Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Minute Maid Park

Ground was broken on the Ballpark at Union Station on November 1, 1997, and that morning I'm sure Drayton McLane woke up with a huge *-eating grin on his face.  His baby would soon replace the iconic Astrodome as the home for Astros baseball.  Soon after that, Houston's pride and joy, Enron, purchased the naming rights to the BUS for a whopping $100mm over a 30-year period. I am not going to say my hometown started a huge wave of new MLB stadiums because there were 9 cities that opened ballparks in the 1990s, but twelve new stadiums have been built since Minute Maid Park was opened in 2000 (two others also in 2000). After Enron's blazing crash and burn, Minute Maid purchased the rights to our fair ballpark, which has a new endearing nickname: The Juice Box.

I have seen a few other stadiums in my lifetime - Dodger Stadium, the new Yankee Stadium, the Ballpark at Arlington, the Astrodome, and Citizens Bank Ballpark - but Minute Maid Park is both a unique and well-built stadium.

Location: Located on the east-side of Houston's downtown, MMP has seen its fair share of urban growth in the area: Discovery Park, the Toyota Center, hotels, and other new construction.  Originally surrounded by some shady areas, MMP has quietly become surrounded by high-quality real estate projects and is a somewhat enjoyable area to walk around.

Ballpark:  The ballpark itself is very well built: a retractable roof to escape the stifling Houston humidity and summer heat, red brick aesthetic on the outside, train tracks above left and center field with a train full of oranges to celebrate Astros' home runs and victories, an almost-vinyl texture to its main concourse (not simply concrete), an air-conditioned concourse on its 2nd level, and a beautiful baseball diamond.  Parking around the stadium can be cheap; my dad and I parked for $8 dollars about five blocks from the stadium - outside of most Houstonians' walking comfort zones, and downtown professionals can easily walk to the game from their office buildings. Fans can also enjoy Wifi for their iPads, iPods, and laptops for $3.95 for a four hour period.

The park itself played average last year.  For all the talk of a short left-field porch, the cavernous center field and deep gaps played as the 24th easiest ballpark in which to score a run last year.  Maybe that had something to do with the Astros' anemic offense, but...whatever...

A decade later, I am still very proud to call The Juice Box home to the Astros.

Food: Traditional ballpark food, plus your array of southern cuisine: BBQ, taqueria, fajitas & burritos, buffalo-style chicken tenders that my dad had last night (which were very good), Prince's hamburgers, fish tacos, garlic fries, gourmet popcorn, etc.  An interesting element I have yet to see at any other park is MMP's "Taste of the Road," where the stadium serves cuisine you might find in the visiting team's city.  I imagine they serve cheesesteaks when the Phillies are in town, but my Dad always enjoys getting a Chicago-dog and reminiscing about his days at Northwestern when the Cubbies make their way to Houston.  For the record, I hate the Cubs.  They are the National League version of the Red Sox/Yankees, with fans in every city, eager to drown out the boos and cheers of the home crowd. Plus, "experts" always seem to say this is their year, but they invariably crater in the summer months.

The Game: The advantage in going to an Opening Day game is witnessing a good pitching matchup - in my case, Roy Oswalt vs. Tim Lincecum.  ESPNs marquee tandem, Joe Morgan and Jon Miller, were in town to call the game, so you know that game had some promise.  The stadium seemed too quiet for an opening day game, and part of that is due to Lincecum's sheer dominance.  Lincecum, probably 5'10" and 175, threw seven scoreless innings, gave up four hits, and struck out 7.  A great performance. Roy O got a "quality start," throwing six innings, giving up three earned runs, walking two, and striking out three.  It seems he's lost a little of what made him special for the better part of the decade.  The final score was 5-2, as the Astros tacked on some meaningless runs against Brandon Medders in the 9th. Meaningless unless Medders is on your fantasy team, of course.

Summary:  The food and food selection are good/great, the beer selection is great (although I'm fine with a cold Coors Light), the stadium is well-built in a good part of town, plenty of parking close to the stadium if you lack a parking pass or want to walk from the office, and the concourses are relatively easy to navigate.  After working in Yankee Stadium for seven months, I have learned there is tremendous value in not having concrete concourses. All in all, I think Minute Maid offers a really enjoyable stadium experience.

Location: 7
Ballpark: 8
Food: 8
Game: 7
Overall Experience: 7.5*

*Adjusted upwards ex-post


Alan Blackburn said...

Joe - interesting comments about your experience at Minute Maid last night. I was there as well and had a different experience -

First, I think starting a weeknight game at 6:05 PM is idiotic. One has to deal with downtown rush hour traffic, including 40,000 Metro buses. Also - most of the street parking is not available until 6 PM. The result was a terrible traffic and parking situation. Given how bad the team is this year, the crowds will dwindle quickly so it shouldn't be much of a problem as
the year progresses.

I also thought the lines for food (and the restrooms) were incessantly long last night for most of the game. Maybe that was a function of the game time and more people eating dinner at the game.

The weather was perfect but otherwise I thought it was one of my worst experiences ever at Minute Maid. What happened on the field didn't help either. I think the Astros will struggle to win 70 games this year.

Courtney has told me about your trip. It sounds like a blast. I look forward to reading your blogs about it. It'll be interesting to read how you think other stadium experiences compare to ours.

Alan Blackburn

Joe Herman said...

Appreciate the comment, Mr. Blackburn!

Every experience is different. My Dad and I arrived right at 6:00, and parking wasn't really a problem for us. We sat up in the Club Level with the air-conditioned concourse and servers, so the lines weren't a problem.

We both wanted to watch the basketball game, so we left around 8:00, right at the beginning of the 7th inning. We didn't have any problems leaving the park. I agree, though, things were crazy around game time. Our parking lot was full upon arrival, but pretty desolate when we left. Obviously, a ton of working professionals were still downtown and I'm sure it was a nightmare for them to leave.

I'm sure some of my post was speaking from previous experiences, but personally, my night last night really wasn't bad.

Things should be back to normal next homestand, and that's the type of experience I hope to get at the other parks.

And finally, on the 'Stros - I hope you're wrong, but I think you're probably right.

Hope everything's going well.

Alan said...

I see you have Rob Neyer linked on your blog. Ever read any of his books? I read his "Baseball's Dynasties" book several years ago (written with Eddie Epstein) and thought it was great. At the time - based on their Bill Jamesian approach - if my memory serves me correctly they had the 1998 Astros ranked as the 100th best team of all time. I'm sure that since then they would have fallen off of the list.

Both authors rank the all time best teams and each independently pick the same team to be the best all time. If you haven't read it I won't spoil it for you. Hint: It's not the 1927 Yankees or the 1961 Yankees.

You should read it if you haven't, great book.

Joe Herman said...

I read his Guide to Pitchers for my thesis, but haven't read the dynasties book. Would be good reading for the trip...is the #1 team a pre-World Series team?

Alan said...

Joe - not sure what you mean by the "pre-World Series" team question. I will say that the team they each independently picked as the all-time best team won the WS in that particular year.

Joe Herman said...

Not sure what I meant either, but my guess is the '98 Yankees. I think they got swept in their first series of the season and then went on to win 114 games.