ALL-STAR GAME: 2004 WORLD SERIES: 2005
Cost: $248 million+
There is a lot to like about this ballpark, but it has, shall we say, "a troubled past." Its origins lie in the not-quite-consummated 1995 sale of the Astros franchise to Northern Virginia businessman William Collins, the same guy who was trying to acquire the Expos from the mid-1990s until 2006. The owner of the Astros, Drayton McLane Jr., pledged to keep the Astros in Houston if public funds were made available for the construction of a new baseball stadium, and voters dutifully approved a bond issue. At least there was a lower public subsidy ratio (68 percent) than in the other neoclassical stadiums. In April 1999 the Enron Corporation agreed to pay over $100 million for the stadium naming rights over a period of 30 years. The scandal-plagued Enron went bankrupt in December 2001, and the Astros had to pay Enron $2.1 million to nullify the deal. During the first half of 2002, their home field was called "Astros Field." In June, the Minute Maid subsidiary of the Coca-Cola Company signed a 28-year agreement with the Astros, and the stadium became known as "Minute Maid Park." To add to the murky intrigue, the stadium is managed by Brown and Root, which is a subsidiary of the Halliburton Company. (!)
The stadium design was heavily influenced by the new downtown location, adjacent to Union Station. In place of the futuristic space-age theme of the Astrodome, there is a nostalgic homage to the railroad era, with an arched stone wall in back of left field. On top that wall sits a replica of an old steam locomotive, which toots and chugs down the track whenever an Astro player hits a home run. Below that arched wall is the visiting team bullpen, which was, apparently, the second such covered bullpen in a major league ballpark, after Busch Stadium II -- the visitors' side, in 1996 and 1997. Claustrophoblic relief pitchers beware! Each of the arches provides room for standing spectators. There is really nothing at all in the stadium design that is connected to the space program, which makes you wonder if they might be considering changing the team name...
Whereas Colt Stadium was "too hot" and the Astrodome was "too dark," Minute Maid Park is "just right," easily adapting to changing weather conditions at the flick of a switch. It was the cheapest of all the retractable dome stadiums, and the total cost was apparently held down by the relatively small total area of the roof, made possible by the cozy outfield dimensions. There are permanent roof sections along three of the four sides, and for the most part, they are not supported by structural beams. There are four beams on the first base side near home plate however, at the point where the tracks along which the retractable roof slides. (See the exposed diagram version, above.) The permanent roof sections on the third base side and beyond right field mesh with the movable roof sections, a very smart design. One distinctive feature of the roof is that its arc is biased, with the apex much closer to the left field wall. This provides for maximum height in the outfield, where long fly balls are usually headed. It takes about 20 minutes to open or close the roof, which consists of two small (120-foot wide) roof sections and one large (240-foot wide) section. When the roof is open, the small sections slide under the big one, extending well beyond the north side of the structure where the scoreboard is. When the roof is closed, the two small sections flank the large central roof section, and the west wall (beyond left field) is enclosed by huge panes of glass. That keeps out the hot, humid, mosquito-infested air, while still giving fans (at least those on the first base side) a view of the Houston skyline.
Minute Maid Park was one of the first stadiums in which large balconies were built into the upper deck, partly to help ushers make sure that seats were occupied by patros who had paid the proper price for tickets in that section, and partly to enhance access for wheelchair-bound patrons. In every other section of the grandstand, the "notch" (seen in the profile view) is filled with normal seats. The big vertical discontinuity explains why the entry portals are not visible in the diagrams above. They do show, however, the stairs (in medium gray) to the upper part of the upper deck.
The sharp angle in the seating sections beyond third base and the short distance and tall (21-foot) wall in left field (complete with Citgo sign!) are an obvious imitation of Fenway Park. (Perhaps this is where the idea for putting seats on top of the "Green Monster" in Boston came from!) The overall shape of the field, with roughly perpendicular outfield walls and a deep center field, is quite reminiscent of Tiger Stadium. There are two significant "jogs" in the fence line, however, and some quirky indentations at the base of the arches in left field. In 2001, the yellow line marking the home run clearance in left-center field (above the bullpen) was raised from 10 feet to 25 feet. Foul territory is among the smallest of any big league ballpark, rivaling Wrigley Field. It is only 49 feet from home plate to the backstop. The vast majority of seats are positioned close to the field, one of the best features of this stadium. There is a small "nosebleed section," however, located in the left field corner of the upper deck where ten or so additional rows of seats are squeezed in. Across the street on the left field side is Union Station, from whence many rooftop fans can view the game, a la Wrigleyville. There is a 422 foot marker on the side of that building. In the corner entrance behind home plate there is a brick clock tower. Other entrances feature lots of fancy wrought iron.
From a player's point of view, Minute Maid Park is clearly a slugger's paradise, favoring both left and right-handed pull hitters. Home runs to right field are faciliated by the relatively short (7-foot) wall on that side. Perhaps the niftiest feature is the slope in deep center field, named "Tal's Hill" in honor of Tal Smith, the Astros' President of Baseball Operations. On that slope, which is an obvious homage to Crosley Field, there is a flag pole just to the left of the center field distance marker. Chasing long fly balls to center field can be a big challenge for players from the visiting team. With the inviting short distances to left and right fields, Minute Maid Park has seen quite a number of high-scoring games. Another quirk that sometimes affects play is the balcony that hangs over deep left center field, hence the purple color coding in the diagram. There are also covered in-play recesses between the supporting arches in front of the bullpen on that side.
In the 1990s, the Astros became regular pennant contenders for the first time in franchise history, and they only got better after moving into their new home. They won the wild card spot in 2004 and 2005, and won the National League pennant for the first time ever in 2005. For a short while, Roger Clemens, Andy Petitte, and Roy Oswalt were the core of a truly awesome pitching rotation. The retirement of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio took a lot of oomph out of the lineup, and the third member of the "Killer Bees," Lance Berkman, was traded to the New York Yankees at the end of July 2010. In 2013, the Astros switched to the American League (West Division) under the terms of franchise sale agreement with new owner Jim Crane. The front office began acquiring top-notch talent, including 2015 Cy Young Winner Dallas Keuchel. The Astros made it to the postseason as a wild card team, beating the Yankees but then falling to the eventual world champion Kansas City Royals.
SOURCES: Lowry (2006); Pastier (2007); Rosen (2002); Cohen (2001)
FAN TIP: Daniel Prescott