Baseball boasts a substantial distinction among all major team sports, particularly those played in America. It’s the only such sport played in a non-uniform arena. That is, ballpark dimensions vary from one park to another.
When Minute Maid Park opened in 2000, the Astros took full advantage of this architectural liberty by including a 30-degree incline in center field that affectionately became known as Tal’s Hill–named after the team’s owner, who proposed the idea. Sitting atop the hill was a flag pole, unabashedly in the field of play, right in front of a “436” marker, denoting the deepest center field fence in the majors. Many outfielders navigated Tal’s Hill over the years, with a few emerging victorious in some of the more iconic catches of baseball history that I strongly encourage you to look up on YouTube.
Unfortunately for one camp of fans, and perhaps fortunately for center fielders in the other, the hill was removed after the 2016 season in a major renovation of that end of the park. But even now, the Astros still play in one of the nation’s quirkiest ballparks, and I had the great joy of attending their penultimate home game of the 2018 regular season last weekend in Houston.
My first visit to Minute Maid Park, in 2011, left me impressed with the city’s fan base. That year, the Astros were in the midst of a 106-loss season but still drew 30,000 fans to a midweek matchup against the Nationals.
This year, with the team defending a World Series title and again in first place in the AL West, the large crowds were no surprise.
A storm rolled in from the west, threatening the mild atmosphere of the overcast Houston afternoon, so I took shelter under ample covering at the center field entrance to the park as a large gathering awaited the opening of the gates.
Just outside that entrance is a grassy, shady courtyard with a mockup of the right side of an infield, featuring Craig Biggio turning a two at second base. Paralleling the first base line of this static display is a line of windows that peer into the left field concourse of the stadium.
Aside from the petite Crawford boxes down the line, there is no left field seating, just an elevated concourse that looks straight down onto the field of play. Thus, you can easily see home plate from anywhere on that concourse and from the exterior of the park through these windows. Inside, batting practice was getting underway.
Minute Maid is one of the few retractable-roof ballparks in the league and, from my standpoint, the one that best blends into an urban location. Perhaps more importantly, the climate-controlled park provides an aesthetic refuge from the harsh elements of a Houston summer. On this day, pregame activities would have all been indoors were it not for the roof.
With antsy fans dodging the drops under the motley covering outdoors, the event staff then did something I’ve never before witnessed at Major League Baseball stadium–they opened the gates early to allow fans to escape the weather. So at 3:45 for a 6:10 start, I walked through the center field entrance.
The aforementioned freedom with which ballparks are designed is mostly manifested in the outfield, where dimensions are fluid within reasonable constraints. Beyond the playing field, though, teams unveil their creativity in the outfield architecture, creating a hopefully-memorable backdrop for their home games.
As far as ballpark structures go, Houston does this as well as any team in the league with train tracks running atop a bridge over the left field concourse. The bridge is laden with a concrete-looking facade adorned with advertisements that blend well enough chromatically to not detract from the western-vibe the railroad provides. If that weren’t enough, the train atop the tracks, whose car is loaded with Minute Maid oranges, actually moves–and does when the Astros hit a home run.
Walking through the left field concourse gives a genuine feel of walking under a bridge, with the arches revealing an unobstructed view of the field. The arches actually provide some of the best standing-room-only vantage points in baseball, which are accessible to any fan in the stadium. And the last arch before the batter’s eye, in fact, is designed specifically for standing fans. A platform juts out slightly from the concourse with enough room for a dozen or so fans to lean up on its railing. Sitting in the middle of the platform is the home run pump, a giant Phillips 66 gas pump digitally displaying the number of home runs the Astros have hit in Minute Maid Park’s existence.
It was from here that I began the batting practice viewing portion of the evening. The Astros were still hitting on the field as fans were let in, so I stood at the pump analyzing the most likely dinger landing spots.
While the left field architecture is appealing to the eye from afar, it’s frustrating up close for the likes of baseball-snaggers.
Down the line, the Crawford Boxes are just 315 feet from the plate, atop a 19-foot wall. And these left field seats are only a few rows deep. So an average batting practice home run sails over these seats either onto the tracks or off one of the billboards. And because the section is so short, balls usually bypass the seats again on their bounce back to the field.
Home runs that do land in the seats are usually snatched up quickly by fans because they’re so confined in a small area.
Thus, the concourse is actually a much more viable place to try to catch a right-handed batter’s home run–there’s much more room to maneuver. But while the archways are tall enough to allow fly balls to easily pass through, advertisements hang down to hinder some that would. Especially towards the center field end of the concourse, it would take a precise shot to actually reach the people.
In straight-away left, one of the archways above the Crawford Boxes is actually double-wide, so some BP homers skip off empty seats and through it onto the concourse. During the Astros’ session, the only balls that reached the walkway did so this way.
Because of that, the home-run tracking experience in left field at Minute Maid Park is actually quite like that on top of Boston’s Green Monster, where a walkway behind the short section of seats is an enticing spot to snag fly balls that make their way over the fans congregated beneath. But at both stadiums, the hindered forward-backward mobility makes any successful home run catch a bit of a lucky circumstance.
