It’s difficult to imagine that the Red Sox could find themselves in a land more foreign than the one they just vacated, but that will be the reality Saturday night when they (or perhaps a minor league lineup wearing Sox uniforms) take on the Dodgers in a Charles Steinberg circus production at the famed Los Angeles Coliseum, a place that hasn’t been used for professional baseball in almost a half-century.
There’s a reason.
Saturday night’s exhibition game will play more like basketball than traditional hardball before what figures to be a world record baseball crowd of almost 115,000. It will be just 201 feet down the left-field line, a 62-foot screen erected to keep hitters “honest.” That’s 50 feet closer than it was in 1959, thanks to the addition of seats to the Coliseum. The screen, thus, will be 18 feet higher than when the Coliseum was used by the Dodgers upon their trek west from Brooklyn 50 years ago.
“We pulled the left-field netting as tight as possible so that balls will bounce off it kind of like the Green Monster,” Lon Rosenberg, the Dodgers’ vice president for stadium operations, told the New York Times. “But we didn’t want to pull it too tight and be like a vertical trampoline.”
Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wesiman describes the Coliseum as, “a venue ill-suited for baseball then and iller-suited now.”
According to the Coliseum’s wikipedia entry, “Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ordered the Dodgers to erect a screen in left field to prevent pop flies from becoming home runs. At its highest point at the foul pole, the fence was 42 feet (13 m) high.  The cables, towers, girders and wires were in play. Frick originally wanted the Dodgers to build a second screen in the stands, 333 feet (101 m) from the plate. A ball hit to left would have to clear both screens to be a home run; if it cleared the first screen, it would be a ground-rule double. However, the state’s earthquake laws barred construction of a second screen.”
This is like your average backyard wiffle ball game. Anything that clears the bushes is a home run, but if you hit it, you have to jump the fence, fight the family of yapping dachshunds, and get back before old man Johnson spots you trampling over his hydro seed.
While it will take little more than some extra breath on the ball to reach the left field fence, lefthanded batters have quite the power challenge, with a 440-foot shot to right field in store. It will be 342 feet to straightaway center field. I can imagine outfielders choosing straws for which position they’re going to play. Center would be tops, then it’s a tossup. You’ll be running around an awful lot in right, but a line drive could Charlie Brown you in left.
With a 60-foot screen in left, a hair over 200 feet away, we can expect, what, a couple dozen singles and doubles bouncing off the façade? If these guys really want to speed this thing up, the hitters will drive the ball into the ground repeatedly. It will be expressed to Kevin Cash though to shoot for the fences, since this may be the only three-plus hours he’s a bona fide power hitter.
It’s going to be pinball baseball at the Coliseum, all in the name of commemorating the history of a ballpark never really celebrated in the first place. I suppose that’s the genius of Steinberg, who I am convinced would find a way to venerate Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium (the Mistake by the Lake) if need be.
Even the radical attendance figure you keep hearing about is something of a farce. T.J. Simers of the LA Times points out: “To help pad the attendance, the Coliseum entrance has been moved back from the building. Fans sitting by the Olympic statues outside the Coliseum will now be considered inside for attendance purposes, and will be watching the game on big-screen TVs.”
Does that mean we can start counting fans watching TV at Game On! into Fenway attendance figures?
The McCourts say they will sell no more than 115,000 tickets in the Coliseum, which coincidentally is just how many they need to sell to set the world record for the largest baseball crowd, the Australian national team setting the mark in the 1956 Olympics.
I don’t know how many times my next-door neighbor has told me, “If only the McCourts can break that Australian record.”
Who cares how many people fill the Coliseum other than the people who have to line up to go to the bathroom?
On a bright note, maybe it’ll be like every other Dodgers game, the Dodgers announcing a crowd of 115,000 and only 25,000 sitting in the stadium.
The Dodgers could have cut ticket sales off at 90,000, everyone having a grand time without falling all over each other, but just how many people can you cram into a dump?
This sounds like fun. While we’re at it, why don’t we recall the cinematic treasure that is “Moochie of the Little League” by running around the basepaths backwards?
Take it away, Maestro Steinberg:
“There is a resonance that you’re feeling that is multigenerational — grandparents want to take grandchildren to the place where they first fell in love with the Dodgers,” Steinberg told the New York Times. “If you are 58 now and were 8 then, you never thought you would get back to this childhood amusement park.”
Or as Jim Alexander of the Press-Enterprise counters, “Your parents and grandparents, who didn’t know any better watched the Dodgers’ first four years in Los Angeles probably convinced that the big-league game was meant to be played in a misshapen ballpark, with the left field fence a few feet behind the shortstop’s shoulder and the right field fence halfway to Riverside.”
Makes Fenway seem like a cookie-cutter palace.
Still, the history is rich at the Dodgers’ old home. According to the New York Times, “Giants pitcher Johnny Antonelli called it ‘the biggest farce I ever heard of,’ while the Braves’ Warren Spahn growled, ‘I’d like to see a rule making it mandatory for a ball to travel at least 300 feet for a home run.'” Alan Schwartz writes, “It turned out to be a tempest in a gravy boat. Pitchers learned to pitch away from right-handed hitters, right-center continued to kill left-handers, and by the end of the season the Coliseum had allowed only 21 more home runs than Ebbets Field had the previous year.”
That’s thanks to using the same approach as a pitcher might at Fenway Park, by keeping the ball away from righties, and pitching inside to lefties, hoping to avoid the short porch in left. According to the LA Times, in 1958, 193 home runs were hit at the Coliseum, only eight to right. That prompted lefthanded batter Wally Moon to Wade Boggs his swing, resulting in a 19-home run season in 1959, nine of them hit over the screen.
“I knew pitchers in the Coliseum threw inside to left-handed hitters, hoping to get them to hit to right or center where they couldn’t get the ball out very often,” Moon said. “What I did was to get my hands inside of the ball, leading the bat through and extending it for power. It was an educated slice. I tried to hit the bottom half of the ball to produce the high fly balls. That was not exactly the way I was taught to hit. You’re supposed to stay on top of the ball to hit line drives.”
There will be plenty of those Saturday night, though don’t expect too many of them from current major leaguers. After long international flights, this one will could be mostly a minor league exhibition, played in front of a crowd that equal what Lancaster will see at its Sovereign Bank Stadium for a third of this season.
We just hope all those fans didn’t expect to watch, you know … baseball, which, speaking of, the Red Sox get back to playing for real on Tuesday up the coast in Oakland. After all the pomp and circumstance these guys have had to endure over the past week, the fans likely aren’t the only ones drooling at that prospect.