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Padres pitch benefits of fence move as construction nears completion

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The notoriously big outfield at Petco Park is getting a little smaller.

Followers of the San Diego Padres, and even many of the home and visiting players who have been on both the losing and winning ends of the pitcher-friendly ballpark’s seeming antipathy for home runs, have been vocal for years with varying opinions on the issue. So like it or not, the team is moving in the fences — or portions of the fences, anyway.

The reconfiguration won’t be able to change things known to affect a baseball’s propensity to travel farther or shorter when hit, like the density of the air. But it will bring notable changes hoped to produce bigger offense, as well as a few new viewing angles for fans attending games.

The power alleys of left-center and right-center, both previously measured at 402 feet from home plate, will be reduced to distances of 390 feet and 391 feet, respectively. In the left-center field gap, the change spans only about 60 feet of fence, from the pitcher’s scoreboard to the Padres’ bullpen.

A rendering shows what the right field of Petco Park will look like when the ballpark's fences are reconfigurated.

The change on the right side, however, will be more expansive, spanning from right center down much of the wall to the right field porch. That entire section will be 11 feet closer to home plate when the Padres hold the team’s home opener April 9 against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The push to make the changes gained steam after the late summer 2012 purchase of the Padres by the ownership group that included Padres Executive Chairman Ron Fowler. When the team announced the reconfiguration last fall, Fowler said the decision came after extensive study, and said something needed to change to end Petco’s reign as “the most extreme run suppressing ballpark in Major League Baseball.”

“Petco will still be a pitcher's park,” he said with the announcement, “however, it will no longer be the outlier.”

The left field and right field line measurements, as well as the distance to straightaway center field, will remain unchanged at respective distances of 336 feet, 332 feet and 396 feet. In addition to the change across much of right field, the new wall there will be reduced from a height of about 10 feet to a height of about 8 feet, bringing it in line with the fence heights in left field and center field.

What it all means is that nowhere in the ballpark will a hit require more than 400 feet of distance at a height of 8 feet to clear a wall anymore. The deepest corner of the field will be just shy of that figure — 399 feet from home in the gap between right-center and centerfield.

Mark Guglielmo, the Padres’ vice president of ballpark operations and general manager of Petco Park, said there are a few benefits that come with the change related to the right field wall height.

“The rationale behind that was to create an opportunity where you have some exciting defensive plays … where guys can run and jump and make leaping grabs up and over the wall,” Guglielmo said.

So by way of a shorter distance to home plate, the new wall will produce more offense, the team hopes. And exciting defense is also expected to come because of the shorter wall height.

But there’s a third benefit — unrelated to the play of a baseball, Guglielmo said.

The lowered wall in right field makes a cozy home for a new seating deck, providing lovers of the right side with views not previously available. The new platform is 12 feet wide and runs the length of the right field fence. Along that fence will be 14 tables capable of seating four people each.

“So we’ll be able to sell 56 more seats to large groups,” Guglielmo said.

Guglielmo said the addition will largely make up for two rows of seating in the left-center field Picnic Terrace section, lost to the relocation of the visiting team’s bullpen from the right field foul territory to a spot behind the existing home team bullpen beyond left-center field — another nuance of the reconfiguration project.

Even there, not all was lost, though, as the other two rows of the Picnic Terrace section were able to remain, thanks to the extra room created in left-center when the fence was moved in. The extra room also means the home bullpen will be slightly wider than before.

The Padres have brought together Petco Park’s original designer — architectural firm Populous — and the original general contractor — Clark Construction — to carry out the fence reconfiguration project, ongoing since late October 2012. Populous is also the firm behind the latest renovation of the University of San Diego’s ballpark, now known as Fowler Park.

By mid-February, work on the fence reconfiguration and bullpen move was largely complete, sending the project into other phases needed before calling it done, like the installation of a new 105-feet-wide-by-7-feet-tall LED display in right field. The display was due to arrive on site on Feb. 18, and the team hopes to have it installed by March 1.

The team is also scheduled to install a new LED-powered ribbon board display and four new speakers along the stadium’s upper right-field fascia.

The project has required the coordinated efforts of not just Guglielmo, the designer and the construction crew, but also the groundskeepers — because the project means relocating irrigation lines and installing a new outfield warning track — the Padres’ engineering staff and the ballpark’s event coordinators.

“Relative to building the ballpark, it is a minor project, but at the same time, there is a lot of work that gets involved and a lot of decision making because we want to make sure it’s done right,” Guglielmo said. ”So I would not classify it as being a minor project.”

If the project produces the desired effect, baseball fans wanting more offense might agree.

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