Here at Lookout Landing, we’re spending the week providing extensive coverage of the Houston Astros. From a rotation glance to bounce back candidates to a love letter to Jose Altuve, we’ll cover it all. In an attempt to get an even clearer look at the club, I decided to interview one of the more prominent members of the Houston Astros over the last sixteen years: Tal’s Hill. Unfortunately, the hill’s life came to an end this offseason, leaving me with no more than a ghost of what used to be. Like that was ever going to stop me. Here’s the story of what happened that night.
Being alone in a Major League Baseball stadium is a weird feeling.
Perhaps it’s the emptiness of it all, and the brain’s yearning to bring imaginary sounds into play. You want to hear the chatter of the silent crowd. Off in the distance, you expect to hear the faint snapping of a glove as a pitcher warms up in the bullpen. You know these places as ones of life and seeing them in a hollow, deserted state leaves you feeling a bit uneasy.
I make my way out to center field, making sure to avoid stepping on the finely-dragged warning track. I’m still not sure why exactly I’m here. When I repeated the scenario out loud to myself, it all seemed so bizarre:
I am here to speak to a hill–not Rich Hill or Aaron Hill or Grant Hill, but an actual hill.
Mick, an aging grounds crew member I had met at a local pub, swore to me that it was there. Perhaps an old man in a pub at midnight on a Friday wasn’t the most trustworthy source, but there was something about that look in his eye.
“I’ll tell ya this,” Mick said with such conviction, “it’s there. Every night, it is there. We knocked that so-nuf-a-bitch down–I saw it with ma own eyes–but every night I look out and it’s there.” And so I was here, twenty-four hours later, walking towards center field of the Houston Astros’ Minute Maid Park. A few lights were on–a favor from Mick–but the field was still fairly dim. I shined my flashlight out towards center field, but the light pierced nothing but flat land, not a hill in sight. I was crazy. Mick was crazy. We were equally crazy.
The ghost of Tal’s Hill. I’m not gonna live that one down.
I shined my light back up towards the stands, expecting to see a whole grounds crew standing there, peanuts and cracker jacks in hand, laughing at me.
“My name is Colt, you know.”
I turn back around and flash the light towards center field. Tal’s Hill sits before me, looking out over the rest of the field. He seems neither angry nor sad, just entirely neutral, as if he were waiting for a bus that he knows is still a fair distance away.
“Excuse me?” I ask.
“You get tired of being referred to as ‘Tal’s Hill’ all the time. One day I was looking out over the crowd and a guy was wearing a shirt that said ‘Colts’ on it. I thought it was a pretty cool freaking name, so I took it.”
“What’s wrong with the name ‘Tal’s Hill’?” I reply, half curious and half amazed.
“What’s your father’s name?” Tal’s Hill asks.
“Alright, Jerrold’s son. Imagine if for your entire life, you were just referred to as ‘Jerrold’s son’ over and over and over and over and over and no one ever called you by your name. Would you like it?”
“Not at all.”
“Nice to meet you, then. My name is Colt.”
Tal’s Hill and I spend the next hour talking. It tells me of its time in Houston over the years and how it winced every time a player had to run up him to make a catch.
“You never get used to a player running up me,” it said. “I was so certain that one day someone was going to break their leg on me and I’d be taken out back and pitchforked to death. Imagine if something had happened to Berkman!” It tells me of Biggio and Bagwell and how much it hurt to never see them in their prime. We talk about the 2005 World Series and Tal’s Hill breaks down into a teary-eyed mess when I mention how wild Games 3 and 4 were. I attempt to mend the situation by listing off a few moments in Mariners history that have hurt me and Tal’s Hill immediately cuts me off.
“You don’t get it,” it says, “I didn’t think a game was capable of hurting me the way Games 3 and 4 did. I will never get over that. Brandon freaking Backe did everything he could. BRANDON BACKE!”
Tal’s Hill pauses for a bit as he stares up at the championship flags in total silence. The 2005 pennant looms over both of us.
“Man, screw Freddy Garcia.”
We cover a few more topics before I steer the conversation towards next year and how the team looks. Tal’s Hill lights up with pride at the mention of the 2017 squad. It acknowledges that it isn’t much of an expert on some parts of the team due to a poor view, so I ask specifically about the outfield. Tal’s Hill smiles.
“This outfield!” it screams. “Have you seen this Springer kid? Forget the bat–which is great, by the way–the kid can play the damn outfield like a gazelle with a cannon strapped to his arm!” Tal’s Hill spends the next couple minutes switching between gushing over a home run Springer once hit that cleared Tal’s Hill by “at least a mile for all I could see” and gushing over other big plays Springer made in the field. “He’s gonna be a star!”
He eventually begins rambling about others.
“And then there is Reddick! He’s slipped up some in recent years and granted he was always wearing that ugly Athletics uniform, but the Astros could do a hell of a lot worse. Hell, I thought Nori Aoki would be manning a corner at the start of the year. Reddick might as well be Willie Mays compared to him! Can’t remember him striking out a ton, either. Just a real solid guy to have around while Kemp and Hernandez and the rest of the kids develop.”
I attempt to point out that Aoki could still very much end up getting significant playing time, but Tal’s Hill continues on.
“And Marisnick! If that big dude could hit even just a little bit, he’d be an All-Star! He made this one catch on top of me in 2015 when we were playing the Mariners and I’ll never forget it. I thought he was dead. I thought I was dead. I thought Logan Morrison was going to set the field on fire. Man, it is just such a shame he can’t hit. That guy just glides everywhere.”
I finally ask Tal’s Hill about Aoki. It chuckles and pulls out a cell phone. After rigorously typing for a few seconds, it flips the phone towards me and hits a play button. A highlight of Aoki poorly misreading a fly ball against the Milwaukee Brewers in 2016 proceeds to play on the dimly-lit screen. Tal’s Hill is roaring with laughter.
“Could you imagine Aoki playing in the same outfield as me for a whole season? He’d literally die. You’d need to keep an ambulance ready at all times.”
Tal’s Hill is now rolling on the ground over his own remark. I want to point out that he ended up being a fairly decent contributor on offense last year and will likely continue to be for the Astros, but I don’t bother. It’s getting late and I have an early flight to catch in the morning. When Tal’s Hill settles down, I begin to collect my things and say my goodbyes.
“Are you going to miss it?” I ask.
“Miss it?” it replies. “You say that as if I’m going anywhere. This is my home.”
I casually motion towards the now flat surface in center field. Tal’s Hill chuckles.
“Look, all I’m saying is that when the Mariners and Astros are playing in a pennant race next year, don’t be shocked if one of your twenty center fielders happens to slip on thin air.”
Tal’s Hill looks down at the ground and then up at the stands and then off towards home plate. It smiles, then frowns. Then it smiles again. Then its face fixes itself into a locked, melancholic position. It plucks a blade of grass out of the ground and tucks the blade in its pocket.
“I’ll be here,” Tal’s Hill says, “but dammit I’ll still miss it. Just one day you’re minding your own business and suddenly a big machine is heading at you and the next second you’re being ripped out of the ground. How appropriate.”
I nod and start to make my way towards the exit, leaving Tal’s Hill alone to look up at the towering confines of Minute Maid Park. I was sure its absence this year would make me happy, but as I wheel around once more and gaze out over the flat surface of center field, I remember growing up and reading of the oddities some baseball fields featured: the monuments in play at Yankee Stadium, center field at Polo Grounds, the cliff at the University of Texas. They were all such a major part of baseball in one way or another, and now they were all gone.
I cup my hands over my mouth and call out one last time.
“So long, Tal’s Hill!”
“So long, Jerrold’s Son!”