Minute Maid Park, previously known as The Ballpark at Union Station, Enron Field, and Astros Field, is a ballpark in Downtown Houston, Texas, United States, that opened in 2000 to house the Houston Astros of Major League Baseball (MLB). The ballpark is Houston's first retractable-roofed stadium, and features a natural grass playing field. The ballpark was built as a replacement of the Astrodome, the first domed sports stadium ever built, which opened in 1965. It is named for soft drink brand Minute Maid, a subsidiary of The Coca-Cola Company, which acquired naming rights in 2002 for $100 million over 30 years. As of 2015, Minute Maid Park has a seating capacity of 41,574, which includes 5,095 club seats and 63 luxury suites.
The largest entrance to the park is inside what was once Houston's Union Station, and the left-field side of the stadium features a railway as homage to the site's history. The train moves along a track on top of the length of the exterior wall beyond left field whenever an Astros player hits a home run, and/or the Astros win a game. The engine's coal car is filled with giant oranges in reference to Minute Maid's most famous product, orange juice.
Union Station and pre-ballpark era
In 1909, during the time when West End Park was Houston's premier ballpark, the Houston Belt and Terminal Railway Company commissioned the design of a new union station for the city from New York City-based architects Warren and Wetmore. The location called for the demolition of several structures of Houston prominence. Horace Baldwin Rice's residence and Adath Yeshurun Congregation's synagogue among other structures were removed.
With an original estimated cost of $1 million USD, Union Station was constructed by the American Construction Company for an eventual total of five times that amount. Exterior walls were constructed of granite, limestone, and terracotta, while the interior used an extensive amount of marble. It was completed and opened on March 1, 1911. At the time, Houston, with seventeen railways, was considered the main railroad hub of the Southern United States. This is also evident by the Seal of Houston, which prominently features a locomotive. Two more floors were added the following year.
The station served as the main inter-city passenger terminal for Houston for over seven decades thereafter. Passenger rail declined greatly after World War II, and the last regularly-scheduled train, the Lone Star, moved its service to Houston's current Amtrak station on July 31, 1974. With this move, the building effectively became abandoned. On November 10, 1977, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service.
Planning and funding
In August 1995, Astros owner Drayton McLane, then leasing the Astrodome from Harris County, commented to the Houston Chronicle that he was not in the market for a new ballpark. In reference to Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium and Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium, McLane noted, "[...] I remember when those were built in the 1970s and those were as good a stadiums as there were. They were the most modern stadiums in the world, and now they're saying they're all bad. That they can't make a go of it without a new stadium. It helps, but there are other things involved."
Later that year, Houston's NFL franchise and joint-tenant of the Astrodome, the Houston Oilers, announced that they were leaving to Nashville, Tennessee in order to have a new stadium built for the team there. Citing a lack of adequate luxury boxes, in October, Astros Vice-President Bob McClaren claimed that renovations to the Astrodome would help increase revenue. Drayton McLane pointed toward Astrodome renovations as necessary saying "It's 30 years old and not a lot of money has been spent to remodel it." According to the organization, the team was in danger of being sold to a Virginia businessman who was expected to move the Astros to Washington D.C. because of poor revenue.
In June 1996, University of Houston alumnus, BMC Software and San Diego Padres owner, John J. Moores, who wanted to own the next NFL franchise in Houston, met with Texas State Senator Mario Gallegos, Jr., and other local Hispanic leaders in regards to the future of a football-only Astrodome and a new baseball-only ballpark in Downtown Houston. Meanwhile, Harris County Judge Robert Eckels pieced together a plan to build a new ballpark next to the Astrodome in the Astrodomain. The Astros echoed the Astrodomain location sentiment because they believed construction time would be shorter. Eckels, who convinced then Mayor Bob Lanier of the lack of viability for the ballpark in a downtown location, was quoted as saying, "They keep telling me about these miracles in other cities, but it doesn't work in Houston [...] If we are going to put this stadium some place, let's stick with a proven place." This plan was considered to be nearly finalized when the Astros and Harris County agreed to a $250 million USD county-funded stadium whose overrun costs would be funded by the Astros.
