Or their own special ground rules. This isn’t just about hitting fly balls, but ground balls and foul balls as well. What happens to them all depends on where you’re playing.
When Bill Tamburrino drove up to Ramona High School 13 years ago to interview for the baseball coaching job, he drove by the field. Or, more accurately, he drove by the place where the field was supposed to be.
“It was a field in name only,” Tamburrino said. “All there was was a backstop. There was no grass, no dugouts, no anything. I’m sitting in the car saying to myself, ‘And I’m going to coach here?’ ”
Tamburrino is still there. And as you might imagine, the field has been improved some over the years. Every blade of grass has been planted by Tamburrino’s players, and other athletes have helped the team build a sprinkler system. A welding class at Ramona came in one year and built a new backstop and a couple of batting cages.
“We put the field together, but to tell you the truth, it’s still not the safest place to play a baseball game,” Tamburrino said. “The infield grass and dirt around third base is horrible. In fact, I’ve never played a kid who I liked at third base. I wouldn’t want to get anybody I like hurt.”
So who plays there?
“Over the years, mostly we’ve had kids who were soccer goalies in the winter,” Tamburrino said. “They’re the only ones crazy enough to stand out there.”
The outfield isn’t so safe, either.
“One time, we took infield, and there were big clumps of grass in the outfield,” Escondido Coach Bill Kutzner said. “I purposely hit soft one-hoppers when we were taking outfield because I didn’t want to kill anybody before the game started. So what happened? A ball comes up and hits one of my players in the throat, and he’s out of the game. I filed a complaint with the school district. Tambo (Tamburrino) encouraged me to do it.”
Tamburrino said a movement is on to get Ramona a new field. But for the moment, his team has a unique, if a bit dangerous, place to play.
At other schools, life in the outfield is much safer. But sometimes it can be a bit confusing. Before each game, umpires meet with the coaches to go over ground rules. At some places, this can take awhile.
At El Camino, there are two fences in left field. A fly ball over the first fence cannot be a home run, but it can be a triple if it lands to the right (toward center field) of a drainage pipe. It’s a double to the left of the drainage pipe. Over both fences will get you a home run.
“The only thing is, it’s always hard to see where the ball landed,” said Bill McAllister, San Pasqual coach. “They ought to color in each of the sections with spray paint. Then it would be just like shoe polish. If the ball comes out blue, you’ve got a triple.”
There’s also a double-fence situation at Crawford, but it’s in right field, and it’s a little less confusing. Hit it over the first fence and into the ivy, call it a double. Over both, you have a home run. There’s no triple rule at Crawford.
At San Marcos, Coach Ron Layton has installed a green screen above the fence in center. But it’s not that sturdy, and a ball can get through. If it does, it’s a home run. If it bounces off, it’s in play. It’s the only place in the county a player can hit a homer through the wall.
At Helix, there are three trees that sit inside the right-field fence. Umpires must judge whether or not fly balls that land in the trees were hit higher than fence level. If they decide the ball is high enough, it’s gone, even though it may really only be stuck.
At other parks, those pregame meetings at home may not need to be long, but they may be interrupted. At Chula Vista, for instance, kids leaving school always seem to be using the place for an exit.
“You’ll be there waiting for the game to start, and a bunch of kids will ride their bikes right across second base,” Hilltop Coach John Baumgarten said. “The kids just do whatever they want.”
Waiting for them may be annoying, but it’s better than waiting for sheep, which is what Oceanside and Escondido had to do once before a game at Escondido.
“These sheep escaped some farm and ended up walking around on the field,” Barrett said. “I don’t think sheep care much about baseball, and they certainly didn’t seem to care much about leaving.”
Other animals also have held up play. At University City, Coach Allan LaMotte probably would love to hire Carl, the groundskeeper from “Caddyshack.” LaMotte has had a gopher problem for years, and that doesn’t mean his pitchers have been liberal with the long ball.
Tamburrino, as if he needs more problems, has gophers at Ramona, too. But he has found a solution.
“We put a little brown sugar and Drano mixture down there in the holes,” Tamburrino said. “They eat that, and it usually works.”
At Chula Vista, what works best--when the kids have cleared their bicycles from the field, that is--is a tall first baseman. The bag there is lower than the others, and a short first baseman would be a tough target.
At San Diego High, it’s the opposite. Third is lower than first, and if you can find a player who always throws high to first, you have yourself a solid defender.
“You can’t throw the ball too high to first at that field,” Layton said.
Nothing is certain, of course. It’s just that, at some fields, some occurrences are more likely.
Just like with that fly ball you hit. You know you were thinking of a home run, so let’s take your shot down the I-5 toward the border to Marian.
The bandbox of all bandboxes? Well, almost. It’s 263 feet to right (“I swear it’s only 190,” Hilltop’s Baumgarten says), and 300 to left, with a 4-foot fence.
In a game a few weeks ago, Bonita Vista hit seven home runs there. Marian had three.
“We’ve had shortstops call for fly balls that left the park,” Marian Coach George Milke said.
At Fallbrook, that’s actually possible. There, at the county’s northernmost school, your fly ball need only travel 325 feet in center (one foot shorter than Oceanside). It needs only 300 to leave in left. Orange Glen played Fallbrook there two weeks ago, and 12 homers were hit.
All of them landed in a creek behind the left-field fence. And, since the creek isn’t moving, Fallbrook will remain the county’s smallest park.
“It’s great because you’re never out of a ballgame at our place,” Fallbrook Coach Dave Heid said. “The kids see that fence, and their eyes light up.”
The kids Heid speaks of obviously are not pitchers.