The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Minute Maid Park Review

Well, there won’t be pictures today, but I’ll still give you my review of Minute Maid Park in (on) Planet Houston today.

From the outside, Minute Maid Park is not very impressive looking. About the only appealing thing is the entrance through the former Union Station train terminal. This is about in the left field corner, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were just entering an old government building of some sort. If you’re there and you walk past the train station a bit (away from the Inn at the Ballpark) you’ll find yourself in a little courtyard area where there’s a half infield with an homage to Astros greats Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, as well as a list of donors to the team and the stadium effort.

Most notable of these companies is Halliburton. And while my political views are much more middle of the road and undecided than most folks, it was still odd to be surrounded by so much pro-Bush and favorable Halliburton sentiment when in normal everyday life you tend to be surrounded by the opposite. Halliburton apparently has been significantly involved with the Astros and their presence is nearly impossible to miss around the stadium (but they were too cheap to pay for licensed advertisements, as Jeff Bagwell is featured in their print advertising, but without any Astros logos or name recognition).

Another interesting featured company that I found inside is Waste Management. They’re listed on a wall inside of the former Union Station as one of the initial key contributors to the stadium project. I found this interesting as Waste Management is owned by Wayne Huizenga, the former owner of the Marlins and Panthers (and current owner of the Dolphins), who was unwilling to foot any of the bill for stadiums for his own clubs.

Enough business though, let’s get inside the stadium, and I’ll walk you through it like our tour guide did.

We started out on the upper level, down the left field line. The view from here is good, for an upper deck, and not as steep as what I’ve seen at some of the other newer stadiums. One of the advantages of being in the upper deck down the left field line is that you have a very nice view of all of the score and video boards which are above the right field seats. However, you’ll probably have a hard time seeing the manually operated (by three folks) scoreboard in left field.

From there we headed down to the suite level, where we visited Owner Drayton McClane’s two suites. As you would expect, they are right behind home plate. While the suites were nice, they were nothing out of the ordinary. The finish was not very elaborate and the décor was pretty much the same as what you found in the surrounding hallways. The suites themselves may have seemed to be a little bit drab because the walls between the suites seemed to be designed to be modular, so that two or three suites could be combined into one, depending on the group that you had for that game. Whatever – not that I really care anyway, that’s not my favorite way to see a game.

From the suites, we headed down to the Diamond Level, which probably would be my favorite place to see a game from. These are the seats immediately behind home plate, and yes, they’re the ones where you occasionally see former President George Bush and former first-lady Barbara Bush taking in a game or the home run derby. Before we found our way out to these seats though, we were shown the special parking lot that’s provided for fans in these seats – a lot that’s probably closer to the field than the player’s lots. We were also walked through a nice little restaurant and bar area that’s reserved for Diamond box ticket holders. Unlike in Cincinatti though, it’s not all included down here. You would think that it would be, particularly after the twenty-thousand dollar per ticket initiation fee plus the fact that you’re paying at least that much more annually for your season ticket in that area.

The Diamond Club seats are nice though, particularly the first few rows (I think that our tour guide informed us that the first four rows of seats are actually closer to the batter than the pitcher – this seems to be one of the hot new phrases to get you to spend more money at a baseball game, any team that can use it does). All of the seats are wider than the other seats in the stadium, and padded – which only the club level seats are otherwise. Some of the seats have nice faux marble dividers between them, but this seems to be more of a necessity of design (i.e. an extra seat wouldn’t fit) than an intentionally nice touch.

We also learned that the seats that the former first family often occupies are actually Mr. McClane’s seats. Apparently Mr. Bush is not an official member of the Diamond Club, but he does take advantage of the owner’s seats when they’re not in use (I don’t think Mr. Bush hops around from seat to seat – it seems like Drayton lends George the dad his tickets for the game).

In terms of value, these seats are pretty good, once you take into account what similar seats go for in other venues. The $200 per person ticket price is steep, but I don’t know of a ball park where something similar goes for less than $150. Once you get behind the first two or three rows though, I’m not quite sure that it’s worth it. Then you’ve got people in front of you, and you’ve shelled out a lot of money for pretty much the same experience (sans the fancy restaurant) that you could get for less than half the price just a few more rows back.

Since we were right there, from the Diamond Level we were taken onto the field. It’s pretty much like being on the field everywhere else (except they don’t let you walk around as much as at other stadiums). We were able to spend a little time in the dugout though. It’s a pretty standard dugout, without any unusual quirks and still too new to have any significant history.

While we were in the dugout they began to close the roof. This was pretty cool, especially because it took us awhile to notice that anything was happening. Our tour took place on early Saturday afternoon, so there was no music in the stadium or anything, but still – we couldn’t hear the roof closing. It wasn’t until someone who was looking up at the train pointed it out to the rest of us that we realized the roof was being closed. This also gave us our first chance to see the train move along the tracks that extend from center field to left field. There’s even a special door in the glass partitions of the roof that would allow the train to move from the outside part of the stadium to the inside part when the roof is closed (it doesn’t seem to do this though – when the roof is closed, the train stays inside.

Overall Minute Maid Park is a really nice place to watch a ballgame. It’s new, it’s clean, it has good site lines. The tickets are reasonably priced, by major league standards, but it seems to be fairly tough to get a ticket (the Astros are selling about 38,000 of their 41,000 seats on average this year). Getting to and from the stadium is pretty easy too and there seemed to be parking everywhere (welcome to Texas!). Minute Maid Park though doesn’t rate as one of the great stadiums in baseball. It’s nice enough and does the job well, but nothing – other than the train possibly makes it stand apart.

The retractable roof has been done, and arguably equally or better in other stadiums. The video and scoreboards are also nice – and large compared to most other parks (but not the largest as the tour guide claimed; they were the largest when the stadium opened, but since then they’ve been surpassed by at least Cincinnati and Philadelphia), but not quite of the quality of some other parks, like Great American in Cincinnati or US Cellular in Chicago, where the LCD ribbon displays have upgraded what many of us have come to expect in terms of video at a stadium. The concourses are nice, but nothing spectacular. They’re not as wide as some and don’t provide as nice of views as others. Now that’s not a knock – if you never visited any park other than Minute Maid, you’d think it was great and world class. It probably is, I guess it just depends on how wide of a definition you have for world class. Minute Maid Park provides for a pleasant experience, but it’s probably not something you’re going to remember as definitively better than anything else you’ve ever seen before.

Hopefully I’ll get the pictures straightened out this week. Once I do I’ll post a link for you to come back and check them out.

This weekend The Book of Mike will travel to Montreal for our first ever visit to Olympic Stadium. Sadly, it will probably also be our last visit. I scheduled this trip thinking that the team would be moving sometime soon and that I’d like to see them play in Montreal before they leave. Maybe I’ll get lucky too and they’ll have a game used Vladimir Guerrero jersey on sale in the gift shop. I can only hope…


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