17
Minute Maid Park
39
9
7
5
1
3
4
15
83

Houston Astros

When I first visited Minute Maid Park, I was taken in with all the quirks of the place. The Houston Astros built a nice retractable roof stadium with a view of downtown, a train station motif (including an actual “home run” train), a hill in the outfield, a gas pump in left field, an intimate left field porch, and even an auxiliary scoreboard indicating the price of crude oil. Even after repeat visits, I still liked the place a lot.

Instinctively, I always had this park mentally rated around 10-12 in terms of best parks. When I did the scores, I realized how many other stadiums have stepped up their game. Maybe those teams were stealing signs.

As it stands now, Minute Maid Park is a good venue to watch baseball and the second best domed baseball experience. But with a few slight modifications, they could see their ranking rise. Heck, if they just decluttered left field so it got back to its former ad-free stature, and recalibrated their ticket prices, their score would be exactly in that 11-12 mark (the owner’s revenue losses notwithstanding).

STADIUM 39/50

Exterior aesthetics 9/10; Interior & Concourse Aesthetics 6/10; Sightlines & seating 8/10; Amenities & entertainment 5/10; Flow 5/5; Celebrating history 4/5; Scoreboards 5/5; Grand entrance 4/5; Sense of place 8/10; WOW Factor 24/30. Total 78 points divided by 2 for 39.

This is a solid score in this camp, especially since this a roofed park that was park built under budget. It may lack some of the over-the-top amenities as others, but it’s a well-designed ballpark.

THE GOOD:

  • It’s arguably the most attractive of the retractable roof stadiums not sitting in Miami. Inspired by the Union Station train station, the park has many nice subtle features. Its exterior design of brick and concrete was meant to complement the look of Union Station. The roof resembles an old-fashioned train shed (complete with some ornate steelwork) and is colored to look like oxidized copper. The arches throughout the park, most notably in the left field stands behind the Crawford Boxes, pays homage to the station’s arches. It’s a coherent design with a backstory.
  • It’s among the better retractable roof parks in letting in natural light (which is good, because they now close it for ¾ of the games). The large folding transparent panels in left also allow a view of some of Houston’s skyline.
  • The scoreboard shines brightly under the roof structure in right, protected somewhat from glare
  • Concessions are usually quite wide (they narrow in left field) and permit a view of the game as you circle the lower bowl
  • The orange train in left, which many deride as a gimmick, nicely ties in the locomotive motif that permeates the entire park, while giving the park sponsor some props
  • The gas pump in left keeps a running total of every Astros home run hit in the park. Again some find this gimmicky; I like it.
  • The Biggio and Bagwell statues outside that have them turning a play on defense are nifty
  • There’s a new-ish hall of fame display honoring the all-time Astros in left field behind the arches. It’s a quick visit, but gives you a little something to do whilst enjoying a beverage if you arrive early.

THE BAD:

  • Buckling under pressure, and perhaps seeing a revenue generating opportunity, the Astros replaced Tal’s Hill (complete with a flag pole in play a la old Tiger Stadium), and replaced it with a social space and some premium table/chair seating. On one hand, the social space is a nice addition. On the other hand, losing the hill (as nutty as it was) is another step towards the homogeneity of baseball parks.
  • There seems to be a disproportionate amount of advertising here. I worked in advertising for 25 years, so I’m hardly an anti-ad guy. But the beautiful left field arches now are littered with large billboards of energy company logos. Even the foul poles have Chick-Fil-A ads on them. It clutters the place up.
  • The signature entrance to the park, the atrium at Union Station, has now been partially converted into a Team Store, detracting from the grandeur
  • There used to be a nice kids’ area that has been replaced with, you guessed it, a large team shop. It was a nice feature, so I don’t why they’d make a park LESS family-friendly?

These criticisms were the direct result of a quest for more sources of income. Sure it’s business, but some of this just seems garish. And it hurts the score.

FOOD 9/10

This used to be a little lower until they added a Shake Shack and an outpost of venerated taqueria, Torchy’s Tacos. Those two alone get this to a 7 or 8.

The rest of the stuff is solid if not “gourmet”. There are something like 5 different nacho stands, all with different styles. Decent Mexican and Tex Mex is also readily available. There are lamb gyros, fried shrimp po’ boys, meatball fries, and Pluckers wings. There’s an outpost of Jackson Street BBQ, a quality Houston BBQ joint literally just down the street from the park, that sells a mean fried mac and cheese among their smoked goodies. The Downtown Dogs features beef hot dogs with chopped brisket or burnt ends among other seasonings. Texas Legends features a good but expensive prime rib sandwich, and a Frito pie corn dog (yup).

But even with all the added concessions, my personal fave remains the Texas Stuffed BBQ: a baked potato with brisket, cheese, sour cream, BBQ sauce and jalapenos.

As an added bonus, local BBQ legend Killen’s is making a return to the stadium setting up shop in the upper deck. If he can replicate his smokehouse flavors faithfully, there may just be a new “best concession in baseball”.

BEER 7/10

Minute Maid’s craft selection is strong if not super deep.

