Sunday, July 11, 2010

Minute Maid Park

St. Louis Cardinals @ Houston Astros
August 30, 2007

Astros 2, Cardinals 1

W: Matt Albers
L: Joel Pineiro
S: Brad Lidge
HR: Lance Berkman (HOU)
Attendance: 37,520
Time of Game: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Stadium Facts

Location: Houston, TX
First Game: April 7, 2000
Capacity: 40,950
Type: Retractable roof
Surface: Grass

At long last, my 30 ballpark tour came to an end in Houston. Following a few days in the Dallas area, I drove down to Houston for a Thursday afternoon game between the Astros and Cardinals. As has been the case on several of these long baseball trips, I was a bit worn down by the end of this one. So I didn't spend a lot of time exploring Houston. Not that it would have been terribly pleasant to do so anyway in the late August heat. I drove straight to Minute Maid Park, which is located right in the heart of downtown Houston.

Minute Maid Park is another one of the modern retractable roof stadiums. From the exterior, it looks much like Chase Field in Arizona. In other words, it doesn't really look like a baseball stadium. But, again just like Arizona, the choice to build a retractable roof stadium in Houston made a lot sense. Unfortunately, the roof was closed the entire time I was in the stadium, so I didn't get a sense what the park would feel like with the roof open. I've said it before, but I'll say it one more time: I do not like indoor baseball. When the roof is closed at Minute Maid Park, it feels exactly like a closed dome stadium. There are large glass windows in left field allowing some of the natural sunlight to seep in, but other than that, you aren't going to be fooled into thinking you are outside when the roof is closed.

Originally called Enron Field, they quickly changed the ballpark sponsorship and name following the energy company's demise. Minute Maid Park replaced another stadium that was once considered a marvel of modern architecture some 35 years earlier, the Astrodome. While Minute Maid Park did not take on many of the characteristics of the Astrodome, it does have a few quirks that are reminiscent of other historic parks, namely an inclined hill in straight away center field that outfielders must scale as they run back for balls hit near the wall. On that same hill is an in-play flag pole, much like the one they had at old Tiger Stadium.

Another historic aspect of the stadium is it's connection to the train industry. The main entrance of the stadium was once part of Houston's old Union Station. In a tribute to that history, the stadium features a large wall in left field with a replica train that runs along the top of the wall whenever an Astros player hits a home run.

This is one of the more unique modern stadiums in terms of the design and seating arrangement. It is not an especially large park with a capacity just over 40,000. There are very few seats in left to left-center field, just the Crawford Boxes in left field. These seats are situated above a fairly tall wall in left, but are frequent recipients of home run balls due to the short distance to the wall. There are a lot of great standing room vantage points in left field too. Large arches in the wall allow people to see the field from the outfield concourse. There are two levels of seating in right field, and the standard three levels around the rest of the park. Although I didn't get to check out the view from there, the club level seats seem to be especially close to the field in this stadium. Overall, it doesn't appear that there are many bad seats in this park. I sat out in the lower level in right field.

The interesting design of the seating area also creates a very unique playing surface. Besides the hill and flag pole in center field, there are a lot of other interesting aspects of the outfield. In many locations in left field, there are literally lines on the wall to indicate what is a home run and what is in play. Moving out towards center from the Crawford Boxes, the wall dimensions shoot out quit a bit and there are several corners where balls can take funny bounces. Minute Maid Park is generally considered a good hitters park, but that is mostly because of the short porch in left. The rest of the field is relatively pitcher friendly. It is 436 feet from the plate to the wall in dead center, which is about as deep of a distance as you will find in all of baseball. Oh, and the playing surface is real grass, as opposed to the Astrodome which introduced AstroTurf to the world.

I have one small logistical gripe from this particular game that I feel compelled to share. As I always do, I bought a program before the game, but was shocked to find out it was $10 (at least twice the normal price). Later I discovered I was given an Astros yearbook rather than a program. So when I went back to try to make an exchange, I was informed that they didn't have any programs left. They had sold out of them a day or two earlier on Craig Biggio Day when they commemorated his 3,000 hit. I guess they don't have many printing presses on call in Houston. Anyway, the yearbook didn't have a scorecard, so I had to buy one of them as well. It had to have been the first stand-alone scorecard I had ever seen that didn't include a place to write in the pitchers and their stats, so I had to do that separately on the roster sheet, as you can see in my photos below. So that situation was a little odd, but back to more important things...

This game featured two NL Central rivals who had been the pride of the division in recent years, each having won a pennant over the previous two seasons. However, both came into this one below .500. In fact, the Astros had just fired their manager, Phil Garner, earlier that week. That didn't keep the fans away though. Over 37,000 were present for this Thursday afternoon rubber match of the three game series. The pitching matchup featured Matt Albers for the Astros and Joel Pineiro for the Cardinals.

Both starters pitched quite well in this one. The Astros got on the board first in the bottom of the second inning. Following a Mike Lamb walk, Luke Scott doubled down the left field line to knock in Lamb, but was thrown out at third trying to stretch it into a triple. The lead didn't last long though. In the top of the third, the eighth place hitter, Pineiro, led off with a single and advanced to third on a double by Brendan Ryan. Pineiro scored on a David Eckstein ground out. So Tony LaRussa's unusual batting order with the pitcher hitting 8th paid off this time.

Lance Berkman gave the Astros the lead in the fourth inning when he led off with a long home run to right field to give the Astros a 2-1 lead. Surprisingly, that score held up the rest of the game. After that, neither team had multiple hits in an inning until the 8th. The Cards got a couple singles off reliever Chad Qualls, but could not score. Craig Biggio had a pinch hit infield single in the bottom of the 8th for the Astros, but he was stranded as well. Then Brad Lidge pitched a 1-2-3 ninth to record the save and preserve an Astros win.

2007 was a very disappointing season for both of these teams. With the loss, the defending World Series champion Cardinals fell two games below .500, but remarkably they were only three games out of first place. They did not pick up the pace in September though and finished a distant third. The Astros finished even further behind the leaders and wound up in fourth place.

Following my brief stay in Houston, I flew to Chicago the next morning and spent the weekend in South Bend for the Notre Dame football season opener. So after thousands upon thousands of miles traveled by car, plane, train and foot, I had finally completed my six year, 30 MLB ballpark tour. It was a very rewarding experience and certainly something I would recommend to any big baseball fan. I have often been asked if I would consider doing something like this for other sports and the answer is no. For one thing, I don't love any other sport like I do baseball. But besides that, no sport features venues with such unique characteristics. Only in baseball is each playing field completely different. And similarly, the ballpark surrounding these fields are so much more interesting than those used for football, basketball or hockey.

So that pretty much wraps it up. But not really! I will continue to use this blog to add my visits to new stadiums that have opened since I completed my tour in 2007. Already by the time I finished, one stadium I had visited had been replaced (St. Louis) and another was scheduled to open the following year (Washington). In order to continue to be able to say I've been to every MLB stadium, I have been visiting each of these new parks as they have opened. So I actually have four more stadium reviews to write (Washington, St. Louis and both New York parks), plus I'll be adding Minnesota to that list later this week. So more to come soon!

Photo Album

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Next stadium: Nationals Park, Washington