Sunday, April 20, 2014

Stadium #2: Minute Maid Park, Houston, Texas (Opening Day!)

"People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball.  I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring."

Cameron and I have that in common with Rogers Hornsby.  That's why we decided to start this year's stadium trips off as soon as possible, i.e. Opening Day.  Read more after the jump!

Instead of a normal 7PM start the Astros decided to have Opening Day at 6:15 PM.  On a Tuesday.  In downtown Houston.  I work near downtown so Cameron picked me up around 5 and after circling many many blocks we finally found parking and made our way  to Minute Maid Park.  If we would have had more time our favorite thing to do on a Stros game day is get  beers and pizza at Lucky's.  They have good parking and then they take you straight to the stadium on their free shuttle so if you're ever in Houston for an Astros game I highly recommend this plan.  Since we didn't have time for this we just headed straight for the stadium.

On our other stadium trips I think our first course of action will be strolling around the stadium and checking things out. But since we are very familiar with MMP we didn't feel the need to do this.  Plus, I was a woman on a mission during opening day and that mission was barbecue.

Let me back up here and give a little background:  I grew up going to baseball games at The Vet.  It was (RIP) an open air stadium with some of the most brutal fans in professional sports but it was baseball, damnit.  Since moving to Houston and going to games at MMP I've often hated on it.  "The roof is NEVER open!" "The Astros are terrible!" "What the hell is up with the HILL in center field?" "There's no good food!"  Thankfully, at the start of the 2014 season three of those things seem to be things of the past!  Let's go through these things individually:

  1. The Roof: We all know about the Astrodome aka the 8th Wonder of the World.  It brought a baseball team to the sweltering Bayou City.  I get it, I really do, we couldn't have a baseball team here in the brutal summer humidity without it.  Since the Astros aren't the best team the last few years you can pretty much get $5 tickets whenever so when a great pitcher on an opposing team is starting Cam and I might go see some impromptu baseball and it seemed like the roof was never open even on beautiful spring or late summer days.  Coming from a well-established baseball city with an open air stadium this has always been hard for me the swallow.  While I appreciate the air conditioning it just feels unnatural to watch baseball without the sun beating down on your face and a breeze blowing your hot dog napkins around.  Additionally I think that the stadium looks like a warehouse when the roof is closed.  I shouldn't be watching baseball and have rafters over my head, sorry.  My complaints were not without warrant, though, as I read an article a few months ago that said that of 81 home games last season the Astros only had the roof open for 14.  Fourteen games!  That's it!  That same article said, however, that Reid Ryan, the new president of business operations, was determined to open it more for the 2014 season.  All morning on Opening Day it was really gloomy outside and I just knew that the roof would be closed so color me surprised as we were talking towards the stadium and this is was we saw: 
  2. Okay, The Astros are still pretty terrible.  But they won Opening Day against the Yankees!  And the next day!  And not only did they win this game, they completely dominated.  More on this in a bit.  
  3. The Hill: I will never get over the damn hill.  Tal's Hill in centerfield is an on purpose hill built into center field that has a flag pole in the middle of it and the flag pole is in play.  It's really dumb.  It is named for the former Astros president whose idea it was to build the hill.  It just seems ridiculous to me to purposely build an obstruction that has the potential to injure a centerfielder.  Tal's Hill is very much still there.  
  4. The Food: I am very happy to report that over the last couple seasons the food has improved greatly.  It used to be bland stadium food.  Bryan Caswell helped change that.  He is a Houston chef/restaurateur who, through a partnership with the Astros, brought some of his restaurants to MMP.  Little Bigs, a place that basically only serves delicious sliders, came to the ballpark in the last couple years and it definitely helped spruce up the food options.  Ronnie Killen is a steakhouse owner in Houston who a few months ago opened a barbecue pit south of Houston.  I haven't been but everything I have heard and read compares it to Franklin BBQ in Austin which is constantly either at the top of or definitely in the top 5 of every "best BBQ in America" list.  Franklin and Killen's have in common that they make a certain amount of meat every day and when they're out they're effectively closed for the day and people wait in line for hours to get a taste.  Franklin is at least in central Austin whereas Killen's is 16 miles south of downtown.  When you factor in the distance and the fact that they're only open for lunch (the meat is long gone before dinner time) it's near impossible to eat there unless you take half of a day off of work.  So when I read, a week before opening day, that Bryan Caswell had partnered with Killen to bring his signature barbecue to Minute Maid I knew that I had to get it.  What made me so excited was that the briskets are still cooked in the pit at the restaurant and for every home game he is sending a delivery of only ten briskets to the stadium to be carved up, still warm.  And just like the restaurant, when the brisket's gone, they're done.  Their joint venture is called Texas Smoke.
    I wish this picture had a smell feature.
     As I said, I was a woman on a mission.  As we hurried into the stadium after our nightmare looking for parking I demanded we immediately get in line at Texas Smoke so that they didn't run out.  Opening Day has a lot of pageantry where in they unfurl a gigantic American flag on the field and do a lot of presentations and introductions.  I know this because we also attended Opening Day last year.  That's why I felt okay missing all of it and just waiting in line for BBQ.  
    I stepped out of line for a minute to snap a quick pic of the huge American flag
    It was a pretty long wait but oh man let me tell you that it was SO. WORTH. IT.
    Our good pal H is a vegetarian and whenever I post a food pic on Instagram that includes meat I always include the hashtag #sorryH.  H, I am NOT sorry for this one, I need to be clear on that. 
     This was one of the best barbecue sandwiches I've ever had.  The meat was perfection but honestly what put it over the top was the amazing bun.  I haven't read much about Killen's buns because the meat always takes the spotlight but the bun was definitely the unsung hero.  We were both completely in barbecue heaven.  
Now that our bellies were full of some of the most delicious barbecue we'd ever had it was time for something else delicious: craft beer!

