1. New Jersey to Houston
Our last baseball trip of 2003 took us to the Lone Star State at the tail end of summer. Since our first stop in Texas was Houston, we flew from Newark, NJ to the George Bush Intercontinental Airport on Saturday morning. Because it was a Saturday, we breezed through security at Newark-Liberty Airport, and the nearly four hour flight was uneventful. Landing in Houston in the early afternoon, we picked up our rental car and headed out to explore Houston.
Since we had some time before the scheduled first pitch at 710 pm, we set our sights on the Johnson Space Center, home of NASA. While we didn’t have enough time for a formal tour, we did stop to visit the few features that were located outside of the center itself. The highlight of the brief visit was seeing the Saturn V rocket, which launched the Apollo spacecraft toward the Moon.
2. Minute Maid Park
Hot and humid conditions met us at Minute Maid Park as we arrived about 90 minutes before the first pitch. Parking did not pose any particular problem, as there were parking lots located just outside of the ballpark. Had those lots been unavailable, there were myriad options for parking with a quarter of a mile of the park. Walking up to the stadium, I began to feel the effects of the hot and humid conditions.
Upon walking into Minute Maid Park, it was obvious that the roof was closed, as we went from bright sunshine to the dimly light stadium. Apparently the heat and humidity was the primary reason for the roof closure, presumably for the comfort of the fans, as the weather was otherwise tranquil.
As is our custom, we conducted a walking tour of the park. Following the lower concourse around the playing field, it was immediately clear that quite a bit of thought and planning went into layout of the stadium. One of the quirkier features of the park was a hill in centerfield, complete with a flag pole. Dubbed Tal’s Hill (named in honor of former Astros Tal Smith), the hill was a nod to the past, when a few ballparks had features in play (such as Monument Park in the old Yankee Stadium).
Another of the quirkier features of Minute Maid Park was the train track on the top of the exterior wall behind the left field fence. As the Astros take the field, hit a home run, or win a ballgame, the train travels the 800 foot span of the wall. The train is an homage to Union Station, once a transportation hub in Houston, which had been incorporated into the construction of the stadium.
Though Minute Maid Park appeared huge with the roof closed (as do most domed stadiums), the relatively small dimensions of the ballpark made it feel almost cozy. Following our exploration, we went in search of a baseball dinner. Of course, the three year old park had many dining choices, including several grills featuring barbecue. Somewhat pressed for time, we chose more standard baseball fare from concession stands in the left field concourse.
With snacks and drinks in hand, we headed toward our seats. The hometown Astros hosted the St Louis Cardinals for the evening contest, and the NL Central Division rivals drew a large crowd. Because of the rivalry, good tickets were hard to secure, so our seats were located in the lower level, between third base and the left field foul pole. Though not the best of views, we settled in to our seats, awaiting the first pitch.
Starting for the visiting Cardinals was right hander Matt Morris. The six foot five inch right hander was an important part of the St Louis rotation, just two years removed from a 22 win season in 2001. On the mound for the hometown Astros was right hander Roy Oswalt. Pegged as the number four starter in the Houston rotation, Oswalt made 21 starts in 2003, posting a 10-5 record. Given the strong starting pitching and importance of the game in the playoff picture, we expected to see a pitcher’s duel at Minute Maid Park.
As anticipated, pitching dominated the first three innings of the game, which resulted in a very quickly paced game. With the Astros coming up to bat in the bottom of the third inning, Cardinals catcher Mike Methany was ejected from the contest, presumably for arguing balls and strikes with the home plate umpire. Following the ejection, St Louis pitching coach confronted the umpire and was also ejected. The fireworks associated with the ejections took some time to unfold, slowing the momentum of the game.
Following the ejections, the Astros scored single runs in the fourth and fifth innings, featuring 1B Jeff Bagwell’s 35th home run of the season. Meanwhile, Houston starter Roy Oswalt kept the Cardinals batters off balance, keeping St Louis scoreless into the late innings.
Being from NJ, my brother and I have accents that were out of place in Texas, and while talking amongst ourselves, we caught the attention of another out-of-towner. A young man a few rows below us recognized our accents, which was surprising until we discovered he was from Connecticut. He was kind enough to ensure that we displayed proper baseball etiquette for games in Texas. We were reminded that booing was considered rude in Houston (though we had no reason to boo), and that we needed to sing “Deep in the Heart of Texas”, clapping when appropriate, during the seventh inning stretch. Finally, when I questioned the meaning of a confusing public announcement, he told me “this is Texas, dumb it down”. Chucking at his retort, I’m not sure anybody else picked up on snarky comment.
During the seventh inning stretch, the roof of Minute Maid Park was retracted. As the action on the field continued during the bottom of the seventh, the roof slowly and almost inaudibly moved from left field to right field, taking about 20 minutes to fully retract. The heat and humidity before the game had been replaced by cooler conditions and a light breeze. Like most stadiums with roofs, Minute Maid Park seemed smaller with the roof open, and suddenly the ballpark seemed even cozier. After seven strong innings by Astros starter Roy Oswalt, closer Billy Wagner shut down the venerable St Louis offense in the ninth, nailing down a 2-0 Houston victory.
The briskly paced game took just two hours and six minutes to complete. If the two ejections hadn’t occurred in the third inning, the game would have taken less than two hours, which in our experience is quite a rarity. Most of the more than 42,000 fans had stayed until the end of the game, slowing our exit and giving us some time to reflect on our visit. It was clear that quite a bit of thought went into the layout of Minute Maid Park, complete with nods to the past, as well as amenities common in “newer” MLB parks. Our visit was relatively short, but enjoyable, as we were treated to an outstanding game in an excellent facility.
Our night was not quite over, however. Trying to cut down on the amount of traveling necessary to catch a game at the Ballpark in Arlington the next day, we drove from Houston on our way toward the Dallas Metroplex. Knowing we wouldn’t be able to complete the nearly four hour drive that night, we stopped at a motel just off Interstate 45 North about halfway between the two large Texas cities. Arriving after midnight, we needed to ring a bell for service. A young woman graciously checked us into a room for the night. Behind the desk, we could see a young boy, probably no older than five, jumping around and having fun. Apparently the young woman’s son, she smiled when I mentioned his late night enthusiasm, suggesting that his behavior was typical when she worked overnights.