Sunday, August 12, 2007

Minute Maid Makes the Grade

Never judge a book by its cover. Checking out a rooftop view from the Magnolia Hotel, only three or four blocks away, Minute Maid Park stands as an indistinguishable contraption with big green stanchions, easily mistakable for a generic warehouse with the retractable roof closed. Hardly an architectural gem from the exterior, my expectations for Minute Maid declined before I ever step foot in the park.

Thankfully, I am open-minded. The Astrodome replacement, while not in my Top 5, makes up for the external aesthetic disaster with a solid ballpark design, combining unique stadium attributes with modern amenities, while maintaining the old time feel. Only saying it is an upgrade from the Astrodome, which had less character than most dog runs in Manhattan, sells Minute Maid short.

Unlike most modern day stadiums located downtown, the streets surrounding the park hardly seem rejuvenated, contributing to the negative vibe felt from afar. Even upon entering, thankfully to a well air-conditioned concourse away from the 100 degree Texas heat, though I felt an immediate buzz of excitement, the concourses are set too far back from the field, making it impossible to watch the action. Other new stadiums, notably San Diego, remedy this with an array of HDTV’s in the concourse, Houston that memo. A detriment to my typical ballpark frolicking, relegating me to a seat.

In line with new stadium trends, Minute Maid has field level seats behind LF, the Crawford boxes, giving fans a chance to watch from the perspective of an outfielder. The obligatory luxury suites and club seating consume the second tier, providing luxury treatment to high paying customers while generating revenue. Standing-room only tickets, with a dedicated section along the left and left-centerfield walls, provide a more cost effective option. I opted for first row, upper-deck, behind the plate, an awesome view of the entire stadium.

Left field immediately draws attention. A plexi-glass wall with a view to downtown Houston, though the view from my studio apartment might be better, provides the background to a plain, cement, gray wall rising above the standing room section beyond the Leftfield wall. The leftfield view tormented me all game, unable to decide if I liked or not. The flags with retired Astro numbers on the cement wall provided a nice touch, but the bland wall belonged in someone’s backyard with a few rose bushed in front of it, not at a stadium. The plexi-glass enclosure provides natural light into the dome - an underrated feature of modern stadiums that builds an outdoor atmosphere without enduring 100-degree heat - creating an illusion, making the stadium feel bigger.

Putting a replica train with a fake Citgo sign sitting above it fails miserably. Rule number one; do not copy Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, or Yankee Stadium. Rule number two, if you break rule number one, at least make a representative effort. Minute Maid Park failed on both accounts. Regarding the train, a salute to Union Station, a Houston historical landmark, find another location, it simply does not fit.

Complaints aside, the ballpark creates a fun, enjoyable baseball atmosphere. A constant buzz of excitement and anticipation fills the stadium, erupting to near pandemonium when the Astros, even during a subpar season, score. With the park about 75% full for a meaningless August game with Chicago generating near-deafening cheers after home runs by Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman, at different points in the game, I can hardly fathom the noise during the playoffs. I envision the decibel level for a big playoff game in Houston, eclipsing the noise factor even at Yankee Stadium, with an assist from the acoustics of dome stadiums, though Houston can never capture the same energy and feel of the Stadium. ‘Stros fans showed a lot with the passion and noise they brought for a disappointing team, well out of contention.

Tal’s Hill in dead centerfield accentuates what makes baseball stadiums special, uniqueness. An uphill in dead centerfield, with a flagpole in play, making for highlight reel catches and exciting sprints around the bases. No other sport provides teams a chance to customize the playing field, Minute Maid Park takes full advantage. The hand-operated leftfield scoreboard comes straight out of the 1950’s, providing the full box score for all out of town games, a coup for baseball geeks like myself. While the enormous video screen and scoreboard caddy-cornered in right centerfield provide the replays, between inning entertainment, and stats that nobody in the information age can live without. Minute Maid quietly provides the modernization without impeding the game, keeping the scoreboards and major advertisements distant from the field, out of mind, out of sight. Of course, lest I forget, the Chick-Fil-A “Fowl” Pole, one indelible mark of the creative advertising at any cost generation we live in.

A Craig Biggio homerun, a few pints, or plastic cups, of Shiner Bock, the sights and sounds of Minute Maid Park, what better Astro experience. To top it off, four more converted fans, colleagues I dragged to the game, who knew more about Luke Skywalker than Luke Scott, and probably prefer staring at blank walls than watching baseball, now anxiously awaiting their next ‘Stros game a Minute Maid.


Post a Comment

<< Home