Unfortunately MMP is pretty lacking when it comes to craft beer selection.  Luckily we live here and already knew that so we weren't too disappointed.  That being said, Saint Arnold, a hometown brewery, has its own bar in left field.  Sometimes they do happy hours an hour before first pitch but not today (and we wouldn't have made it anyway) so we just headed there after devouring our barbecue.  It's nice that the Astros have such a strong relationship with a local favorite but we would like to see more variety among concessions but hopefully in a few years they'll get on the level of some other stadiums.

Finally we headed up to our seats in the waaaaay upper deck.  Because we've been to this stadium dozens of times and are not Astros fans we didn't feel it necessary to drop too much coin on this game.  Still, with the roof open we actually had some decent views of downtown!

As local fans are wont to do the introductions for the visiting team are usually met with a range of mumbles and boos but when the announcer called out Derek Jeter's name there was a huge ovation for the Yankee legend.  I appreciated that and thought it was a classy move for the Stros fans.  This was, of course, Jeter's last Opening Day.  It was fun to see him play in at least one game in his final season.  Newly employed with the Astros Nolan Ryan threw out an incredibly wild first pitch to Astros legend Craig Biggio.  The Stros are getting their money's worth with the Ryans.

Another interesting feature of MMP is that it was built on the location of an old railroad station.  As an homage to that history there's a train in the outfield that has a bunch of oranges (Minute Maid...) in it.  Whenever there's a Stros homerun the train moves along the tracks and sounds its horn.  I thought it was pretty weird until I heard the backstory.  Also there's actually a "conductor" in the train who moves it.  A very rotund man who wears, I kid you not, overalls.

Unfortunately a friend was borrowing my DSLR so I only had my point and shoot but you can kind of see the overalls man...
told you it moved!

The game was a pretty good one--very offensively heavy.  The final score was 6-2 Astros, another hometown win!  I know we are only two stadiums into this thing but both home teams have won and it's always exciting when the crowd is energetic as it was on Opening Day.  C.C. Sabathia got absolutely lit up by the Stros who finished with 9 hits.  Maybe the Astros are finally going to turn it around.
MMP: Officially crossed off!

President Bush and Barbara were sitting just behind the "Opening Day" paint

Something we found out last year when we went to Denver is that even if you pay the extra couple bucks for a team to print out and mail your tickets to you there's no guarantee that they'll be printed on team paper, i.e. with the team logo.  Out of tickets to five games this year only two actually had team logos and not just Ticketmaster stuff on it (shoutout Indians and Cubs!).  In Denver we asked at the box office if we would get them reprinted and they immediately pointed us to the front office where it was no problem.  We were crossing our fingers that the process would be just as easy at the other ball clubs.  At the MMP box office we were told to go to a ticket booth in the stadium and we would surrender our tickets and they'd mail us souvenir tickets.  We didn't do this right away because obviously we would need our tickets.  During the 7th we headed down to the area and were told they wouldn't be processed for about a week.  That was 19 days ago as of this writing and we haven't received anything in the mail so cross your fingers that we get our tickets back!

After surrendering our tickets we headed to left field to the standing room area to watch the last few innings.  The Yanks were scoreless through 7 but managed to make it interesting by hammering in two runs in the 8th but ultimately came up short.
view from left field just above the Crawford Boxes

if you squint that's Derek Jeter batting
All in all it was a successful Opening Day to kick off 2014.  I cannot recommend Texas Smoke enough if you find yourself at an Astros game.  Despite my misgivings about this particular ballpark any afternoon or evening that you can spend kicking back and enjoying America's pastime is still better than most days so if you live in Houston and haven't been to a game in a while get yourself downtown and visit the boys of summer.

We have Wrigley Field, Comerica Park, Progressive Field, PNC Park, and "Globe Life Park" (never going to get used to calling it that) officially on the books for 2014 and we couldn't be more excited!

Play Ball.

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