So here we are – A new year – A new season! 23 parks down and 7 more left to go!
I’m happy to have survived another NJ winter and so happy to welcome another year of baseball. While I’m a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to reach my goal of getting to see a game at all 30 parks in a single season last year, the upside is that I get to continue my journey into 2016. So, I have seven more parks to visit and on this first trip, I’ll be tackling four of them in four consecutive days – starting today in Houston and continuing on to Dallas, Denver and Phoenix.
Since I was heading down to the ‘bayou’, I figured a nice way to kick off the trip was to spend Saturday day/night in New Orleans and enjoy some of the amazing food, music and booze. Last night , the French Quarter was hopping and I had my fill of po’ boys, red beans and rice, jambalaya, Étouffée, hand grenades, fish bowls, hurricanes, pralines and beignets. The early Sunday AM flight wasn’t the easiest to deal with my head still swimming in booze and my legs like rubber, but I was able to make my flight and get to Houston on time.
I was greeted by a damp and grey morning in Houston but had plenty of time to recharge before heading to the park for the nationally televised Sunday night ESPN game vs Boston.
Once I settled in, I decided to take a bus tour of the city. Maybe because it was such a bleak day, the passengers consisted only of myself, a young couple from Beijing and a sleeping homeless man that no one seemed to notice. We were sitting on the upper deck of an open-air bus and about 10 minutes into the tour, a pigeon collided with the forehead of the guy from Beijing! Luckily both pigeon and guy from Beijing were fine although I did learn some Chinese swear words that day. They got off the next stop and it then became a private tour. We saw most of the key attractions in Houston, then the rains came so we pulled the bus over and the tour guide, the driver and myself headed into a bar and watched the basketball game.
As far as attractions and sightseeing in Houston, there’s no way you can do it all in one day. Houston is the nations 4th largest city and really it’s spread out. Some key spots of interest are the space center, the aquarium, Hermann Park all the great bars and shops on Washington Avenue like Canyon Creek Café and Max’s Wine Dive . There’s also the Houston epicenter of dining and entertainment – Bayou Place
About an hour before game time the rain stopped and the skies cleared. I put on an old Jeff Bagwell jersey that I bought around 1998 and probably hadn’t worn since, then headed over to Minute Maid. Sadly, even though there was no more rain, the roof remained closed for the evening. I’m really not a fan of indoor baseball.
Minute Maid Park is located in the heart of Houston’s downtown near the financial district and convention center. Its location adds to the energetic vibe around game time as well as the congestion. There are lots of great venues to catch a pregame meal or drink (or many drinks) before the game, one being the Home Plate Bar & Grill.
For me, getting to the park was a short 10 minute walk from the Marriott through Discovery Green, but for those not staying in town, there’s the Houston’s Metro Rail System which is both convenient and cheap. Traffic can get pretty crazy around the park at game time.
Minute Maid is built on the former site of Houston’s Union Station train depot and has a really distinct blend of old world aesthetics and modern features.
The old Union Station Lobby is the grand entrance to Minute Maid Park (originally constructed in 1911 to serve Houston’s rail customers) which has been restored to its original grandeur complete with soaring ceiling and elegant columns.
Inside the park there are a number of distinct and interesting features – The Crawford Box seats above the left field wall may have the best vantage point in the park and the tickets are highly sought after.
Home Run Alley also has lots of cool exhibits and interactive features in case the game is a blowout and you get bored.
Minute Maid also boasts “Orbit” , who may be the most popular mascot in the majors.
Orbit spends the entire game entertaining, interacting with fans or busting the balls of opposing players and the umpires.
There are a lot of great food options here. Aside from all of the Minute Maid items, Blue Bell Ice Cream and Nolan Ryan brand beef, there is some high-quality Texas BBQ and a few signature items – my favorite of which is the Chicken Waffle Cone which is a full size sweet waffle cone stuffed with creamy mashed potatoes and topped with fried chicken nuggets drizzled with honey mustard sauce. There are also a great assortment of brews including one of the local favorites, Saint Arnold.
Before the game the Astros honored ‘Big Papi’ David Ortiz of the Sox who was playing his last game ever in Houston. They presented him with a 10 gallon hat and cowboy boots – which I can’t imagine Papi ever even thinking about wearing!
The Game itself was pretty exciting. It was my first ever ESPN Sunday night game and you could feel a special vibe from it. The crowd seemed a lot more energized than you’d typically see for an April game.
Ironically, it was the 2nd game on my tour where Kimbrel would blow a save. He did it in a game I was at last September in Petco Park when he was a San Diego Padre. And just like tonight, his team came back to win and got him off the hook. Anyway – great game but the extra innings got me back to the hotel a lot past my hoped for bedtime since tomorrow is another early rise day for me.
Fans – C – I would have expected more enthusiasm given it was a nationally televised Sunday night game against a big-time opponent. Astros are off to a slow start this year after making the playoffs in 2015 – so maybe fan enthusiasm has waned? Friendly enough but not terribly warm although I got some compliments on my Bagwell jersey.
Features – A+ – So many cool features. Home run alley, The Crawford Boxes, The train, Tal’s hill, The Union Station facade, lots of historical artifacts, etc.
Location – A – Right smack in downtown near Discovery Green, the convention center and lots of good watering holes
Food – B – Decent selection of food and beer. Nothing really outstanding.
Game – A – Astros come back to tie in the 9th but lost in extras. Big Papi honored before the game.
Overall Experience – A – Fun park, Great location, Great mascot, Good game. Would have loved to gotten to experience Houston more , but the heavy rains kind of limited that. Also, would have liked the game a lot more if the roof was opened.