In August 1996, Houston's Union Station received a $2 million USD grant from the Texas Transportation Commission for renovation in a separate project. Plans for the new ballpark's location drastically changed by September mostly in response to Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay's input and pledge to substantially contribute to funding if placed downtown. It was at this time that the Union Station location was proposed by Lay. Upon an agreement between all of the leadership entities, the idea of a retractable roof stadium was confirmed for the new ballpark. A November referendum was planned for Harris County residents to approve the deal.
The Harris County referendum that took place on November 5, 1996 to help fund the ballpark passed by a narrow margin of 51% to 49%. In response to the referendum, during the 75th Texas Legislature Texas State Senator John Whitmire of Houston sponsored a bill supported by five of the six area Harris County senators that would create the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority. With companion House Bill 92 authored by Houston-born Representative Kim Brimer voted upon and adopted by both chambers, the authorization for creation of a sports authority was approved. It was signed into law by Governor George W. Bush on June 2, 1997. The Harris County-Houston Sports Authority would assist in financing for the new ballpark as well as allow for renovation of the Astrodome by allowing for special county-wide taxation of rental cars, tickets, parking, and hotel use.
In June 1997, with the ability to create a sports authority signed into law, concurrent votes of the Harris County Commissioners' Court and the Houston City Council to establish the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority on effective September 1, 1997. Its chairman and twelve other directors were jointly appointed by the Mayor of Houston and Harris County Judge. The institution remains in existence today.
The ballpark was named "Enron Field" after a $100 million, 30-year naming rights deal was made with Enron on April 7, 1999.
Design and construction
Early stadium sketches from Kansas City-based Populous (then HOK Sport) using the working title "The Ballpark at Union Station" were released to the public on October 11, 1996, where Astros President Tal Smith was open about his suggestions for the stadium including the location of the flagpole in center field and a traditional dirt path from the pitcher's mound to home plate. While the dirt path was not implemented, the flagpole idea became known as "Tal's Hill" and was a feature of the finished ballpark through the end of the 2015 season.
In late 1997, it was announced that local Brown & Root would manage construction of the stadium, while Populous with Walter P. Moore would design it. The electrification of Minute Maid Park's retractable roof was developed by VAHLE, Inc.
Ground broke for The Ballpark at Union Station on October 30, 1997. Its groundbreaking ceremony was attended by Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, Houston Mayor Bob Lanier, Astros owner Drayton McLane, Harris County Judge Robert Eckles, Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee, and Harris County-Houston Sports Authority Chairman Jack Rains.
Statues of longtime Astros players Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio are located in the exterior of the ballpark in a space known as The Plaza at Minute Maid Park. The two former teammates are depicted playing baseball with each other. The plaza also displays pennants for all Astros division and league championships as well as several plaques to commemorate notable Astros and their achievements.
Opening and current use
The ballpark was first christened "Enron Field" on April 7, 2000, with naming rights sold to the Houston energy and financial trading company in a 30-year, $100 million deal. However, Astros management faced a public relations problem when the energy corporation went bankrupt in 2001 due to a financial scandal. Quickly wanting to distance themselves from Enron, Astros ownership asked to prematurely end naming rights, but Enron refused. On February 5, 2002, Astros ownership filed a motion with the court overseeing the company's bankruptcy to force Enron to make an immediate decision on the matter. By February 27, the two entities agreed to end the naming rights, and settled with the Astros paying $2.1 million to Enron. Without a naming rights agreement in place, the ballpark became officially known as "Astros Field".
In June 2002, it was announced that the Astros had sold naming rights of the ballpark to locally based Coca-Cola subsidiary Minute Maid for $100 million over 30 years. Its official name was then changed to "Minute Maid Park".
During its days as Enron Field, it was also dubbed "Ten-Run" or "Home Run" Field due to its cozy left-field dimensions. In keeping with this theme while paying homage to its current sponsor, the nickname "The Juice Box" is colloquially used today. The dubbing of the park as an extreme hitter-friendly park has been called into question in recent years. The 2009 season saw the park ranked 24th out of 30 Major League parks in terms of runs scored in the park and ten other ballparks saw more home runs hit. The long center-field and left-center-field dimensions help to balance out the park significantly, and Minute Maid's batting park factor is consistently very near average. However, in 2014, it was ranked the 12th-most batter-friendly ballpark by comparing the statistics from the 2012 and 2013 seasons and 2014 (accurate to April 12, 2014).
