JD’s Ballpark Tour, Thirteenth Inning (Houston, TX)

Part XIII: Minute Maid Park

(AKA: Not Ending My Tour Like This)

(AKA: Squeezing the Life Out of Me)

(AKA: Unlucky Part Thirteen)

(AKA: Finally Getting Homesick)

Brace yourself, folks. I’m going to come out and say this right now, this was probably one of the worst ballpark experiences I’ve ever had, and the only way I would come back here is if I was given free tickets and parking again. If you love this ballpark, I’m sorry… I kept an open mind about this place and was actually very excited to return to Texas. However, this particular visit highly disappointed me.

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I have stayed with some wonderful people during my trip. This time, I’d visit some swing dance friends and stay at my friend, CJ’s house just outside Houston. At this point of the trip, the only thing I was paying for was the rental car (which only cost $40), and going swing dancing that Sunday. I know this is purely a baseball blog, but I loved the swing scene out there. The dancers are top-notch and this was my last great night of swing dancing before getting injured. As of this posting, that night in Houston is still the last time I danced.

The following day, I was ready to visit Houston, but not before taking a drive down to the old Astrodome, which is now in disrepair. Sadly, I couldn’t even enter the gated area, but I got a good glimpse at a place that used to be called the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and was famous for being the park that inspired AstroTurf!

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After leaving that sad little former domed ballpark, I made my way to Minute Maid Park. Again, since I received the parking and tickets for free, I won’t talk about the cost of parking, but it didn’t look too bad at $10-$20 for the close lots. Since it was a hot and humid day outside, I just took a couple pictures outside and quickly made my way inside the ballpark. Right away, I felt the amazing air conditioning of the park. This stadium features a retractable roof that closes when the weather gets that hot outside, or when there is a freak storm in the distance. There was not many people around when I arrived, and it looked almost as empty as outside. The only friendly person I encountered was a young guy at the team store who admired my “Wheel of Fortune” bag and asked if I was either on the show or won it as a door prize. He was really cool. He told me about the super-cheap jerseys with the old logo on it, but I didn’t bite. It was here I bought my blue hat, and also noticed that the selection could have been better, overall. One neat feature of this store was the old Astrodome seats inside. However, major deduction for not having any post cards to send off to friends. Yes, I actually have a couple friends who are Houston Astros fans, and I know they would have appreciated a post card.

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Leaving there, I asked an usher about taking a picture down by the field level, and she said only if I had a ticket down there. While I was in the field level with my ticket, I wasn’t allowed down there… despite the lack of people there. This was a couple hours before the game, by the way. I didn’t make too big a deal about that and just walked around. I was able to get to fan services and get a list of new restaurants, as well as a first-timer certificate. I then met with a couple people who were able to show me around most of the ballpark, and while getting some good food upstairs.

I was shown their exclusive restaurant which is located in center field about 500 feet away since it goes beyond Tal’s Hill in center field. I was also shown the view from the club seats just above the field level. Overall, not a bad view… but it was agreed that the view is actually more spectacular with the roof open. Since the roof was closed for this game, all I got was a view of the sun splashing in against the windows. The glare during warm-ups was pretty intense. After checking that out, we went back downstairs and wandered around the concourse area, which boasts an impressive lineup of BBQ places all featuring “Nolan Ryan Beef,” whatever that means. Then after making our way back around, I decided to wander off on my own and take in batting practice.

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This time, I was located in the home run porch in left field where the crowds were fairly light. It was here that I met a couple gentlemen who had already gotten a couple baseballs and told me to always have my glove ready. Sure enough, I got one right in my direction, but it landed a few feet below and ricocheted off the top part of the wall. Finally, I had a ball sail over my head into one of the “Community Partners” signs, and this one caught a bounce and landed right by me. I got this one on the bounce as it headed right at me. Yes, in two Texas ballparks, I got two batting practice balls. Yes, they are that easy to get when the crowds are light and the seats are in prime territory.

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I was good after that, so I went to the left field porch area where the “Home Run Pump” is located. This shows the number of home runs hit at Minute Maid Park since its opening in 2000. It was also here that I got a good look at Tal’s Hill, which is an artificial hill with a large flag pole in fair territory. Yes, this flag pole is in play. Many of these “faux vintage” additions in Minute Maid Park give this place an old-school look. However, many of these additions feel very forced and are present just for the sake of being “oh so very different” from everyone else.

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Before the game actually started, I thought I would get some more food in me and try a burger with the Nolan Ryan beef. The burger didn’t cost too much (only eight bucks), and it seemed like a good deal. They also had a souvenir soda with a free refill for under $7, so I decided to just go for it. The people at the counter… were way more than rude. There was virtually nobody around that particular stand, and the workers looked beyond bored. To be honest, I don’t think they wanted to be there. I still didn’t let that detract my overall experience… not yet, anyway.

