Houston Astros – September 21

After an exceptionally long travel day getting to Texas and a whirlwind tour of Globe Life Park in Arlington, it was time to take a short flight from Dallas/Fort Worth to Houston, and get ready for Astros games on back-to-back nights. My flight between the two cities was short and before long, I was hopping in a cab outside George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston for what turned out to be about a $75 (in Canadian dollars) cab ride to my airport. Stupid exchange rate.

Of course, my temporary frown over the fare was turned upside down when I was dropped off in front of the Westin Houston Downtown, which I’d quickly realize was one of the best hotels I’ve ever visited. I’ll share some details and photos about my hotel stay in this post and my next post, but let’s start by discussing the hotel’s location. Well, it’s a short discussion, really — it’s across the street from Minute Maid Park, home of the Astros! I’ve said it before, but I LOVE hotels that offer a ballpark view. I mean, I’m nuts about them. I’ve been fortunate to stay at a number of hotels that offer this feature over the years, so I knew I’d be in for a treat in Houston. Of course, your guest room has to be facing the ballpark, so I held my breath as I made my way up the elevator, down the hall and into my room. I hurriedly ran to the window and saw …

downtown-houston-view-from-westin

… a nice view of downtown Houston but no Minute Maid Park. Not the end of the world, right? I thought about my situation for a minute and although I’m not a complainer, I returned to the front desk to see if there was a way I’d be able to get a room on the ballpark side of the building. The desk clerk checked but revealed that all those rooms were booked. A little discouraged, I returned to my room and looked around. I’d been so crazed to run to the window when I first arrived that I didn’t realize I had a corner room.

Corner rooms = two walls with windows.

I swung open the drapes on the newfound window and, ta-da, here was the view:

minute-maid-park-room-view-from-westin

Slightly too bad that there was a church steeple in the way, but I had a spectacular view of Minute Maid Park and, with the retractable roof currently open, I could see some of the seats and part of the video board inside the stadium.

So, so awesome.

I had some time to kill before the game, so I ordered a chicken Caesar salad and a couple of bottles of water from the cafe on the ground floor of the hotel and scarfed them down while enjoying my awesome view. Minute Maid Park’s allure was too strong to keep me in my hotel room for much longer, so I quickly gathered up my camera stuff and headed over to the park. First, though, I snapped this shot in the hotel lobby to show you just how swank the scene was:

westin-houston-downtown-lobby

I was hit with a wave of 90-degree heat when I stepped out the door of the hotel, but even the mugginess couldn’t dampen my excitement at the scene before me:

minute-maid-park-from-westin-houston-downtown

This shot, for the record, is from the valet parking area of the hotel and shows that when I said the ballpark and hotel are across the street from one another, I wasn’t exaggerating.

After my missed flight a couple days earlier meant that I had to cram two days’ of sightseeing at Arlington’s Globe Life Park into one visit, it was a huge relief to know that I had two full days to check out the area inside and outside Minute Maid Park. When I crossed the street, I turned around to take this shot of the hotel from the outside …

westin-houston-downtown-front-day

… and then it was full steam ahead to check out Minute Maid Park. When the park was built prior to the 2000 season, it carefully incorporated Houston’s Union Station, which opened in 1911 and was named to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1977. You’ll see inside the Union Station ballpark entrance shortly, but for now here’s a plaque that connects the old train station with the ballpark:

minute-maid-park-union-station-sign

I was excited to see a wide variety of baseball-related features around the park. Some were somewhat subtle, like these baseball stitching effects in the concrete:

minute-maid-park-sidewalk-baseball-stitches

And others were perhaps more noticeable, including a variety of plaques in the sidewalk that were recognizing past Astros greats:

minute-maid-park-nolan-ryan-plaque

 

The left field entry to the park was a fun hub of things to see. There were a bunch of plaques …

minute-maid-park-outside-plaques

and a small-scale baseball field, complete with statues:

minute-maid-park-outside-diamond

 

