Welcome to Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks , a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.
BALLPARK: Minute Maid Park
HOME TEAM: Houston Astros
VISITED: September 22, 2003 
CHRONOLOGY: 27th of 34
RANKING: 28th of 34
Call me Madonna circa “This Used To Be My Playground ,” because Minute Maid Park was sort of my place to play.
Once, anyway. For a few hours. And I had to share.
It certainly provided a different perspective on ballpark matters. Everywhere else I’d gone, I was clearly a spectator. Not at Minute Maid. I was a participant. I was a player — a player for a moment.
Not an Astro, mind you, but I was on the home team. I worked for a diversified company owned by the same guy who owned (and continues to own) the Astros. I was editor of a new magazine that was holding an industry conference in Houston. Our draw was less the conference than the venue. Wrapped around the rather routine business sessions would be two events at Minute Maid Park. The second, on a Monday night, would be the Astros playing the Giants. The first, the night before, would be us playing on the field. 
Membership in Team Drayton McLane would seem to have had its advantages.
To be fair, if you and your friends had the scratch, you could have rented out Minute Maid Park for an evening of hospitality and batting practice. When calling one of our sister subsidiaries, if I was put on hold, a recording let me know Minute Maid Park was available for affairs, for groups from four to 40,000. We had somewhere over a hundred at our conclave and, as I learned, we were charged like anybody else. I don’t even think we got a family discount.
Whatever the price of admission, I remember running around the field of Minute Maid Park, and that was pretty effing awesome.
I mostly roamed the outfield, particularly that dopey Tal’s Hill  which is just as dopey (if not more so) in person as it is on TV. I took one round of BP, which I did with unathletic reticence, quickly forgetting everything I ever learned in gym class about standing in against pitching, even mechanized pitching. I inspected the out-of-town scoreboard from behind its slats. I sat in the visitors’ dugout trying to reload my camera in the dying days of film as a first option. I used the visitors’ dugout bathroom (just inside the runway to the visitors’ clubhouse), same place Mike Piazza might have relieved himself. I was well past my playing days in 2003, but I loved the idea that I could play. I loved the access to a major league field.
What I didn’t love, ultimately, was Minute Maid Park when I came back the next night as a mere spectator. Perhaps it was the being brought down to earth through the open roof effect. Not 24 hours earlier, this had been my playground; now I had to go find my seat like a schnook. But I don’t think that was it. Minute Maid Park just struck a wrong chord for me from the moment I approached it, even when I was going in with my glove on.
It’s in a part of Houston that, at least back then, contained nothing else with a pulse. Maybe a bar or two, but it felt plopped in as if to develop or redevelop downtown. I liked the idea of a converted train station, but it didn’t give off a ballpark feel from the outside. Nobody who worked there seemed particularly friendly (come to think of it, there were a lot of unfriendly people who worked for Mr. McLane). It was kitschy without being fun. Maybe it was an improvement on the Astrodome, which I never visited, but it was the first retro park I saw that I really didn’t much enjoy.
A few mitigating factors may have worked against me besides not being allowed to run around on Tal’s Hill during Monday’s game. Our seats, on a party deck to accommodate our conference group, were close to dead center. As I would learn years later at Citi Field, center field is not an ideal vantage point to take in a ballgame. Also, I was technically working. It wasn’t a tough assignment, schmoozing with our guests and such, but it wasn’t just an evening at the ol’ ballyard. Finally, I had a nagging headache that had been simmering since late afternoon. What I couldn’t have realized was the headache was the first symptom of what would explode into full-blown acute bronchitis by week’s end, a condition that may as well have been walking pneumonia.
The professional aspect of the trip — I gave a well-received presentation Monday afternoon — was also the unforeseen high point of my tenure with the magazine. McLane’s apparatchiks began to pick apart our personnel and screw with our structure, and within seven months, I was no longer part of the family. But I couldn’t have known that, either. I just knew I had a headache as I entered the ballpark and being there made it worse.