In 2004, the Astros launched Wi-Fi throughout the ballpark, allowing fans to use the Internet while attending a game for a fee. In addition, the ballpark was the first major sports facility to use a separate video board exclusively for closed captioning for the hearing impaired of PA system and video board content, rather than appearing along the bottom of the main board.
In 2006, the Chick-fil-A cows were unveiled on the foul poles, saying EAT MOR FOWL, and the cows have Astros caps on. Anytime an Astros player hits the pole, the fans in attendance get a free chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A. Hunter Pence is the first and second Astro to hit the left field "Fowl Pole" when he did it twice in the 2007 season. Ty Wigginton became the third Astro to hit the left field pole on September 16, 2007. Kazuo Matsui hit the right field foul pole on August 3, 2009 with a two-run homer in the sixth inning to beat the Giants. Carlos Lee hit the left field pole on July 28, 2010, giving the Astros an 8-1 win against the Cubs. Two days later, Jeff Keppinger hit the left field pole to help the Astros win 5-0 against the Brewers.
After the 2008 season, the Astros' groundskeepers began installing 2.3 acres (9,300 m2) of a new turfgrass playing surface at Minute Maid Park. The Astros also became one of the first to use the new Chemgrass, later known as AstroTurf after its first well-publicized use at the Houston Astrodome in 1966.
In honor of longtime Astros broadcaster Milo Hamilton, the City of Houston officially renamed a portion of the Ballpark District to the "Hall of Fame District", and the portion of Hamilton Avenue that runs within that district to "Milo Hamilton Way" on April 8, 2009.
For the 2011 season, the park added a large Daktronics HD screen nicknamed "El Grande" replacing the original one in center field. At 54 feet high and 124 feet wide, it is the third largest scoreboard in Major League Baseball, behind Safeco Field (home of the Seattle Mariners) and Kaufmann Stadium (home of the Kansas City Royals). The old screen was taken out and replaced by billboards. Additionally, a smaller HD screen was added on the far left field wall. The ring of advertisement screens around the park were replaced in favor of HD ribbon boards.
After the Astros reverted to their original colors and logo in 2013, much of Minute Maid Park was repainted to navy and orange from brick red. Signs with the previous logo and colors were also replaced. More than 4,500 US gallons (17,000 l) of paint were used and over 1,000 signs were replaced.
- On October 9, 2005, Minute Maid Park hosted the longest postseason game in Major League Baseball history to date, both in terms of time and number of innings. The Astros defeated the Atlanta Braves 7-6 in a game lasting 18 innings, which took 5 hours and 50 minutes to play.
- On October 25, 2005, Minute Maid Park hosted the first World Series game ever played in Texas, and the longest World Series game ever played, which the Astros lost to the eventual World Series champion Chicago White Sox 7-5 in 14 innings; this game lasted 5 hours and 41 minutes. The following night, the White Sox won their 3rd title--and first in 88 years--at Minute Maid Park.
- On September 30, 2007, in Craig Biggio's last game of his career, Minute Maid Park hit the highest attendance in its 8-year history by selling 43,823 tickets, 107% of its capacity.
- On April 5, 2010, Opening Day of 2010, Minute Maid Park surpassed its highest attendance total once again by selling 43,836 tickets, 13 more tickets than its previous record.
- In his third start as an Astro, pitcher Mike Fiers threw the stadium's first no-hitter in a 3-0 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 21, 2015.
Events other than professional baseball
While primarily a baseball venue, Minute Maid Park can adequately host sports such as soccer and both codes of rugby. The venue can also play host to large-scale music concerts. It is not large enough to comfortably accommodate American football.
Its debut as a soccer venue happened during the 2006 edition of the CONCACAF Champions Cup. The stadium hosted the first leg of the quarterfinal between Portmore United of Jamaica (the "home" team) and Club América of Mexico.
The stadium also is the host of the Houston College Classic college baseball, part of the winter fan festival held in February. The tournament features local schools the University of Houston and Rice University every year, a pair of major conference schools, alternating between Big 12 members University of Texas at Austin, Texas Tech University, Baylor University and SEC member Texas A&M University, as well as two other teams from around the country.
