It’s time to even the playing field at Isotopes Park.
And not everyone is happy about it.
The iconic berm that has been present against the center-field wall — in the field of play — since the Triple-A ballpark was opened in April 2003 will be removed this week after Wednesday’s season finale for the Albuquerque Isotopes.
It is the last such hill in the playing field of any professional baseball ballpark in the country.
“I’m going to miss it a little bit, man,” said Isotopes centerfielder Wynton Bernard, who in two seasons manning center field in Albuquerque has become one of the top handful of players in franchise history at navigating the uniquely challenging topography of the park.
When renovation plans were being drafted in 2002 for the old Albuquerque Sports Stadium, the Isotopes took the suggestion for the hill from Dave Rosenfield, the general manager of the Triple-A Tidewater Tides, another team overseen by Ken Young, who is part of the ownership group of both teams. The decision two decades later isn’t one being made by the Isotopes, but rather for them.
“As everybody knows, when MLB took over Minor League Baseball (two years ago), they’ve been putting in these new facilities standards and really do have a much more renewed focus on safety and player wellness,” said John Traub, general manager of the Isotopes since that hill was put in 20 years ago. “So, they requested that the hill come out.”
The truth is, despite numerous stumbles and clumsy-looking attempts to catch fly balls on the hill, there aren’t any known injuries that can be specifically attributed to the hill in Albuquerque.
Nevertheless, so long to the ‘Topes Slope, or whatever nickname that may have been popular at the time, often for the home team some variation of the word hill like “Hoffman’s Hill” when Jamie Hoffman starred in center field, the “Glenallen Hill” after the former Isotopes manager or maybe in recent years “Mount Bernie” as Bernard has turned in some of the most memorable plays on the hill ever.
Of course, opposing players had other names for the hill, too, but not ones that will be printed here.
“I’m used to it, but for sure, center fielders on other teams get so mad,” Bernard said. “It really is difficult. Balls that we all think that we should have caught or that we normally would catch on a normal field, it’s just so different for them.”
The distance from home plate to the straight away center field wall is 400 feet — 360 feet from home plate to the start of 20 feet of a dirt warning track followed by 20 feet of the grass hill that rises to 4-feet, 6-inches at the wall. There is a curved “Batter’s Eye” that creates deeper dimensions just to the right and left of center field that are 425 feet from home plate.
The Isotopes don’t seem to know exactly the angle of the slope. They know it’s clearly steeper than the 20-degree angle hill the Houston Astros outfield had about the same time as Isotopes Park opened, but it also stops well short of being a 45-degree angle.
Starting next year, the dimensions will remain the same, but the dirt warning track will be pushed back to the wall as at every other park and there will be a wall there, sans slope.
“I like the hill, man, and I’ll tell you why,” said Isotopes manager Warren Schaeffer. “I like seeing great plays. I like watching Wynton Bernard play it out there. It’s a big home-field advantage. I like to see Sam (Hilliard) play it out there. I love when other teams come in and you watch their center fielders go up that hill and they can’t believe what they’re doing and we end up getting three bases out of it. I think it just adds an element to the game that’s special and unique, and I’ll be sad to see it go.”
That was the sentiment echoed in a 2-minute video the Isotopes posted on social media accounts on Monday morning paying tribute to the end of an era with several past players reminiscing about it while highlights of great plays made on the hill — and some not so great — were playing.
“It’s been fantastic for us,” Traub said. “We kind of did this video almost tongue in cheek with the RIP, but there is some sadness to it because it has played such a major role in people’s experience here at the ballpark, including players.”
After 19 seasons, it's time to say goodbye to our center field hill.
You produced some of our fondest memories and the most spectacular catches.
After Wednesday's 6:35 pm game, fans are invited to take pictures in front of the hill to say goodbye.
Thanks for the fun times.✌️ pic.twitter.com/C6OK5VLtrC
— Albuquerque Isotopes (@ABQTopes) September 26, 2022