Following Tal’s Hill’s demolition before the 2017 season, the team added a multi-tiered bar/restaurant fan hangout in center field. On the main concourse level, the Budweiser Brew House offers a range of beers as well as cookout-inspired hot dog and french fry items, loaded with an assortment of toppings that should require a cholesterol check before the team blindly trades you a heart attack on a plate for a few dollars.
Should you fall for the eye appeal of these dishes, if you can dignify their value with that term, a sizeable standing room area overlooks the field just behind the bar to give you as good a place as any to eat while watching the action.
Much like the Red Porch restaurant at Nationals Park, the Brew House features tiered tables for fans to sit at, order food, and watch the game. But unlike in D.C., fans must have designated Brew House tickets, sold as group reservations, to access this seating area.
Directly above the Brew House sits Torchy’s, a Texas taqueria, serving a smorgasbord of tacos and drinks. This area is open to all fans and also overlooks the field from dead center, sitting high above the action.
Between Torchy’s and the Brew House, Astros fans have fun food options beyond usual normal ballpark fare, but elsewhere the team has spiced up the cuisine as well. Behind the Brew House is Shake Shack, a New York-based burger chain that I previously thought was only popular on the east coast, which both the Mets and Nats have embraced in their parks. Chick-fil-a is also offered in several places in both the main and mezzanine concourses, as are gourmet cookies served alongside Blue Bell ice cream, a popular Texas brand.
If I had come with more of an appetite, and cash, I would have tried my mouth at the street eats stand on the main concourse, serving items such as popcorn chicken and mashed potatoes within a waffle cone–an abrasive caloric assault even to my southern-born stomach.
In the seven years since I first visited Minute Maid, the park has really upped its food game–almost necessarily given the heightened focus on ballpark comfort and entertainment over the last decade-plus. But beyond the specialized food, the Astros have done an exceptional job by offering the enhanced options on the upper deck concourse, an area often neglected by other ballparks around the league.
Be it on that upper concourse, out behind the batter’s eye in center, or on the main level behind home plate, lines for those concession stands were full…full of attentive and adorned fans.
Yes, the Astros are a first-place team, but a sold-out crowd of 43,000 is impressive regardless. And the fact that the only other Astros gave I’ve attended drew 30,000 in the midst of a 100-loss season tells me that crowds are a rule rather than an exception.
These fans, geriatric men and millenial women alike, clad in orange and white jerseys, were not just there to be there. They came to Minute Maid Park intentionally to watch good baseball.
When I stood out in left field’s standing room, I was flanked by small children screaming in support of their favorite players below and Japanese tourists eager to capture action shots of the visiting Shohei Ohtani on their shiny Nikons.
Perhaps most refreshingly, the number of fans I witnessed immersed in their smartphones during the game was significantly down from what I’ve seen elsewhere in recent years.
As far as baseball games in the 21st Century go, it was blissful and pure. And the evening carried with it enough of a twang to remind you of your whereabouts, highlighted by the compulsory singing of “Deep in the Heart of Texas” following “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
The only unfortunate part of such a raucous atmosphere was that I had to wait until an eighth-inning collapse by the Astros bullpen to successfully seat upgrade.
Those who stayed past Mike Trout’s go-ahead bomb and a 5-1 Angels lead heading to the bottom of the eighth, including me, were rewarded for their loyalty. Houston saw Los Angeles’ five runs and raised them five more, capping the monstrous inning with a Jose Altuve home run that bounced off the train bridge and back onto the grass in left field.
The remaining crowd, still about 25,000 strong, stayed on their feet for the top of the ninth when closer Roberto Osuna mowed down the last of the Angels, an achievement the front end of Houston’s bullpen had failed to do the inning prior. And, due to that swollen eighth, the Astros finished off Los Angeles in just over four hours of play.
As I navigated the torrent of tired fans departing the stadium, I kept my eyes peeled for noteworthy apparel because, regardless of the venue, there are always outliers who choose to sport an alternative team’s wear. To my surprise, I did see one Marlins jersey. But even more surprising, I saw two fans in quick succession wearing Montreal Expos gear. My interest was further piqued the next morning as I strode through Buffalo Bayou Park downtown when I passed a biker wearing an Expos t-shirt. Is there a transplant of French Canadians in Houston?
While reading up on Minute Maid Park later, I learned that before the site for the stadium was secured in the 1990’s, the Astros were nearly sold to a Virginia businessman keen on moving the team to Washington, D.C. Had that happened, of course, either the Expos would have remained in Quebec or would have relocated elsewhere. But Minute Maid Park, therefore, all but ensured the Expos’ move to D.C.
So beyond its unique architecture and exquisite western, Americana themes, I have Minute Maid Park to thank for a hometown ball club. Although, perhaps if the park were not built, the Nationals would now be defending a World Series title. If only…