Minute Maid Park is a bandbox of a ballpark with two distinct personalities depending on whether its retractable roof is open or closed.
Built on the eastern edge of downtown Houston, the baseball-only facility actually looks like a football stadium on the outside, as Minute Maid Park appears more rectangular than the traditional square shaped footprint that ballparks occupy.
The shape of the ballpark is due to the 242-foot high retractable roof that can open or close in about 20 minutes. The roof, which cost $65 million, retracts completely off the ballpark when open, which is supposedly 60 percent of the time.
With the roof open, Minute Maid Park is one of the premier ballparks in baseball, featuring unobstructed downtown views of the nation’s fourth largest city. From the upper deck you can watch traffic lights changing in a timed sequence on Prairie Street, which is the road behind the left field wall leading away from the ballpark.
When the retractable roof is closed, Minute Maid Park loses much of its appeal. Although 50,000 square feet of glass running the length of the ballpark’s west wall still gives fans a view of the Houston skyline, the feel of the ballpark is quite different. Imagine swimming in an indoor pool opposed to an outdoor pool and you’ll have an idea of the change in atmosphere. Unfortunately, indoor baseball is a frequent necessity in the summer due to Houston’s oppressive heat.
The best part about the ballpark’s design is the unique features that make up the backdrop of Minute Maid Park’s outfield, the most noticeable of which is the cream-colored wall, about 800 feet in length, with arches cut into it.
Atop the wall, a replica 1860s locomotive with a linked coal car runs along a makeshift railroad track. The coal car looks like it is filled with pumpkins, which in actuality are oranges (due to Minute Maid’s sponsorship), and the train shugs down the track whenever an Astro hits a home run.
Below the train tracks is the home run alley, which features the Conoco Home Run Porch in left-center field. The porch is actually over the field of play and has a classic gasoline pump (the Conoco Home Run Pump), which records all Houston Astros home runs that have been hit at the ballpark since it opened on April 7, 2000. The total is digitally displayed on the pump (601 homers as of August 20, 2005).
Banners of the Astros all-time home run leaders hang in the walkway of the alley, which runs parallel to Crawford Street in left field. That street was the inspiration for the name of the Crawford Boxes, the popular seating section in left field located only 315 feet from home plate.
The approximately 2,500 seats that make up the Crawford Boxes sell out quickly and are where fans congregate to watch batting practice.
Directly below the seating for the Crawford Boxes is a hand-operated scoreboard that features line scores of all American and National League games. Immediately after the Astros’ game ends, the numbers in the scoreboard are removed.
There are lots of great places to stand for spectators along the alley, which is the main entrance point for fans entering Minute Maid Park through the Union Station gate in left field.
The railroad theme for the ballpark sprung out of the Astros’ decision to utilize Union Station, an authentic 1911 railroad station where everything is original except the floor. Team officials estimate that approximately 60 percent of fans enter Minute Maid Park via Union Station's 45-foot-high lobby, which dates to the time period when railroads constituted the city's largest industry.
The lobby is connected to a six story building that houses the official Astros’ team store, The Shed, on the first floor. The Shed features lots of retro Astros gear, including the famous multi-colored uniforms of the team’s past.
The sixth floor features the Roof Deck and Club House at Union Station, where private groups of up to 100 can watch the game from just beyond the ballpark, but only when the roof is open.
The playing field itself is one of the more unique aspects of Minute Maid Park, where center field is 436 feet away from home plate thanks to a 30-degree grass-covered incline known as Tal’s Hill.
Named after Astros president Tal Smith, who came up with the idea, the hill is a tribute to Crosley Field and features a flagpole in fair territory. The flagpole is just two feet from the center field fence and was inspired by Tiger Stadium.
Just to the right of Tal’s Hill is the 9 Amigos Centerfield Patio, where $95 will buy you a ticket to the game, a three-course meal and one drink. The four-level patio is generally reserved for parties, but if it’s not pre-sold tables are available on a first come, first served basis - provided you have at least four people per table willing to spend a minimum of $30 each.
The patio has been a hit with fans since the ballpark’s 2000 opening, but for the first two years it was run by Ruggles Grill.
The food service at the patio isn’t the only thing that’s changed over the years, as the ballpark has endured three names in its short history.
Originally opened as Enron Field, the identity crisis began on December 2, 2001 when Enron became the largest corporation in history to declare bankruptcy. Amidst the scandal the Astros bought back naming rights from Enron for $2.1 million and for the first two months of 2002 the ballpark was simply known as Astros Field.
On June 5, 2002, the Astros signed a deal with Minute Maid to rename the ballpark yet again. I’ve made three trips to watch the Astros and each time the ballpark has had a different name, but after spending $170 million over 28 years my educated guess is that the Astros will be playing at "Minute Maid Park" through at least 2030.
Despite their capital investment, Minute Maid orange juice is not available at the ballpark, although their brand of lemonade is. And since Minute Maid is a subsidiary of Coke, the cola of choice in Houston is obvious.
A pleasant surprise awaiting fans in Houston is the fairly inexpensive prices of tickets, especially in the upper deck, where brick walls split the 300 and 400 levels, and access is mainly provided by a few stairwells.
From the upper deck, the field is very well backlit at night. Easy to notice electronic boards display MPH readings along with the pitch type, adding to the fan experience.
Running the length of the wall behind the right field bleachers are a pair of large scoreboards, their placement adding to the rectangular feel of the ballpark. If you sit in the third base grandstands it looks like the scoreboards are placed in the "end zone" on the opposite side of the field, making it easy to envision a football field set-up in this baseball-only stadium.
Above the seats in the upper level third base grandstand, the Astros display the retired numbers of seven former players: Jim Umbricht (32), Don Wilson (40), Jose Cruz (25), Nolan Ryan (34), Mike Scott (33), Larry Dierker (49), Jimmy Wynn (24).
Modern and classic features have given Houston's first downtown ballpark a nice touch, but the Astros went a little overboard in 2004 when Wi-Fi (wireless Internet access) was enabled throughout the ballpark, allowing fans unlimited use of the Internet on their PDAs for a fee of $3.95 a game.
One fun fan feature that has been a staple over the years at Astros games occurs following the 7th inning stretch, when the team pays homage to their roots by playing “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”
There’s no doubt that hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park is an upgrade over the Astrodome, which still stands relatively unused 8 miles away. When it opened in 1965 the Dome was considered the “eighth wonder of the world,” and ushered in a new era of stadium construction. Its Astroturf playing surface even changed the way the game was played.
Minute Maid Park has returned a more traditional form of baseball to Houston. While playing the game on grass is good, baseball played in the open air is truly an experience to cherish. If Houston's weather cooperates so the roof can be open, the Astros ballpark is a great place to watch a ballgame. Just don't plan on seeing any Sunday afternoon games here.