Houston brewer St Arnold’s has a strong presence here with 10 varietals offered, and their Art Car IPA and Lawnmower Kölsch are available at many stands. Karbach has a strong presence with its Crawford Bock (in the cool retro Astros can), along with its Hopadillo IPA, Big and Bright IPA, Hella Chella and others. Local brews are also available from 8th Wonder (including their signature beer, Dome Faux’m cream ale) and Eureka Heights. Shiner Bock is around too. As a bonus, vendors may have something outside the usual macro brews as well.

Hard alcohol is only served in the club level is that’s your bag.

NEIGHBORHOOD 5/10

Minute Maid Park hasn’t been the catalyst of reviving a more neglected part of downtown the way Nats Park has spurred growth in DC. It seems as if you’re surrounded by bail bondsmen rather than cool eateries and brewpubs. While I’ve never felt unsafe around the park on a game day, I’ve been told to keep your head on a swivel if you stray too far.

Truth is downtown Houston doesn’t have the same pulse as other Big City downtowns. The relatively limited number of restaurants and bars are usually busy, but foot traffic downtown is fairly light after dark. It’s evolving and getting better, but still lags.

There are a couple of places in the immediate vicinity of the stadium that are good, but not great. The better places are either a little further afoot downtown or near the arena.

COST 1/5

I blame the high cost on success. For years, an Astros lower deck seat would run you about $50. Today, it can easily be three times that. The Fan Cost Index also has them fairly high on the list, so it’s not just me.

ACCESSIBILITY 3/5

Houston mass transit is poor considering its America’s 4th largest city. The town is spread out over 669 square miles, making efficient public transit tricky. There is a Light Rail stop nearby, so it’s an option. But most drive. Traffic is a thing, but not as bad as many smaller cities since downtown isn’t the only large business district in town. Parking is easy to find around the park. And if you’re visiting and staying downtown, you’ll likely just walk.

WEATHER 4/5

The roof is closed most of the time, so it gets graded like a dome.

VIBE 15/20

The park is a lot fuller and a lot louder these days. On many games, it’d be hard to hear a banging trash can. Amazing what a World Series win* brings.

In fairness, Houston’s strong season ticket base usually ensured crowds of no less than 20,000 even in the lean years. While it’s a football town, the baseball-loving Hispanic community helps boost the excitement for baseball. And there are cool little things that add to the atmosphere. Orbit, the team mascot, is a frisky fella with routines that sometimes subtly push boundaries. The 7th inning stretch features a rousing sing-along rendition of Deep in the Heart of Texas which always makes me happy. Since they reverted back to their original color scheme, it’s seems as if everyone in Harris County bought some gear; it’s very orange in the stands. And an Astros home run means the left field train goes a-rolling down the track; cooler though, are the vintage Astrodome graphics that may pop up on the videoboard as part of the celebration.

On the downside, full houses lead to long concession lines, especially the popular ones (you can lose a couple of innings if you try to grab something early in the game). There are more “new fans” in the park with varying degrees of baseball knowledge. And like most retractable roof stadiums, the vibe is a lot better when everything is open vs when it’s closed; however, “closed” seems to be the standard about 80% of the time.

That all said, it’s an above average vibe.

GALLERY


OTHER THINGS TO DO


Three fun Houston restaurants:

  • Killen’s Barbecue (Pearland. About 16 miles south of the stadium lies the region’s best BBQ place. Expect a crowd.)
  • Jackson Street BBQ (Well respected place just one block from the park)
  • Irma’s Original (Award-winning Mexican food just 3 blocks north of the park.)

Three places to imbibe before the game:

  • Lucky’s Pub (EaDo. Expansive place a few blocks southeast of the park with great beer selection)
  • Flying Saucer (Downtown. Houston’s outpost of this regional beer haven chain is just half a mile west of the park)
  • Home Plate Bar & Grill (Ballpark. Standard bar in great location with some Astros memorabilia.)

One bar in the area worth hitting:

The Hay Merchant (Montrose, 3 miles SW of the park. 80 taps and a nice mix of local and national gems.)

Three craft breweries in the area worthy of your time:

  • Eighth Wonder and True Anomaly (two good places a block apart in EaDo, less than a mile from the park. Eighth Wonder is the more popular one; True Anomaly, run by former NASA guys, has more wild stuff)
  • St Arnold (Texas’s oldest craft brewery has a nice, large space to hangout. 1.5 miles north of the park)
  • Karbach Brewing (The large biergarten makes this worth the trip. 11 miles NW of the park)

Three fun tourist attractions in the area:

  • Johnson Space Center (Unleash your inner astronaut)
  • Kemah Boardwalk (Boardwalk-style amusement park 30 miles toward the Gulf)
  • Houston Museum of Natural Science (nationally acclaimed natural history museum)

SUMMARY

Minute Maid Park has more quirks than your English professor, even after taking the hill away. The higher ticket prices don’t seem to be a deterrent as crowds continue to swell due to the strong on-field product. The food keeps getting better, and the structure, when more uncluttered, can be quite attractive. With a few small changes, they could jump over a few other stadiums and reclaim a Top 10 slot. But even as it is now, it’s a good place to watch the 2017 champs*.