The nationally syndicated TV talk show Rachael Ray held a mass wedding at the park following Hurricane Ike for 40 couples who were unable to get married after a company they paid to hold the weddings went bankrupt. Comedian Jeffrey Ross served as best man for all 40 couples. The ceremony was aired as part of a special episode of the talk show on November 21, 2008.
Minute Maid Park hosted a cricket match on November 11, 2015, the second in a series of three Cricket All-Stars matches played by retired greats of the game. Shane Warne's Warne's Warriors clinched the series 2-0. Keeping with the naming conventions from the previous match at Minute Maid Park, the ends were named after Nolan Ryan and José Cruz, two players that have their numbers retired by the Astros.
Paul McCartney, Jay Z, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Nelly, and Madonna have all performed at Minute Maid Park.
The University of Houston-Downtown also holds their commencement ceremony in Minute Maid Park.
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In dramatic contrast to the Astrodome, the most pitching-oriented stadium in Major League Baseball for most of its existence, Minute Maid Park is known for being particularly hitter-friendly down the lines, especially in left field where it is only 315 ft (96 m) to the Crawford Boxes, though the wall there is 19 feet (5.8 m) tall. In a challenge to home run hitters, former Astros owner Drayton McLane's office window, located in the old Union Station and directly above the Crawford Boxes, is made of glass and a sign below the window is marked 422 ft (135 m) from home plate.
In contrast to the ease of hitting a home run to the Crawford Boxes, it is quite difficult to hit a ball out in center field, as the dead-center wall is 436 ft (133 m) from home plate and holds the top spot for active MLB ballparks for the deepest center field of any park in baseball. Fielding is a challenge there as well, due to the 90-foot (27 m) wide center field incline called Tal's Hill, for former team president Tal Smith, an element taken from Crosley Field and other historic ballparks (in a bit of gallows humor, the hill is also known as the "Grassy Knoll"), and the flagpole in play, an element taken from Yankee Stadium before its remodeling in the mid-'70s and Tiger Stadium among others. Milwaukee Brewers player Richie Sexson once hit a ball off the flagpole. There was a mark there until the 2011 season, when the pole was repainted.
The visiting team's bullpen is housed entirely in the exterior left field wall, next to the Crawford Boxes, making it one of the few bullpens in Major League ballparks to be completely indoors. Although windows in the outfield fence offer a view into and from the bullpen, its entrance is actually built into the side of the Crawford Boxes.
While Crosley Field's infamous left field terrace, which was half as steep (only 15°) as Tal's Hill (30°), was a natural feature of the site on which the park was located, Tal's Hill is purely decorative. Both features have been held in equal disdain by center fielders. This hill has caused some of the most replayed catches in recent baseball history, and plenty of controversy as well. Lance Berkman said, "If the ball rolls onto the hill, it's not steep enough to roll back, so you have to go get it. Then there's the chance of running into the flagpole that's on it and getting hurt." Fans started an online petition to remove the hill and flagpole, though the petition has since been discontinued. On June 4, 2015, the Astros announced that they would be removing Tal's Hill as part of a $15 million renovation for the 2016 season. The center field fence will be moved in from its current 436 feet (which since 2000 is the longest in baseball) to around 409 feet (125 m) from home plate.
The ballpark features 19,201 seats on the lower level, 7,132 seats on the second level, 880 seats on the suite level, and 13,750 seats on the upper level.
A concourse above Tal's Hill features the "Phillips 66 Home Run Porch" in left-center field that is over the field of play, and features a classic gasoline pump that displays the total number of Astros home runs hit since the park opened.
The stadium can be fully air-conditioned when required.
Minute Maid Park is located in Downtown Houston in a centralized area of the city, and accessible via a short driving distance on Interstate 10 (Katy Freeway/East Freeway), Interstate 69 (Southwest Freeway/Eastex Freeway), and Interstate 45 (Gulf Freeway/North Freeway). Street parking, garage parking, and private lot parking are available, with an estimated 25,000 spots within walking distance to the ballpark. Taxi cabs and pedicabs are also commonly found near the surrounding ballpark area.
Public transportation allows for accessibility via bus or light rail service. Using METRORail North Line with service at Preston Station, the ballpark is 6 blocks away. A light rail station within one block from Minute Maid Park known as "Convention District Station" is currently under construction as an expansion of METRORail, and will service the planned East End Line and Southeast Line upon their implementations.
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