A 4:30am wake-up call is nothing fun after a night in NOLA, but we had to do it in order to make the 1pm game in Houston. It was about a 5 hour drive to Minute Maid Park, and it was impossible to miss since it’s huge retractable roof was completely visible from literally feet away from the I-10 ramp. This ballpark replaced the Astrodome – the first domed stadium in baseball – in 2000, and it’s definitely one of the nicer venues we’ve seen so far (too bad the team is one of the worst in the league). The green steel used in the structure is unique to any other stadium, but the amount of brick used is crazy. An old brick railroad station from 1911, Union Station, has been converted to a children’s play area, team store, and some executive offices (shown below to the right). I love when teams build their venues around a historic landmark of the city, like San Diego did with the Western Metal Supply Building and Baltimore did with the B&O Warehouse. It really adds a nice charm to the stadium, giving it a special relationship with the city, no matter how new the venue may be.
Even though the stadium is smaller than the other parks with retractable roofs, its roof reveals a larger opening than any other can when it’s opened. It uses 3-panel technology like Safeco Field in Seattle, spans over 6 acres, and weighs over 18 million pounds. But unlike Seattle, the roof closes completely air-tight to maintain the comfy air-conditioned temperatures and keep the horrible humidity out. The huge, 50,000 sq. foot glass window in left field actually retracts too, sliding all the way to center field, opening up a view of downtown Houston.
The first-level concourse contains some pretty cool attractions, including Home Run Alley where Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio have some honorable displays. Bagwell played all 15 years for the Astros, holding club records for career home runs (449) and RBIs (1,529) among others, along with single-season records for batting average (.368), homers (47), and almost every other category as well. Biggio is one of only 28 players in the 3,000 hit club, and recorded the first hit at Minute Maid. He also became the first player in history to play an entire 162-game season without hitting into a single double play. An oversized Conoco gas pump – known as the Home Run Pump – is also situated on the concourse, but right next to the left-center field railing so it’s in clear view from almost every seat. It contains a small electronic display of the number of Astros’ home runs that have been hit in Minute Maid Park since it opened in 2000 (which after today’s game is at 1,150).
Another unique aspect of the ballpark is on the field. In straightaway center is a rising 20-degree sloped embankment, known as Tal’s Hill after former longtime team president and general manager Tal Smith. This, along with the flagpole that rises out of it (yes, there is a flag pole on the field in play) certainly offer some dangerous obstacles for a center fielder, but nobody’s been injured by them just yet. The fact that they’re about 430 feet from home plate definitely helps this cause.
The home run celebration here is much cooler than the big rising apple at Citi Field. Paying homage to the locomotive history of Houston (and to the Minute Maid sponsors), a 50,000-pound replica 19th century train engine towing a coal car filled with fake oranges big enough to be pumpkins chugs along an 800-foot track from center field to left whenever an Astro hits a long ball. A real conductor actually operates it, waiting for his moment of glory throughout every bottom-half inning. The HD video screen is also something spectacular, sitting above the right field bleachers as the 2nd largest in the majors (behind KC) at 124 feet wide by 54 feet high. Sitting in the nosebleeds behind home plate, you can see the pimples on the players’ faces when they’re featured on this monstrosity.
The ballpark food ranged generally stayed along the southern BBQ theme, ranging from a variety of different dogs to a barbecue stuffed potato loaded with cheddar, pulled pork, bbq sauce, sauteed onions, and jalapenos. But we decided to go to the Southside Carvery stand, where my dad got a sliced turkey sandwich and I got a beef brisket sandwich, both topped with sweet bbq sauce and served with kettle chips and a pickle on the side.
Our tickets were for the front row of the upper deck, but our row was completely packed with people while almost every other section in the entire stadium was almost empty… so we moved back and spread out and pretty much had a section of our own.
As I said before, the Astros have been one of the worst teams in baseball for the past few years, and are the oldest big-league team to never win a World Series. Coming into this game, they’ve lost 12 straight – a franchise high – going up against a surprisingly good Pirates ballclub (who haven’t finished a season in 2nd place since 1997, but are currently just 3 games behind first). The Astros threw Lucas Harrell, their most consistent starter this season, against the Pirates’ James McDonald who has been struggling bad since the All-Star Break. Down by 1, the Pirates’ Garrett Jones hit a 2-run 455-ft. bomb to right field, but was followed by Jordan Schafer’s 2-run long ball in the next half-inning (shown below) to give the lead right back to the ‘stros. I would also like to point out the Schafer is the guy who was completely robbed of a hit by Gregor Blanco during Matt Cain’s perfect game we attended earlier in the summer.
The pitchers continued to struggle, allowing 23 combined hits, 11 combined walks, and 14 combined runs. Definitely a fun game to watch, and very surprising with some usually bad teams.
Final score: Astros 9, Pirates 5
Starting pitchers: Lucas Harrell – 5.2 IP, 5 H, 3 BB, 2 ER, 5 Ks; James McDonald – 5 IP, 6 H, 7 BB, 5 ER, 5 Ks
Homers: Garrett Jones, Jordan Schafer
Right after the game, we headed straight to Austin about 3 hours away to stay the night. We picked up my friend Matt who goes to the University of Texas, and met a friend of my dad’s at a place called by Moonshine for dinner. I had Pecan Crusted Catfish, with a side of baked mac n’ cheese, which were both awesome.
Arlington tomorrow for a division rival game between the Texas Rangers and the LA Angels!