Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Open Star

[Fair and Unbalanced contributor sasqi and her husband Paul are on a two-month road-trip stopping at several major- and minor-league ballparks. Here is their first report from the road.]

Our first city of this multi-stop tour of the U.S. took us to the home of the Houston Astros, Minute Maid Park. The park was opened as Enron Field in 2000, and still feels shiny and new. And apparently they've just updated their giant outfield video board (124 x 54 ft) with Hi-Def extra super-dooper technology, which made for what Paul and I both admitted was a pretty glorious experience from most seats in the park. The team takes advantage of all that screen yardage by posting previous ABs, both lineups, current relevant stats and official play scoring all at the same time. And the batter's previous ABs are denoted as you might see them in a traditional hand-lettered scorecard, only each note is about 6 feet tall. In a similar vein of appreciation for certain traditions in baseball, especially impressive in light of their deference to the huge video screen (they have named it "El Grande"), the park also has a hand-hung out-of-town scoreboard in left field, complete with space for 9 innings of scoring--something Paul and I actually are a little too attached to, since we're usually watching the bay area teams at the same time as we're watching locally. The OOT scoreboard did a decent job staying up to date, which one could confirm by using ones smartphone on the free and seamless in-stadium wireless network. But it was much more fun to put the phone away and just glance up into the field.

Our two evening games took place midweek in the second week in April for the 2nd and 3rd game of an Astros-Cubs series. As expected, lots of Cubs fans were scattered throughout the park -- I sometimes think they are the fans who deserve true diehard status. The Cubs lost Night 1 and won Night 2, both in extreme ways--their win came after Zambrano pitched several strong innings then surrendered 5 runs to let the Astros come within 1, but not before he also smacked a deep home run to left field, into the rather cool promenade-of-Astros-history. I had never seen Zambrano pitch in person, but Paul had seen him at Wrigley, and he hit a HR that game, too. With the dome open, and the view of the Houston skyline, with just one nearby building providing standing-room spectating, and 80 degree first-pitch weather, it didn't really matter who won, despite the fact that the error total for both games was five...and it was hard not to get caught up during the Astros win, since they're not exactly the frontrunner. Their outfielders Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence caught our eyes, and their winning pitcher, Brett Myers, was sharp and a treat to watch.

Where else can an urban ballpark claim U.S. Presidents regularly in the stands? I want to know. Sure enough, late in the second game, we noticed a whole bunch of applause that had nothing to do with anything on the field, and looked two decks below to see GWB Sr. getting helped into his wheelchair and Barbara following him out.  Our third deck seats gave us great high views above home plate. High enough to fantasize some kind of peanut-shell spray and to contemplate the extreme cheer in the ovation the Bushes received.

It is worth making some comparisons to our home park, the Oakland Coliseum: Paul found the food more than passable for his omnivorous palate, but I had less options than I am used to. Still, we got slightly more beer and peanuts for the buck. And Paul was bowled over not only by the cleanliness of the urinals in the men's room, but also the fact that there are "individual" urinals (as opposed to, and this is news to me, the trough at the Coliseum.)


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