And if you decided that you’d enjoy sitting and watching the imaginary action on the field, there was a perfect spot for you:

minute-maid-park-outside-stands

I checked out everything in this area for a little bit and it was still early enough before the game that I was essentially the only fan around. After being satisfied that I’d seen everything around the left field entry, I retraced my steps and began walking down Texas Avenue, which is the street on which the ballpark’s home plate entry is located. Much of the walk was lined with baseballs:

minute-maid-park-balls-sidewalk

Here’s what the home plate entrance looked like:

minute-maid-park-home-plate-gate

And here’s a shot of the famous tower structure that’s so highly visible from the outside of the park:

minute-maid-park-tower-outside

After I took this shot, I wandered over to the season ticketholder parking lot and the diamond club entrance, which was guarded by a security guard standing in the full sun and chugging on a 2L bottle of Dr. Pepper. I’m not sure he was getting the hydration that he thought he was. Anyway, I took this panorama from the parking lot, which is partially cut off along the bottom because the lot was lined by bushes that prevented me from getting back far enough:

minute-maid-park-outside-panorama

By now, I was starting to get really hot and I figured I had the option of asking the security guard for a swig of his Dr. Pepper or heading to the Union Station entrance and enjoying some air conditioning before the park’s actual gates opened. I chose the latter and a few minutes later, I was standing here:

minute-maid-park-union-station-entrance

With a bit of time to kill before I could get inside the park, I was happy to see that there were plenty of things to see while I waited. There were a ton of awesome displays of game-used gear and other Astros-related artifacts that were a blast to browse. Here’s a shot (pardon the glare) that shows some game-used uniforms:

minute-maid-park-houston-astros-game-used-jerseys

A display that notes the connection between the Astros and the space program:

minute-maid-park-space-items

The #132 jersey, for example, was taken into space aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2010. Awesome!

And, finally, the game-used jersey and cap that Mike Fiers wore during his no hitter at Minute Maid Park exactly a month before my visit:

houston-astros-mike-fiers-jersey-no-hitter

Once I’d perused all the displays and wandered around the room a little more, I was ready to line up to get inside the ballpark. I spent 20 minutes standing in line behind a local Little League team that was taking part in some pregame thing on the field, and then, at 5 p.m., I entered my 11th MLB park and 57th park between the majors and minors!

The Union Station entrance puts you roughly in the left field corner, so I hustled toward the field and was greeted with this sight:

minute-maid-park-houston-texas-flag

(No confusion about which state I was visiting, right?)

As you can see, the roof was thankfully closed. I was happy for the opportunity to see it open from the hotel window earlier, but given the day’s heat, had no suspicion that it’d be open for the game.

The scene on the field was as follow: The Astros were nearing the end of their batting practice and the visiting Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim were getting ready to hit. Here’s what the scene looked like in panorama form from the left field foul pole:

minute-maid-park-panorama-left-field-corner

Upon taking this photo, I faced a big-time dilemma about what to do next. I love standing and watching batting practice (and seeing if I can snag a ball) but it’s hard to think about staying put when there’s an entire stadium to explore. I reached a compromise with my internal conversation by watching BP for a few minutes from this spot …

minute-maid-park-bp-view

… and then setting out to begin exploring Minute Maid Park. If you’ve seen the ballpark during TV broadcasts, you might recall the cool-looking arched structure beyond the fence in left field and left-center. It’s a standing-room area for fans during the game and immediately behind it there’s a wide walkway that runs from the left field gate area over to center. It’s a fun spot to be during BP and during the game — I got to experience both — because long home runs smack off the facing of the wall above you, which a) makes a super loud noise and b) creates a scramble below as all the fans try to grab the ball when it falls into the seats. Anyway, located in the seventh arch moving from left to right is the Home Run Pump, which tallies all the Astros home runs since they moved into Minute Maid Park. It’s a popular spot to stand during games, but since it was still about two hours before first pitch, the area was mostly isolated when I took this photo:

minute-maid-park-home-run-pump

After moving on from the Home Run Pump, I stood above Tal’s Hill, a unique (and ridiculous) feature in straightaway center:

minute-maid-park-tal's-hill

For anyone who’s wondering the #7 painted onto the hill was in honor of longtime Astro Craig Biggio, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015.

