A look at the ballpark renovations under way at Triple-A Norfolk

More than a few Orioles prospects over the years have been frustrated at times by the degree of difficulty in hitting a home run at Triple-A Norfolk's Harbor Park, the home of the team's International League affiliate.

Starting next season, it will be a little easier to hit one over the wall in Norfolk.

The ballpark is currently undergoing upgrades and improvements that will feature a completely new field with a new natural grass turf and infield dirt, while the fences are being moved in about 10 feet from center field around to the power alleys.

This was needed at a park that opened for play in 1993, according to Norfolk Tides general manager Joe Gregory.

HarborParkLongView.jpg"A lot of stadiums are renovated every seven to eight years. We still had the existing surface from when we opened 21 years ago," Gregory said. "It needed to be addressed and we took the opportunity to get some of Baltimore's input. We have a great partnership with the Orioles.

"We talked with their groundskeeper there and our infield surface, we will make some adjustments to it, to get closer consistency to how it is in Baltimore. We want to make sure that if a shortstop is playing a ground ball in Norfolk, it will be similar to how it plays in Baltimore. As we get into next season, we should have a great-looking field."

As for moving the fences in, that should make the ballpark play as less of a pitcher's park. In 2012, Tides batters averaged 3.9 runs per game at home and 4.3 on the road and Tides pitchers had an ERA of 3.06 at home and 3.80 on the road. In 2013, the Tides scored 4.3 runs per game at home and 4.6 on the road and the ERA difference was 3.63 to 3.99.

The Orioles had definite input into the call to move the fences in, Gregory said.

"They compiled some data and over that time frame (of about five years). We were second to last in home runs (in the International League) and first in triples," Gregory said. "Plus, with the breeze off the Elizabeth River, our center field fence is 410 (will now be 400), but actually played bigger than that."

Orioles director of minor league operations Kent Qualls said when the Orioles learned of the plans for a new playing surface there, they approached the Tides about taking it one step further and that led to the fences being moved in.

"We had some discussions with (Norfolk manager) Ron Johnson and the staff there about how the park plays and we asked if they would consider bringing in the fences to make the park play more as an even park. They were in agreement," Qualls said.

"It is basically about 10 feet in center field and in the left and right-center gaps. For the most part, it plays fine down the line and it was more the gaps and straightaway center where we thought the fences needed to come in some."

HarborParkOutfield.jpgThere was some consideration given to moving the fences in even more than that.

"We took a look at it," Qualls said. "We talked to some of our analytics people. The ballpark actually played less of a pitcher's park this past year than the year before. We went back and looked at a few years, but we think this will make a difference."

Johnson has managed the Tides the last two seasons and when I talked with him about these changes last month, he used the example of Jonathan Schoop as a young player that felt the impact of Harbor Park during the 2013 season when he hit nine homers in 158 road at-bats and none in 112 at-bats in Norfolk.

"Schoop hit numerous balls that were driven to the gaps and were caught," Johnson said. "You can only tell a guy so many times, 'Hey, good swing.' The best reinforcement of all is results. Plus, it's a better evaluation for the pitchers as well."

Johnson also pointed out how these changes might help the Orioles in their efforts to sign minor league free agents.

"This can make it a more attractive situation for six-year (minor league) free agents, the guy you really need at that level that can be a backup/stopgap for your major league team," Johnson said.

"I've talked to numerous guys over the last two years that are really quality players that have told me, 'There's no way I'll come over there.'

"They want to put up numbers and that is a place that numbers can go to die, especially if you are that guy that hits the ball 385 to the gap. So I think this is a really good move."

These renovations should be completed by late this month or early November and will cost about $300,000. The Tides, who just completed their 21st year at that ballpark, are currently working on completing a new long-term lease with the city of Norfolk to continue to play at Harbor Park.

Click here to see pictures of the renovation on the Tides Facebook page.

Click here to see a report on the renovations that aired on WAVY-TV in Norfolk.

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