Ballparks resurrect a mysterious path

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Cy Young walked there. So did Walter Johnson. So did Dizzy Dean.

It's where Detroit Tigers catcher Mickey Cochrane met in midgame with pitcher Hal Newhouser to talk about the next fastball or that evening's restaurant.

Yogi Berra was there, too. And dozens of other catchers. And pitchers.

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"There" was a dirt strip that connected the cul-de-sac of the pitcher's mound to the dead-end of home plate. "There" was a grassless path that ran partway along the home plate-second-base axis of the baseball infield. "There" was there in the early days of the game and, mostly, isn't there anymore.

But now in a couple of major league parks you can see it again - or something suggestive of it, Now you can even hear a name for a part of infields that apparently never had one - or apparently any particular purpose: No one knows why they were built.

"No idea" what the grassless strip is called, says Paul Dickson. If Dickson doesn't know the name or history of the path, who would? After all, he knows more about baseball than most, enough to have written "The Dickson Baseball Dictionary."

Well, surely someone at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., would know, right? Wrong.

Why was the dirt path there? Why did it go away?

"No reason for it," says Jimmy Kota of the hall's National Baseball Library. "No one knows why, [but] by 1960 the paths had all but disappeared."

At the Library of Congress, baseball-reference expert Dave Kelly also could not provide a history or a name for the path, but said it was "not universal."

Then, finally, some information. "The path went away in the mid-'40s," says veteran baseball broadcaster Ernie Harwell. "Probably because grounders picked up too much speed coming back toward the mound." Harwell says he prefers all grass between the pitcher and the batter, "but the retro look is good too."

The dirt path now on display at Detroit's new Comerica Park, home of the Tigers, "is narrower than the earlier ones," Harwell points out.

Comerica Park is where Harwell now calls Detroit's games on radio and where the Tigers began playing last season. They had played more than a century at "The Corner" of Michigan and Trumbull, the last 40 years or so in Tiger Stadium, which had evolved from Briggs Stadium, Navin Field, and Bennett Park earlier at that site.

Comerica Park's dirt path starts the season about two feet wide, according to the Tiger's chief groundskeeper, Heather Nabozny. She says she thinks that the old paths were about six feet wide "judging by photos. But we don't want the bordering grass to have lips or edges that could affect the play of a batted ball, so we keep it trimmed. It gets to be about three feet wide as the season goes on."

The idea for a retro-look path in Comerica, Nabozny says, "came from management to the designer of the new park's playing field. It's narrower than the old ones, but they wanted me to make it the same width as Arizona's." The Arizona Diamondbacks, who play in another new retro-look park, the Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix, have the only other major league diamond that includes the path.

When Detroit's Nabozny gets comments about the path, she says, they're generally from people telling her it's too narrow to be authentic.

Nabozny says she thinks the original paths were to eliminate the problem of grass being worn down by pitchers falling forward after their deliveries and by catchers walking to the mound.

"Grass science has improved, and we understand grass better and do a better job with it," she says. "But the path saves the wear to the grass that would be caused by batting practice, which is pitched from in front of the mound."

In Arizona, Diamondbacks' spokesperson Bob Crawford says, "Our path is 2-1/2-feet wide." And it has a name, he says. "We call it the Pitcher's Path."

Now, do you suppose that on his way out to the mound to settle down a shaky pitcher, Yogi Berra might have said, "If you come to a path up the infield, take it"?

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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