Friday, June 29, 2012

Thoughts from a MMP first-timer


Perhaps I am a terrible, terrible Astros fan; as of one week ago as I type this, I had yet to ever pay a visit to Minute Maid Park. I was born in Houston and lived there my entire life, until I left the state for college in August '99. That was, of course, the Astrodome's final season, and I can't count how many games I attended in the Dome growing up. But since then, circumstances had only allowed me to return to Houston during off-season holidays, so I'd never had the chance to catch a game at the site of my team's greatest playoff successes. Until last Friday. With this the franchise's 50th anniversary season, and their last in the National League, we decided that the time had arrived, and we made the trip down last weekend. The County Clerk invited me to share my thoughts on MMP, now that I've finally seen it for myself, and I'm happy to oblige.

We were advised to arrive early since it was a bobblehead night, and I also wanted the chance to check out the new Astros Walk of Fame along Texas Avenue before the gates opened. It turned out that would have to wait, however, as even at 5:00pm, the line to get in was already around the corner. Half an hour later, Biggio bobbleheads were acquired and we were in the park, and I had to stop at our first view of the field.


One of my enduring memories of the Dome (God rest its soul) was trekking what seemed like miles up and down concrete ramps to get to and from the different seating levels, and stepping through once-hallowed doors like these to get that first glimpse of the artificial grass. The open concourse at Minute Maid was an immediate difference, and my wife willingly went along as I wanted to circle the stadium interior before we found our seats. Progress was not rapid, as I had to stop for photos of each MMP landmark along the way - the Home Run Alley displays, the Conoco Pump, the Union Station entryway - but my wife patiently obliged until we had completed the circuit. Then we grabbed a pair of "Extreme" hot dogs, and hit the stairs to take our seats.

I had wanted to sit in the famous Crawford Boxes, but we opted instead for the front row of the Bullpen Boxes in right field, and I'm glad that we did. I remember being SO excited as a kid the first time we scored red Field Box seats in the Dome, but nowhere we ever sat there put us as close to the field as we were now at Minute Maid. The Indians were taking BP when we sat down, and not five minutes later, the Cleveland hitter bounced a ball off the wall right in front of us; as much as I wanted to attempt a popcorn-bucket catch, my wife was grateful we bought our gloves. 


Then, the game. I took more photos of MMP's interior between innings - the train, Tal's Hill, the retired numbers & playoff pennants - but mostly I was glued to my seat, with eyes fixed on the field. The Astros were wearing their old rainbow unis the first time I ever saw the team in person, back in the early '80s, so perhaps it was fitting for me that they had brought those uniforms back this night. But while most things about the MMP experience had been vastly different from the Dome, the game on the field was still the same: a pitcher's duel, forever my favorite, as learned from the Astrodome cavern.

"Baseball is a game of inches" - cliche, but always true. A huge Jed Lowrie foul fly just inches to our left could have been a game-tying homer. A Jose Altuve foul liner just inches left of the line could have been an RBI double, putting the Astros on the board. Lucas Harrell was as brilliant on this night as Mike Scott or Darryl Kile ever was, but the baseball gods said it wasn't meant to be. 2-0, Astros lose, but the trip was still worth it to me.

We watched the roof open and stayed after for the Friday Night Fireworks, which were impressively better than I had expected. As part of the "Flashback Fridays" promotion, they themed this '70s Disco Night, and put on a fireworks display better than any we had seen since our honeymoon at Disney World. Then we picked out souvenirs from the Astros Team Store, exited through Union Station, and I got my chance to follow the Walk of Fame on the way back to our car.

Now we hear that the train and Tal's Hill may be in their final days at MMP. I can't/won't speak for the County Clerk or anyone else here, but I sincerely hope not. I realize that the train has nothing to do with baseball or with a space-themed team, but it has plenty to do with the stadium's location and with the history of Houston. The Astros should respect that as a part of Houston history themselves. And I realize that Tal's Hill and the flagpole in play are bizarre and somewhat gimmicky, but in an era when retro ballparks are the new cookie-cutters, they're defining characteristics that no other city can claim. Plenty of ballparks have short LF/RF porches; plenty have scenic downtown views; plenty try to evoke baseball nostalgia and put their fans closer to the action. What is it that's going to set your park apart from the rest?

Courtesy of work-related travel, I have made it to other MLB parks since I left Houston in '99. AT&T Park in San Francisco is the best of those, thanks largely to the blessing of geography. But I'd rank MMP very closely right behind. As for any adult Astros fan, the Astrodome will always hold a special place in my heart... but if they had to move somewhere else, they did good for themselves. I trust Jeff Luhnow, and I trust Jim Crane, but they've got a beautiful ballpark already in place. Please don't screw that up.


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