Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Minute Maid Park, all to myself

I arrived at Minute Maid Park on Thursday and a friendly security guard warmly greeted me as workers nearby readied Union Station for a Women’s Chamber of Commerce event, a sure sign that baseball was done for the year.

“Do you folks offer tours of the ballpark?” I asked.

“Wait right here!” he said before running off to chase another employee, appearing again in a few minutes.

They told me to pop into the gift shop to buy a ticket and we’d be off. And when I came out, my new friends Damien and Jen were waiting and started spouting facts about the building’s life as a train station before the Astros arrived 10 years ago.

“Shouldn’t we wait for everyone else?” I asked.

“You’re it!” Damien said. “And that’s OK.”

So off we went on my personal tour of Minute Maid.

I was in Texas last week helping family, and my mother-in-law, who spoils me wildly, insisted that I have a day to myself once we were finished helping her sister to chemo and radiation treatments.

I had been to Minute Maid once before, in December 2004 when I was in Houston for an education writers’ conference. I had five minutes in the gift shop before it closed and managed to snap some photos outside in the dusk.

Thursday’s adventure was the extreme opposite, as we spent the morning exploring the ballpark from top to bottom, inside and out.

We started in the upper deck, where Damien pointed out the 900-ton retractable roof that closes in 13 minutes and the locomotive that moves across the leftfield wall at 10 miles an hour to start the game and after an Astros’ player hits a home run.

The roof is closed any time the temperature hits 85 degrees, which in Houston is most of the summer. The decision is made in the early afternoon because it takes two to three hours for the air-conditioning to cool down the seating area.

The windows above the 422 sign are the only breakable glass facing the field. That’s owner Drayton McLane’s office, and he promised $50,000 to any player who could hit a home run through the window. No one’s been able to hit the mark. Of course, the roof is closed most of the time.

The locomotive’s coal tender used to be filled with baseballs. But after the stadium’s name change, they were replaced with oranges. The problem is that the oranges are so big that people think they’re pumpkins, my guides told me.
We slipped inside to explore the club level. Here's Damien in Drayton McLane's suite. He said McLane tends to watch games from his seats behind home plate and uses the suite for clients and friends. I liked some of the small details, like the baseball pattern on the light shades.
Then we moved into the press box and broadcast booth. Leganday broadcaster Milo Hamilton -- that's him on the famous call of Hank Aaron's 715th home run -- has a special, customized chair. The team also has a display honoring broadasters in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Here's the backdrop in the broadcast booth, our last stop before heading down onto the field.
My guide friends were awesome. They said it was OK if I stood on the on-deck circle, and even moved the hoses. Then we stepped into the dugout and posed for more photos.

There were two rows of benches, one close to the railing and the traditional one along the back wall, that was actually a two-level bench. It was a little hard to see the field, but easier when I sat on top.

I realize there are a lot of people who don't like "Tal's Hill" in centerfield, but confess I love it! It's a feature unique to Minute Maid, at least in modern times,. Named after team President Tal Smith, the hill is a tribute to Crosley Field, which had a similar elevation. The flagpole is in play, like at Tiger Stadium, and has been hit on a fly only once.

Walking around the foul area and warning track, we slipped into the home bullpen. I was allowed everywhere except for the mounds, which were covered in a tarp because it takes the grounds crew several hours to manicure each.

The visitor’s bullpen is below the leftfield concourse and doesn’t get any sun, so the grass there is actually Astroturf from the Astrodome. Players enter through a gate that’s sort of hidden in the outfield wall padding.

The guides allowed me to pick up the vsitors' bullpen phone. It started ringing, but no one was in the dugout, so it was OK. I could just about hear Jerry yelling, "Get K-Rod up!"

The hand-operated scoreboard is accessible through the same gate, and there are two levels for several employees to scramble around and update out-of-town scores. It gets pretty stuffy and steamy. The gate leads to the field and the team doesn’t want non-players running around. So the rule is, once you’re inside the scoreboard, you’re there until the end of the game.

President George H.W. Bush and the former first lady have season tickets right behind home plate, sharing the row with McLane and his wife. Damien said it’s not unusual to see them at games, especially when the team is doing well.

The Diamond Club had some neat features. Just below these windows was a crystal model of the stadium that didn't photograph well. But it's neat because it's the only place in the entire ballpark that still reads, "Enron Field."

There were two of these boots, holdovers from the 2004 All-Star Game, famous, of course, for Roger Clemens gacking up six early runs.
The boot ended my official tour, but I kept exploring outside the ballpark. I liked how the sidewalks had baseball seams in them.

Then there was a little park area with bleachers and statues of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio making a classic 4 to 3 play.


Anonymous said...

I am impressed, and I have seen a lot of things in my short 46 years. You are the man when it comes to getting tours, unbelievable pictures!!
Great job Dave!!

G-Fafif said...

Great tour!