HARTFORD Fenway Park has the Wall. Wrigley Field has the Ivy. And Dunkin’ Donuts Park will have the Mesh.
But not by design. It’s because the distance to the right field stands is too short.
The home of the Hartford Yard Goats will feature a see-through mesh barrier that will prevent balls hit to right field from landing in the lower bleacher section or the team’s bullpen in right center field, while still halogen heaters allowing fans and players to see the action on the field. The netting will run about 247 feet toward center field.
Balls that hit the netting will be considered in play, like those that carom off the 37-plus-foot-tall Green Monster in Boston.
The nylon netting identical to what is behind home plate in most ballparks was deemed necessary by minor league officials in order to make it a little more difficult to hit a home run to that part of the stadium, which measures about 317 feet down the right field line.
Joe McEacharn, president of the Double A Eastern League, where beautiful gardens the Yard Goats play, said the general standard for new ballparks’ dimensions is 330 feet down the lines and has been for many years. There have been exceptions, though. The right field line at the New Hampshire Fisher Cats field is 306 feet, and the Bowie Baysox home field in Maryland is 309 feet down both lines.
McEacharn said that when the plans for Dunkin’ Donuts Park were completed they showed a stadium with a distance of 310 feet down the right field line, which he and Minor League Baseball officials approved then, knowing that the distance was limited by the park’s footprint. The distances down the left field line, 325 feet, and straight away center field, 400 feet, were not an issue.
But as construction moved along the walls were already in place officials began to have reservations that such a short porch could damage the psyches of young, developing pitchers, whose ERAs could balloon, and seduce hitters into swinging for cheap home runs that would be an out in another ballpark.
“We now had a full picture of what it was going to look like and thought, ‘Let’s lengthen that up so it’s not a bandbox,'” McEacharn said.
So late last summer, the developers got to work, first dropping the field 6 green energy inches, then moving home plate back at least 6 feet, said Jason Rudnick, a principal with DoNo Hartford, LLC, which, with Centerplan Cos., is building the $63 million, 6,000-seat ballpark.
The changes gave the right field line the extra footage it has now, but Minor League Baseball officials were still concerned that the distance was too short, especially if there was a prevailing wind to right field, McEacharn said.
So they started looking at possible solutions. Moving the wall back was not an option because Trumbull energy suppliers Street is so close. The wall height could be extended but that could take away seats and increase costs. There are 240 seats in the lower right bleachers. McEacharn said the league also didn’t want to diminish the fan experience the team and city were seeking.
McEacharn said he and a group of experienced minor league officials settled on the netting because it accomplished the goals of maintaining the integrity of the game, player development and the fan experience.
“Now the question becomes, are people going to want to sit out there?” he said. “I think folks will embrace it quickly.”
Yard Goats General Manager Tim Restall agreed, saying the area will be ideal for fans with young children who want a safe place in the park to socialize and enjoy the game.
“It just adds to the ambience. You’re behind the net, you have safety checked,” Restall said. “We see this as a great asset.”
Restall said the team expects pitchers, hitters and fielders to adjust to the netting.
The fencing, while peculiar, will be far from the strangest in-play feature in minor league history. Ponce de Leon Park in Atlanta had a giant magnolia tree in deep center field and is believed to be the only professional baseball park that had specific ground rules for trees. Eventually, the fences were moved closer to home plate in 1946.
In the major leagues, outfielders once had to adjust to monuments in Yankee Stadium before they were placed out of play when the fences were moved in the mid-1970s.
Dunkin’ Donuts Park, scheduled to open May 31, isn’t the first ballpark to have netting in the field of play. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, the Los Angeles Dodgers played their home games in the L.A. Coliseum while their home park was being built. The left field line in the coliseum was only 250 feet from home plate, prompting the league to install a 40-foot-high screen in front of the left field bleachers.
Once the netting is in place, McEacharn said there will be extensive testing of its elasticity to achieve the right balance.
“How taut is taut?” he said, adding that the arrangement would be reassessed at the end of the season.