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The fans (or lack thereof): Houston is a team that is near the cellar of the American League, and this is a franchise going through some tumultuous times. There was a huge, public rift going on between the manager and the general manager that seemed to drive many fans away. The fans that were there seemed indifferent on this entire season. A couple of fans I talked to were hoping for some major changes in the entire organization. Others simply didn’t care about the team and just wanted to get out of the house. I will point out that paid attendance was 14,094. Of course, this was not announced during the game. This was, by far, the lowest attended Major League Baseball game I’ve attended this season. However, I can’t blame the fans as much for this one. The Astros’ management have made it difficult for fans to stay loyal and want to watch.

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The game: I will say, I already had some great seats in the field level, and was in prime foul ball territory, though no balls even came close to me. One of the ushers then came by and asked for a ticket. At this point, I should point out the lack of people sitting in my section. While I understand that the ushers don’t want people sneaking down… it’s the Astros at home! There were entire rows of empty seats in front of me that were not going to get sold, and that was a sad sight to see.

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The Athletics jumped out to an early lead, and it quickly got to 3-0 before some of the fans arrived. Yes, there were even some fans that didn’t arrive until the 4th or 5th inning. I don’t know if they could claim that there was traffic because this was a Monday night at 8pm, and there wasn’t exactly a traffic jam around the ballpark with that few people. Because of this emptiness, I was able to listen to one of the best-sounding PA announcers in the major leagues. This guy has an impressive bass voice that just echoes throughout the park. Then again, it really echoed with nobody there.

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As the sun set upon the ballpark, I caught a glimpse of what the windows looked like with the darkening clouds, and I noticed the multitude of advertisements across the park. They are everywhere along the left field wall, the out-of-town scoreboard, and even the foul poles. I know all stadiums have some amount of ads these days. However, the Astros take those ads and put them on facade-blocking steroids. Seeing those ads, as well as an uninteresting game prompted me to get some ice cream in a little orange hat. However, they were out of most varieties of ice cream. With that few people attending the game, I thought there would be a bit more ice cream available. So, I kindly asked if I could get a cap by itself, and this vendor VERY rudely said, “Yes, pay the full price!” Now, I’ve had this happen once before at a different ballpark, and the vendor was kind enough to let me have a cap with no ice cream for half price. I didn’t mind paying full price at all, but the rudeness was very uncalled for, and I was starting to not like this place as much anymore.

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We fast forward to the seventh inning stretch, and in Houston, they sing “Deep In the Heart of Texas” after singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” I felt incredibly out of place because I didn’t know any of the words, or the cadence with the claps. At least in the eighth inning, the Astros tried to make a comeback with a Chris Carter home run that barely made it over the short right field fence. What was left of the crowd were cheering, at least. For every Houston home run, fireworks go off, a neat animation appears on the big screen, and the train above the left field porch will move and be accompanied with a loud old-fashioned train whistle. This part was cool, I will admit.

Then everything fell apart. In the top of the 9th inning, Houston reliever Tony Sipp walked the bases loaded, then walked in another run to make it 4-2, A’s. Many fans left after this, but it wasn’t over yet. Josh Donaldson socked a 2-run double into left field, and then Derek Norris hit a 2-run single only a few minutes later. Before we knew it, the score was 8-2 in favor of Oakland, and there was a mass exodus of angry, disappointed, and frustrated fans. Also, there was an exodus of workers! I wish I was making this up, but I wasn’t. The upper deck became empty except for about a dozen fans, so virtually all of those ushers left. I’m not exaggerating when I say this, but there were only maybe about 2,000 fans left at the end of the top half of the 9th inning. If you don’t believe me, I made sure to snap a picture of the crowd during the bottom of the 9th inning.

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Yes, I moved all the way down to the front row and saw an uneventful half of an inning. The Oakland A’s moved one step closer to the Angels in the AL West, and the Astros were close to being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. This is where things got a little ugly. Only two minutes after what turned out to be an ugly game, the ushers were ready to kick everybody out and go home. When I asked for a picture with the field in the background, I was told to just move right along and go home. After gathering my stuff, a nearby fan and I both wanted to take pictures, and we were met with, “C’mon, I want to get home already, let’s get the (bleep) out of here, huh?” I’m okay with many things, but to use profanity is a bit unprofessional. I know the organization is in a really bad place right now, but there’s no need to take it out on the visiting fans. This fan and I both scurried up above the seating section and got our pictures and left.

It was a sad ending to a promising day. I really had so much hope for this ballpark, I really did. I actually went there excited, but left with sad memories and was left wondering if I had ever encountered a ruder staff than the ones I encountered at Minute Maid Park. Maybe the turmoil going on there has had a major effect on all the workers. At this point, I was ready for this leg of the trip to be done and was finally beginning to get very homesick. I had never left a ballpark so sad, and I made a vow right then and there that I couldn’t let the tour end like this. My ballpark tour could not end on such a sour note. The following morning, I began thinking about what game I would want to see in Anaheim, and if it was possible to see some more parks this season. So, I press on. Thank you all so much for reading!

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-JD

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