Astros begin $19-million renovation in CF

Tal's Hill is being removed as club looks to enhance fan experience

Astros begin $19-million renovation in CF

HOUSTON -- In trying to keep up with a fanbase that increasingly considers attending baseball games a social event, as well as the rapid changes going on around Minute Maid Park, the Astros on Monday broke ground on their $19-million project to renovate the area behind center field, which includes the removal of Tal's Hill and bringing in the center-field fence.

The renovations, which will be complete in time for the 2017 season, will make the areas beyond the center-field wall more accessible and more attractive to fans who want to watch the game from a different perspective while socializing with other fans.

Shortly after Astros owner Jim Crane, team president Reid Ryan and senior vice president of business operations Marcel Braithwaite -- with the help of mascot Orbit -- ceremoniously turned over some dirt on the famous hill, workers began digging it up and removing the outfield-wall padding. The three flag poles, one of which was in play, will also be removed.

"We wanted to create a better walk-up experience, so this will really enhance the stadium," Crane said. "We think it's really good for the fans, particularly, and creates a lot more opportunity. They can see more all the way around the ballpark a lot easier."

Although seats will be removed, the capacity of the ballpark won't change because of standing-ticket options. The playing field will be affected, though. The distance to straightaway center field will be reduced to 409 feet from 436 feet, which was the longest in baseball.

The Astros are hoping the improved viewing options, new food and drink choices and the addition of escalators will help make the center-field area a better option to watch the game. Club officials visited 20 ballparks in the last couple of years to get ideas for the project, which was originally scheduled to begin a year ago. The Astros made the playoffs and it was delayed.

The renovations come at a time when the area around the ballpark continues to change as townhomes, apartments and hotels are being built near Crawford Street, which runs behind left field. Fans that walk from surrounding properties will now have easy access to the ballpark via center field.

"There was really no communal gathering spot inside the ballpark," Ryan said. "We need to figure out as an industry how to continue to grow our fan base for the millennials, and we think this is a step in the right direction where they want TVs, they want craft beer, they want food choices, they want an experience where they can come out and visit and watch the game and stay after and come early."

The Astros have made numerous upgrades to the ballpark in recent years, including renovating the Diamond Club behind home plate, the club level and the home clubhouse. Eventually, Crane said he would like to renovate the suites. The team is also interested in adding a Hall of Fame at some point.

"We think better days are ahead for this part of town, and so we want to be innovative and keep putting money back in this facility and that's one of the challenges," Ryan said. "If you look around at everything [Crane has] done with the ballpark since he got here and what he's done with the team the last couple of years, he's really put his money where his mouth is. And we think this is the next step making that fan experience better."

In the coming weeks, the Astros will announce how fans can obtain commemorative pieces of the outfield padding, flag poles and the dirt on Tal's Hill as keepsakes.

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.