|Minute Maid lacks the juice|
By Eric Neel
Page 2 staff
Editor's Note: This is the 29th report card in Page 2's summerlong series rating all 30 ballparks in Major League Baseball.
HOUSTON -- "There are no zoning laws in Houston."
These were the first words out of my cabbie's mouth (after, "Where to?") on the drive in from George Bush Intercontinental Airport the other day. (And not for nothing, but isn't "Intercontinental" a much better airport word than "International"? Isn't there something more Battle Star Galactica about it?)
"You get brothels next to yogurt shops," the cabbie continued. "They don't call 'em brothels, of course -- they call 'em Stress Reduction Clinics -- but that's what they are. Anything goes -- bookstores, auto mechanics and head shops right alongside each other."
My old friend Elizabeth, who's new to Houston, said the same thing when she took me on a driving tour of the city.
"New and old, commercial and residential. You don't really get neighborhoods or districts here," she said. "I think it's part of the charm of the place, but there are sometimes when I think it doesn't quite hang together, too."
I felt the same way about Minute Maid Park. It's got a funky mix of features, most of which are pretty appealing. But some of them just don't quite work.
For example, the sloped hill in the outfield (it's called Tal's Hill after team president Tal Smith, who allegedly added the hill to park blueprints on a whim, expecting it would be taken out before construction) ... I'm down with it, because it adds a sort of beer-league degree of difficulty, making superstar outfielders look just as goofy as the rest of us every once in a while.
But the flagpole sticking up out of the hill? That's just silly.
The balcony that reaches out over the field of play in left is a good call.
The 24-ton train running a coal car full of oranges along the top of the left-field wall? Not so much.
Overall, though, it's more charming than not.
Here are the scores:
1. Access: "There are lots and lots of parking lots," the cop on the street outside the park told me. The Houston Metro (buses) offers ballpark-and-ride service, but the cop told me there are about 25,000 parking spots within walking distance and "everybody drives." Points: 4
2. Exterior architecture: It's a jumble of red brick, sandy stone, and pale green steel, but it snuggles up nicely to the old Union Station, and the awkward parts are really just a function of the impressive retractable roof. 4
3. Interior architecture: About that roof -- it's not just the roof that rolls back, it's the entire wall, stretching from the left-field foul pole to deep center. And the wall is glass, thank you very much, so when the lid's on, there's still plenty of light coming in and a view of downtown Houston to look out on.
When I wasn't watching the game on the field, I was watching the leading edge of tropical storm Grace buzz the skyline. Dramatic stuff. And I like the placement of the scoreboard, and all the other bells and whistles, in right (leaving left and center analog and uncluttered) so much, I'm going to forgive the flag pole and train and award 5 points here because (unlike Arizona) they managed to make the place feel intimate and basebally even when it's all closed up.
4. Tickets: I paid $15 for what felt like about a $12 upper-deck seat, and I thought the up-highs were up too high. But I'll award bonus points for the $5 hoi polloi seats in the outfield corners. 3
5. Seat comfort: Some of the orientation (right-field seats facing left field rather than the infield, etc.) is off, but the seats themselves are fine. 3.5
6. Trading-up factor: By the top of the fourth inning, I was in the field-level seats. It was so easy I felt guilty. I was nervous, sure they were coming for me any second. I eventually bugged out. Maybe that's how they get you at Minute Maid: seat regulation through self-consciousness. 5
7. Quality/selection of concession-stand fare: Plenty of good eats, including bar-b-q and a build-your-own burrito bar. And there are a handful of sit-down restaurants, which is nice. But I'm gonna have to issue demerits for the odd practice of laying out sample plates of food in the doorways of these places. Who looks at these and thinks they're anything other than creepy? 4
8. Quality of hot dogs: Just so you know, the difference between a Star ($3.75) and a Superstar ($5) is about four inches. The difference between a good (4) and a great (5) score in this category, just so you know, is a tasty bun. The Superstar gets a 4
9. Signature concession item: With apologies to William Carlos Williams ...
This is just to say
I have eaten
10. Beer: The daily double: pricey and a limited selection. 2
11. Bathrooms: Plainish, cleanish -- tributes to old-time ballparks are a good thing in new-time ballparks, except in the bathrooms. 2
12. Scoreboard: Gigantamous, kind of artless, but very, very easy to see and read. TV-quality jumbotron, too. And bonus points for the comic-book superhero introductions of Bags and Biggio. 4
13. Quality of the public address system: The music selections are pretty forgettable, but the sound is boomin' -- the batters are announced by something very much like I would imagine the voice of God; and they don't overuse the PA, which means you get to hear, you know, baseball sounds and stuff. 4.5
14. Fun stuff to do besides the game: It's called the Minute Maid "Squeeze Play" and that's about right, because it's squeezed in behind fences and walls, like it's on the QT or something. I'd tell you more about it, but I got lost trying to follow the secret-agent color-coded trail to the speed pitch. 2.5
15: Price/selection of baseball souvenirs: I was, of course, tempted by the Lance Berkman No. 17 gold chain. And, like anyone else, I was drawn to the truly wide array of polo shirts in various shades of Astros' red. But in the end, the one item I couldn't resist was the pack of trading cards -- Dodgers trading cards -- in the Astros' gift shop. "Those are all Dodgers, you know," the woman behind the counter said. "That's all we have." Too weird to pass up. 3.5
16. Friendliness and helpfulness of usher staff: Remember what I said about Houston and the ballpark being a mixed bag? Well, one usher I met leads cheers -- literally screams herself hoarse -- from the upper deck for every single batter. Another usher, when I asked for the story of the orange train in left field, gives me that stare girls give at high school dances when they don't want to dance with you -- not hostile, because they don't want to crush you, just feigned oblivious, because they want you to think they never heard you, never saw you, in the first place. You know the face I'm talking about, right? It's not just me, right? I'm not the only one who's ever seen it, right? Right. Anyway, let's say 3.5 for the ushers, because that first lady was an inspiration, and that second, well, maybe she really didn't hear me.
17. Knowledge of local fans: You can fault the ones who didn't come out for a Sunday afternoon home game in the middle of a playoff run (the crowd was thin), but you can't fault the ones who were there -- they were into it. 4
18. Seventh-inning stretch: It was a mini-concert. They ran through "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and did a brisk, enthusiastic rendition of "God Bless America," to get to the goods: "Deep in the Heart of Texas," baby. I can still hear the four-clap. 5
19. Pre-and-postgame bar-and-restaurant scene: The streets around the park offer a handful of bar-and-grill options (and a florist, for all your woo-the-girl and will-you-marry-me jumbotron pitch needs). Nothing hopping, but you won't go wanting. 4
20. Wild card: I'm going to dock the park 3 points for the fact that there is no juice in evidence anywhere in a place called Minute Maid. But I'm going to give back 8 points for the franchise's long history of playing bravely through bad uniforms and a fan base that has loyally followed suit by hideous suit. There's a kind of beauty in the ugliness of it all. 5
TOTAL POINTS FOR MINUTE MAID PARK: 78.5