I watched a few more minutes of batting practice from this spot, enjoying the hubbub of activity on the field:

minute-maid-park-center-field-bp

Next up on my stop, as I made my way down the concourse from center field to right field, was the team’s game-used and autographed memorabilia stand:

minute-maid-park-game-used-store

If I could describe this spot in one word, it would be: OhmanIneedtobuyeverythingherebuthowwillItakeithomeontheplanewithme?

I love collecting game-used stuff, as you might have read in previous posts, so I desperately wanted to buy something to remember my Houston visit — especially when I saw that lots of the stuff was more affordable than I would’ve expected. The only problem was that I hadn’t checked any luggage on my flight, so my two carry-on bags were as full as I could make them. Hmmm. What to do? Fortunately, I had two days to decide.

Here’s a cross-section of some of the cool things for sale, ranging from not very affordable — a Nolan Ryan signed jersey for $700:

minute-maid-park-nolan-ryan-autographed-jersey

To pretty darned affordable — dozens and dozens of batting practice-used jerseys for $50:

minute-maid-park-game-used-bp-jerseys

There were lots of other neat things, too, like this game-used first base with lots of cool wear:

minute-maid-park-game-used-base

And a whole host of bats:

minute-maid-park-game-used-bats

I considered my first visit to the stand a recon mission; I took stock of everything for what turned out to be multiple later visits, and then continued on my walk. When I got around to behind home plate, I saw that the Little League team I’d been standing behind was now on the field watching BP. You can see them in front of the first base dugout in this panorama:

minute-maid-park-panorama-first-base-plate

I also grabbed a shot of myself in this same spot …

minute-maid-park-malcolm-field

… before moving over to the area directly behind home plate to take the following panorama:

houston-astros-behind-home-plate-pano

At a handful of parks, security prevents you from accessing the seats behind home plate, even during BP. I was pleased to see that wasn’t a factor at Minute Maid Park. In fact, every staff member — ushers, security, etc. — I met was exceedingly courteous. Other teams could learn a thing or two from watching Houston’s staff, let me tell you. Case in point — here’s the cross-aisle in front of the Insperity Club:

minute-maid-park-seats-behind-plate

Fans were free to walk through this area before the game with no harassment from anyone. I can think of several parks off the top of my head that you can’t even dream of cutting through such an area.

I continued my walk and enjoyed taking in all the sights. It was awesome to know that I had two days to explore the stadium; no stress over trying to see everything and plenty of time to take it all in. As I walked around, I was loving the design of Minute Maid Park and, in particular, the arches. They definitely give the park a cool, vintage feel. I grabbed this shot of myself in front of some the arches and one of the park’s signs:

minute-maid-park-malcolm-sign

Eventually, I made it all the way back to the seats in the left field corner where I’d began my journey. This shot shows you the small seating section in this area, known as the “Crawford Boxes,” some of my beloved arches and the signs above that would rattle loudly when hit by batting practice home runs:

minute-maid-park-crawford-boxes

With the Angels now hitting, I wanted to find a spot in the front row behind the dugout to see the action and take some photos. Again, accessing these seats was easy and laid back; no overzealous security checking peoples’ tickets or getting people in trouble for leaning against the dugout. (The latter sounds ridiculous, but I’ve experienced it.)

Here’s a shot I got of several Angels waiting while Albert Pujols took his turn in the cage:

minute-maid-park-angels-bp

Each time after hitting, Pujols would stand on the opposite side of the cage so any photos I took of him were pretty obstructed. But, when he wrapped up his session, he made his way  semi-close to me to sign some autographs for the fans on the field:

minute-maid-park-albert-pujols-autographs

I stood behind the dugout for as long as the players were on the field, and once they moved into the clubhouses, I was on the move again, too. Since I’d already made one circuit of the main concourse, I took a climb to the upper deck where I captured the scene in this panorama:

minute-maid-park-panorama-behind-plate-upper-deck

I actually spent a little while in the upper deck just relaxing. There was a spot with a nice blast of air conditioning, so I enjoyed just hanging out and watching the scene unfold before me. The stadium was slowly starting to fill, so it was cool to see people making their way into the various sections and watch the grounds crew do its thing.

