First stop on a sport-themed couple of weeks in the USA (two stadiums tours, two football matches, two baseball games and one NFL game) was Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros.
A very rainy morning, not exactly what you’d expect from Texas, kept the numbers down on this stadium tour to a grand total of four people, plus the affable Britney, the tour guide. At least the rain, at one stage so bad that I could barely see the next building from the Chase Tower Observation Deck in the centre of the city, had stopped.
Apparently, according to Britney, the weather in Houston can be a bit “rainy and gross” (gross being hot and humid) at times, which was what led the city of Houston to build the first indoor stadium, the Astrodome, in 1965. For the newly renamed Houston Astros, in a nod to the astronauts down the road at NASA, it was a brave new world. Indoors, air conditioned, with the first animated scoreboard, and after they found out that playing indoors kills the grass, the first artificial turf too – Astroturf.
By the 1990s though, the place was looking tired, and the trend for retro-looking stadiums back in downtown locations saw money raised to build Minute Maid Park in 2000. While the need to combat that same “rainy and gross” weather still held true, the solution was to have a roof again, but a retractable one. For nice days the roof rolls away and it is completely open, otherwise it shuts and makes its a/c interior an attractive place to be.
I’ve glad I went with the roof open though. It took me a while to acquire a taste for baseball grounds, as they always seemed so lopsided at first, but I now find a ballpark on a sunny day is a very nice place to be, even if I’ve never really managed to acquire much of a love of the game itself.
The retro style, strangely never copied by stadium designers anywhere else in the world it seems, is an effort to recreate the more intimate surrounds of stadiums of the past – most of which got knocked down in the name of progress after the Astros set the ball rolling.
It’s also about the details, the little things that make a place interesting. Yes there are huge electronic video screens/scoreboards and large adverts everywhere to break up the monotony of blank wall, but here there’s also a large manually operated scoreboard for the out-of-town scores. In a nod to the past, in a city the desperately needs something of the past to cling on to, you also have the main foyer being the beautifully restored foyer of the original Union Station that once sat on the site. Train motifs abound, the main being a full-sized (actually 25% bigger than full size) steam train which chuffs along a rooftop track every time the Astros score a home run. An oversized fuel pump below keeps a count of the total number hit. Beneath this is the away team’s practice area, with the artificial turf inside coming from the old Astrodome.
Maybe the “most unique”, as they say over there, is a small hill in the field. There’s no reason for it other than someone thinking it a good idea, but the very deepest part of the outfield features a 30 degree slope. It’s only about nine metres wide and perhaps four deep, but it’s certainly distinctive, and that’s all that matters.
I did try to have a look at the old Astrodome, out towards the Southern end the Houston tram, which was an experience in itself. It appears to be a public service to Houston’s homeless community, where riding the line with a shopping trolley full of junk, and a toilet roll, barely raises an eyebrow. It handily passes the “Dollar Shop”, which is where the beggars go to buy some crap.
On the journey I think I saw the world’s worst, and unsurprisingly least successful, busker. She was fat & ugly (a euphemism would be less kind), probably in her late 50s at least, and had no teeth (or “aah’ve gart no teeth” as she quaintly put it in her Texan drawl), and either drunk or mad (possibly both).
She was holding out a cup to collect donations, and proceeded to sing. I use the word “sing” in its loosest and purely literal sense, as while she had no teeth, she had even less singing ability.
There must have been a whole host of songs she could have chosen that may, in some optimistic world, solicited a favourable response. Instead, she started singing about he life as a “ho”, day in, day out, apparently. I can only hope this was a song she’d heard, rather than being her own composition based upon her own life. The latter is too frightening to think about, even accounting for Houston’s desperate (and presumably blind) community, although it would go a long way to explaining why she has to go out begging.
After her efforts raised a grand total of $0.00c, she sat down, and invited some poor guy to “sit ohn mah laahp” if he wanted to. After a millisecond of contemplation, he decided to decline this offer, and looked frankly terrified.
Sadly arrival at the Astrodome wasn’t as interesting. It’s still there, unused and slowly rotting away. From the outside it’s hard to believe the building was being hailed as the 8th wonder of the world. the contrast is perhaps starker due to the new home next door of the Houston Texans NFL team. The old Houston Oilers also used to also call the Astrodome their home until they moved to Tennessee in 1996. The new 71000 seat NRG Stadium is state of the art, although sadly only offers tours twice a week, and a walk round the outside was about as thrilling as it got.