Saturday, June 13, 2009

Justin's Review: Minute Maid Park

Ballpark Design: For years, while watching games at Minute Maid Park on TV, I had felt that the park seemed overdesigned.  Between the hill in centerfield, the flagpole that’s in play, and the really short porch with the high wall in left field, it seemed like the Astros had gone overboard on making a really "different" park.  Well, there’s no doubt that the park is unique – but in the best possible way.  Unlike some of the other new ballparks that we’ve visited, there is no possible way to mistake the ballpark for any other.  Not just because of the hill and those things, but also because of things like the large wall behind the left field stands with a train sitting on top, the large glass windows high above left field that give an impressive view of downtown Houston even when the roof is closed, and the fascinating structure of the retractable roof, and so many other things.  Every bit of the ballpark impresses – the open concourse on the lower level is wide and offers great views of the field.  The large outfield wall has open arches that you can stand inside of watch the game from a unique perspective.  The upper deck overhangs enough that there are few bad seats, except for far up in left field.  Perhaps the most impressive thing is how they’ve managed to create a park that feels relatively open despite having a retractable roof, a problem that many other teams with retractable roofs haven’t solved.  The glass windows that stretch across half of the outfield leave you feeling as though you are practically outside, even as you are inside enjoying the air conditioning.  Not a lot to complain about at this ballpark – the upper deck wasn’t an open concourse, but with big windows and wide spaces, it did not feel cramped at all.  A

Scoreboard/Soundtrack:  By far my biggest complaint about the stadium was the extremely small size of the primary video board in deep centerfield.  Because of its size and extreme distance away, it was hard to see many replays or read the information on it.  A matrix board in right field somewhat made up for this, providing plenty of information about the batters and pitchers, but didn’t solve the video problem.  Auxiliary scoreboards around the rim of the upper deck and in the wall right behind third base were also helpful.  The out of town scoreboard is a manual board located in the high left field wall, with room for all games happening and the linescores for each game.  While you couldn’t get any information about what was happening in an individual game other than the score, the scoreboard was visually appealing and added a nice touch.  I was actually very impressed with the sound, mainly because it added to the “train station” theme that much of the rest of stadium is based on, with train whistles and other noises happening during rallies. B

Food/Drink: Another stadium with fantastic choices.  We did two laps around the lower level before deciding what we wanted, with choices ranging from a “Latin-influenced” stand, to a BBQ stand, to a “healthy options” stand, and of course, all the traditional stuff you would expect.  It was also surprisingly cheap, as ballpark food goes – my cheeseburger and fries were only $8 (although the fries weren’t particularly impressive).  Supposedly, there is also a stand that sells some type of food that the opposing team’s city is known for (a different one for each opposing team) – we didn’t see it, but if it does exist, that’s a very cool concept.  There seemed to be many beer choices as well – not quite the variety as some other ballparks, but more than enough.  A-

Fans:  I had a mixed reaction to the fans.  On one hand, the attendance was around 34,000, which was not bad for a Thursday afternoon game.  However, the fans simply were not that loud or in to the game – the only times they would really make noise was when prompted by a “Make Some Noise” graphic on the scoreboard, and they would get quiet very quickly thereafter.  Furthermore, the game went into extra innings, but by the end of the ninth, probably about half the fans had left.  I’m glad a lot of people showed up, but I really didn’t see the passion. B-

City/Stadium Neighborhood:  We stayed overnight in downtown Houston, only about 10 blocks from the ballpark.  Houston is a huge city that sprawls for miles, so it’s hard to judge it based on only a one day impression in one neighborhood, especially when that one neighborhood is the central business district.  Like many other cities, the financial district is completely dead after about 5pm, so the city simply didn’t seem that lively to us.  We did find a good sports bar nearby to watch the Yankees/Sox game and the basketball game, and there were definitely more people in that area, but it was still pretty quiet.  I’d definitely be happy to go back to Houston and learn more about it, but my overall impression based on our one day there is mixed.  The ballpark itself was right downtown, which makes for a great atmosphere in the neighborhood before and after games.  It looked like there were a bunch of sports bars and restaurants right around the stadium, making the whole neighborhood a destination on game days.  City: B-; Stadium Neighborhood B+

Game: Probably the best game we’ve seen so far.  Once again, we saw very little offense, but the Astros and Cubs made up for it with some late inning drama.  The Astros scored 1 run in the first, and that was it for either team until the top of the 9th, when Derrek Lee hit a game tying homerun with 1 out to tie the game.  For the next few innings, neither team mounted much of a threat, until Geoff Blum won it with a walk-off single in the bottom of the 13th.  A-

Overall Experience: Without question, this is one of the most well designed and good looking ballparks in the country.  It is great place to explore, and a fantastic place to watch a baseball game.  Despite the seeming disinterest of the fans there, I’m certain that when the Astros are good and in a heated race, the atmosphere must be amazing.  Add in good food, a ballpark right downtown, and air conditioning in Houston’s 100 degree heat, and you have a pretty close to perfect ballpark. A-

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