Perhaps out of corporate loyalty or my desire to really like the place where I romped the night before, I walked the perimeter pregame in a newly purchased Astros cap. I got a kick out of the ideas informing Minute Maid. I liked the Conoco Home Run Pump set up there in “awl” country to keep track of Astro home runs. I saw the rail car full of oranges and liked that they made the best of the shotgun marriage between Union Station heritage and Minute Maid sponsorship (after it could no longer be Enron Field). The touches and flourishes were good ideas, but the mélange of them resulted in a bit too much of a mélange. Here’s everything, Minute Maid seemed to shout. Isn’t it great?
Shortly after the game began, during one of the early between-inning breaks, our attention was directed to the big screen above us in center to show us the best of the games Friday night…high school football games. The Astros were in a race for the N.L. Central title with the Cubs — a Scotch-taped sign touting playoff tickets was affixed to a window outside (with no lines) — but this was the real action in Texas. That’s when it occurred to me what Minute Maid Park was at heart:
A baseball stadium for people who like football more than baseball.
At some point after the seventh-inning stretch (when we sang along to “Deep In The Heart Of Texas”), I slipped away from the conference group, and explored some more. Unlike at Shea, I was able to walk freely on the Field Level and positioned myself on the first concourse directly behind home plate. I could see mere rows away the back of Drayton McLane’s head. Quickly I called my wife and told her to find the Astros and Giants on Extra Innings. She couldn’t see me, but she could see him. She was looking at his front, I was looking at his back. It was almost like being at the game together with the owner.
Oh yes, the game. The Astros really needed it, clinging to a half-game lead over Chicago. They almost had it, too, having gone ahead in the fourth inning when Marquis Grissom couldn’t handle Tal’s Stupid Hill and Richard Hidalgo’s ball went for a triple (we had a fine view of that from center). San Francisco tied it in the seventh off Octavio Dotel. In the ninth, Astro closer Billy Wagner gave up a single to son of Astro legend Jose Cruz and then consecutive home runs to Pedro Feliz and Ray Durham. The Giants led by a field goal and fell successfully on the ball in the bottom of the ninth. Final: Giants 6 Astros 3, a flat-footed tie with the Cubs for the division.
I’d been at Shea in sickening situations like this but had never been at an alien ballpark when a non-Mets pennant race scenario unraveled. At Shea, we would have let out a terrible schrei, Yiddish for yell. At Minute Maid, they didn’t know from schrei (or, I’m guessing, Yiddish). Oh, there was some booing of Wagner, but when it was all over, everybody filed out peaceably. I couldn’t fathom it. Boy, was this an alien ballpark. Or maybe it was just that there was still time to catch the Broncos and Raiders on Monday Night Football.
The next day, as the conference ended, my throat beginning to trouble me. By Thursday, the Astros were out of sight, out of mind and I was back home at Schrei Stadium, my health be damned, to say goodbye to Bob Murphy . By Saturday, however, I watched with a bit of sadness as the Astros were officially eliminated from contention. The Fox cameras found Drayton McLane and he looked more glum than his customers. In that family sense, I felt bad for him — like grimacing in sympathy for your very rich uncle.
During the offseason, Roger Clemens resurfaced from his brief retirement to announce he’d pitch for Houston. Just after the 2004 season started, six years ago this very week, I was let go by McLane’s people; we had poor advertising sales, which wasn’t my department, but whaddaya gonna do? Having been invited out of the family, I couldn’t have been happier the following October when the Red Sox and Cardinals saved me from having to endure a Yankees-Astros World Series.
I had been a player — a player for a moment. That moment’s long over now, though, and that place in Houston is no longer my playground. It’s Minute Maid Park.
Rusty Staub used to be an Astro as well as a Met. Read about a Grand sighting of everybody’s favorite Orange on Loge 13 .