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.
Overall Experience: 7.5*
*Adjusted upwards ex-post