Albuquerque Isotopes level last outfield slope in baseball

Pro baseball’s last outfield hill is no more

Pro baseball’s last outfield hill is no more
Screenshot: Twitter/@ABQTopes

Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022 — six years to the date after the Houston Astros played their final game with Tal’s Hill in center — the Albuquerque Isotopes played their final game with a hill in center field.

By 6 p.m. Thursday, Isotopes Hill was demolished. The last hill in professional baseball had been destroyed, removing the final field oddity across all professional baseball. Where there used to be bullpens in right and left, monuments in deep center, and uneven surfaces galore, Rio Grande Credit Union Field was the last-standing oddity. The ‘Topes Slope, as it was so aptly named by fans (it never had an official name), had stood in center field ever since the park opened in 2003, an homage to Crosley Field in Cincinnati. The hill saw three different MLB affiliations (Marlins, Dodgers, Rockies), numerous All-Stars, and several big plays throughout its lifespan, but its removal couldn’t have come sooner.

I spoke with Isotopes’ GM John Traub about what went into that decision. “We knew that ultimately, inevitably it would have to come out at some point,” Traub told Deadspin. “We’ve sort of not pushed it for a while. I mean, shoot, back when we were with the Dodgers from 2009 to 2014, you know, they would’ve been in favor of it going away, but they understood that it was a unique type of thing. As soon as Major League Baseball started dealing more with facility standards, we knew it was only a matter of time.”

MLB has taken a more forward approach to player safety and injury prevention in recent years. You’d think that the removal of outfield hills across all affiliated ballparks would’ve been one of the first moves they made, especially after Tal’s Hill in Minute Maid Park was removed in 2016. While Traub was a big proponent of the hill, he understands why it has to be removed. “There have been a couple of times over the course of our history where a guy has had to come out of a game because something got tweaked as they were going up the hill,” said Traub. “Has there been a career-threatening or season-ending injury because of the hill? Not that I’m aware of. However, from the Major League Baseball perspective, I know that they did not want to wait for that to happen. They didn’t want to be reactionary, so I get that.”

While a major injury never happened, that doesn’t mean the players weren’t still worried about such an occurrence happening. Isotopes’ 2022 center fielder Wynton Bernard told Deadspin, “Injury was definitely on the back of my mind. I was always worried for me and for other players. I thought ‘This is a sprained ankle waiting to happen or a torn meniscus, and I think that’s why I practiced on it so much, because I didn’t want to get hurt on it.”

Bernard says he mostly worried for the visiting players. It took him several series to get used to playing with the hill, and every time someone new came to town, they’d fall during their first encounter with the steep incline. Bernard was no exception. “The first time I played on the hill was in 2017. There’s a clip of someone hitting a home run, and I fell on it. I was playing on the Sacramento River Cats,” said Bernard. “I was so embarrassed, but yeah. It wasn’t always perfect for me, but I got to play there in 2021 and 2022, so I got used to it.” Visiting players didn’t have the same luxury.

Despite the injury concern though, the general consensus surrounding the hill was mostly positive. “I’ll miss it for sure,” said Bernard. “It added a uniqueness to the ballpark. I wish it was still going to be there. I didn’t like the fact that people could possibly get hurt on it, but you couldn’t see that at any other ballpark. It just looks cool from a fan’s perspective, even a player’s perspective, the anticipation of ‘Is he going to catch it?’ It adds a little extra excitement to the game.”

Bernard recalled one of his most memorable plays, where Bernard had to track a ball up the hill.

“It was a 6-6 ballgame. We were playing against Sugarland. There was a ball going over my head. I look back at the hill and I look at the ball. I look back at the hill and then I kind of reach over my head and eventually fall,” recalled Bernard, giddy with excitement. “I was so genuinely excited that I caught it, because it was such a big situation, so I made sure the ball was in my glove. I was on the ground for like three seconds. Then I rolled over and I blew a kiss to the fans and started waving. Everybody got a really big kick out of it.”

Traub also brought up this play when reminiscing about the hill’s best moments. He called Bernard an exciting player and said he had “one of the best smiles in the business.”

In one word, Traub said the hill’s removal was more “bittersweet” than anything else. On the one hand, he understood why it had to be removed. On the other, the hill reminded him of all the memories it brought over its two decades of existence. It reminded him of his good friend Dave Rosenfield, who was a big factor in the creation and initial layout of the ballpark. It reminded him of several great plays he’d seen made on that hill, particularly one by Jamie Hoffman where Hoffman robbed a home run on the batter’s birthday. It reminded him of the fans and how fondly they thought of the hill. In fact, the fans may have loved it more than Traub did.

“After our final game on Wednesday night, once we announced that we were going to let people come out to the field and go onto the hill and take pictures, I thought we might have a couple dozen or something like that. We probably ended up with about 400 people out there,” Traub claimed. “A lot of our gameday employees went out there. Our team actually went out there and took an impromptu team picture. Our front office staff went out there and took an impromptu staff picture. It meant something to a lot of people and some people were getting emotional, and I found that kind of neat.”

Isotopes Park still has some fun features to it. Bernard called the scoreboard in left-center “pretty unique. It’s kind of big.” However, the magic that the hill brought is gone, and will likely never be replicated. “That’s what people knew the ballpark for,” said Bernard.

“You know, it’s funny. A lot of people have said over the years ‘Why do you have a hill in center field?’” said Traub. “Now that it’s out, we have a lot of people asking ‘Why did you take it out?’”

It’s a tough balance. Obviously, you want to keep the uniqueness of the ballpark intact, but you also have to keep the players in mind. That’s what’s most important. While ballpark oddities like the Green Monster in Boston, the right field corner of Petco Park that juts out, or the deep left field fence at Camden Yards, are still prevalent, none will ever compare to the game-changing nature that hills brought to the sport. Fans know it had to happen, but many were hoping it never would. Alas, the last remnant of a far-gone era of strange ballparks is gone. The ‘Topes Slope will be missed.

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