Eventually, Houston starter and eventual 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel made his way from the dugout toward the bullpen to begin his pregame throwing, so I scrambled back down to the main concourse and hustled over to find a spot close to the ‘pen. On my way, I paused briefly to snap this shot of the living roof that makes up the batter’s eye at Minute Maid Park. I haven’t seen anything like this before, I don’t think:

minute-maid-park-batters-eye-green-roof

The crowd wasn’t very thick around the home bullpen, so I was able to get a spot in the front row to watch Keuchel toss the ball around in the outfield for a while:

dallas-keuchel-houston-astros-long-toss

When he moved into the bullpen, I shifted my position slightly and found a great spot directly behind his catcher so I could take some cool straight-on photos. If you look carefully at this first one, there’s a random piece of Dubble Bubble on the mound in front of the rubber:

dallas-keuchel-houston-astros-bullpen-gum

Soon enough, Keuchel kicked the gum away; you’ll see that it’s no longer present in this photo I took a couple minutes later:

dallas-keuchel-houston-astros-bullpen

I watched the entirety of Keuchel’s bullpen session and when he headed toward the dugout a few minutes before first pitch, I found a spot in left-center where I snapped this panorama in the top of the first inning:

minute-maid-park-panorama-right-center

The first few innings breezed past, in part because the view from this spot was so perfect. Eventually, I abandoned my spot to find a seat in right-center. The overhang of the deck above provided a cool view — you could basically just see the field. I also liked the vintage-style scoreboards hanging from the ceiling:

minute-maid-park-right-center-field-view

Pretty soon, it was time to go hunting for something to eat. I’d been checking out the options during my initial walk around the concourse and, boy, was I impressed. I was also a bit of a loss — there were so many enticing items to consider. The concession stand that intrigued me the most was called Street Eats and the menu looked delicious:

minute-maid-park-food-selections

Here were the choices:

Chicken Waffle Cone: Waffle cone stuffed with mashed potatoes, fried chicken and drizzled with honey mustard and sprinkled with green onions.

Texas Hold ‘Em: Texas Toast with smoked pulled barbecue chicken, coleslaw and fried jalapenos.

Brisket Curly Fries: Curly fries topped with brisket, queso, queso fresco and green onion.

If you have the choice, which one would you go for, and why? Feel free to let me know in the comments below. As far as I was concerned, the Chicken Waffle Cone was the clear-cut winner, so that’s what I ordered. Unfortunately, the staff at Street Eats was struggling, to put it mildly. The Chicken Waffle Cone proved to be the big seller at the time, and it was nearly 25 minutes until I got mine. Ridiculous, really, but all was forgiven when I was handed this monstrosity:

minute-maid-park-food-chicken-waffle-cone

How does that look? Pretty incredible, right? Part of me wondered if — given the novelty nature of the item — it wouldn’t taste that great, but it was absolutely awesome. The fried chicken, which I’d originally suspected might be the weak link of the dish, were meaty and perfectly cooked. The potatoes were tasty and the tangy taste of the honey mustard and green onions topped everything off perfectly. I ate everything that was spilling out of the top of the cone with a fork, and then when I was left with just a waffle cone filled with mashed potatoes, I walked around the concourse eating it like an ice cream cone in order to get a few laughs.

After eating, the game was already in its late innings, so I did as I often do — put my camera away, found a seat with a perfect view of the action, put my feet up and enjoyed the rest of the game. The late innings of a game can often feel melancholy, but I certainly didn’t have any such feeling as I knew that I’d soon be headed back to a great hotel and the next day, I’d be doing everything over again. As soon as the final out took place, I hopped out of my seat, found the stadium exit across from my hotel and was looking at the exterior of the Westin at night:

westin-houston-downtown-front-night

And, I’m thankful to say, I was relaxing in my superb room about two minutes later — and eagerly anticipating my second day in Houston.

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