It still seems strange to me to see the Houston Astros in the American League, just as it's strange to see the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League. But, that's the way it is now.
I should have gotten this done sooner, as the opener is at 7:10 PM Eastern Time on Tuesday, giving you about 2 days to get there, if you are inclined to go. And this Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are the only games the Yankees will play in Houston this season.
So this is my only chance to do this -- and since technical difficulties stopped me from doing it for Houston last season, I have to do it now.
Disclaimer: I have never been to Texas, let alone to Houston, so all of this information is secondhand at best, although much of it comes from the Astros' own website.
Before You Go. The Houston Chronicle is predicting daytime temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s, and nighttime temperatures from the mid-60s to the low 70s, plus a 20 percent chance of rain on Tuesday. This won't matter during the game, since the retractable roof will likely be closed in order to keep out Houston's infamous heat and humidity anyway -- making you glad you're going in April, not later in the year. But you won't be indoors for the entire visit, so dress accordingly and bring an umbrella.
Houston is in the Central Time Zone, so you’ll be an hour behind New York time. Although Texas was a Confederate State, you won't need to bring your passport or change your money.
Tickets. The Astros averaged 20,394 fans per game last season, which was actually up from their 2012 figure, despite having the worst season, record-wise, in club's history. But then, even at their all-time peak, in 2006 and 2007, in the wake of the preceding 2 seasons being the first one in which they ever won a postseason series and the first one in which they ever won a Pennant, they topped out at 37,000 seats, leaving them nearly 5,000 short of the park's current listed capacity of 42,060 seats. Getting tickets for the opener might be a problem, but for the other 2, it should not be.
In spite of using "Dynamic Pricing," due to it being the Yankees in town, tickets are considerably cheaper than we're used to in New York. Forget the Dugout Boxes and Field Boxes, but Mezzanine seats are $56 for the opener and half that, $28, for the other games; upper "View Deck I" seats are $37 and $23, "View Deck II" are $34 and $23, and there is a special "Outfield Deck" section where seats for $25 and $19.
Getting There. It’s 1,629 miles from Times Square in New York to downtown Houston, and 1,637 miles from Yankee Stadium to Minute Maid Park. You’re probably thinking that you should be flying.
The good news: Flying to Houston can be done for as little as $453. Considering how far it is, that is relatively cheap. The bad news: Your flight won't be nonstop: You'll have to change planes in either Dallas or Charlotte to get to Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport. (That's named for the father, not the son.)
There are only 2 ways to get there by train. One is to change trains in Chicago, and then change to a bus in Longview, Texas. The other is to change trains twice, in Washington and New Orleans, and then stay overnight in New Orleans. No, I'm not making that up. You don't want that -- and don't be fooled by the fact that Houston's Union Station and the ballpark are next-door to each other, because Amtrak uses a different station a mile away. So let's just forget Amtrak, and move on.
Greyhound allows you to leave Port Authority Bus Terminal at 8:15 PM tonight, and arrive at Houston at 1:25 on Tuesday, a trip of 42 hours and 10 minutes. But that would require changing buses in Richmond (an hour and 5-minute layover), Atlanta (also 1:05) and New Orleans (45 minutes). It also includes layovers of 25 minutes in Raleigh, 1:10 in Charlotte, and then there's Alabama, with half an hour in Montgomery and an hour and 10 minutes in Mobile. Then 20 minutes in Baton Rouge. And you'd have to leave tonight, Sunday, in order to make it by the Tuesday night game. It's $415 round-trip, so you're better off spending a little extra and flying. The Houston Greyhound station is at 2121 Main Street, a mile and a half from the ballpark.
If you actually think it’s worth it to drive, get someone to go with you so you’ll have someone to talk to and one of you can drive while the other sleeps. You’ll be taking Interstate 78 across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania to Harrisburg, where you'll pick up Interstate 81 and take that through the narrow panhandles of Maryland and West Virginia, down the Appalachian spine of Virginia and into Tennessee, where you'll pick up Interstate 40, stay on that briefly until you reach Interstate 75, and take that until you reach Interstate 59, which will take you into Georgia briefly and then across Alabama and Mississippi, and into Louisiana, where you take Interstate 12 west outside New Orleans. Take that until you reach Interstate 10. Once in Texas, Exit 770 will get you to downtown Houston.
If you do it right, you should spend about an hour and a half in New Jersey, 3 hours in Pennsylvania, 15 minutes in Maryland, half an hour in West Virginia, 5 and a half hours in Virginia, 3 hours and 45 minutes in Tennessee, half an hour in Georgia, 4 hours in Alabama, 2 hours and 45 minutes in Mississippi, 4 hours and 30 minutes in Louisiana and 2 hours in Texas. Including rest stops, and accounting for traffic, we’re talking about a 40-hour trip.
Even if you’re only going for one game, no matter how you got there, get a hotel and spend a night. You’ll be exhausted otherwise. Trust me, I know: Trains and buses are not good ways to get sleep.
Once In the City. Houston was founded in 1836 as Allen's Landing, and was renamed for Sam Houston, "the Father of Texas." There are 2.1 million people in the city proper, making it the 4th-largest in America, and 6.2 million in the metropolitan area, making it 5th.
The sales tax in the State of Texas is 6.25 percent, but in the City of Houston it goes up to 8.25 percent. The city doesn't appear to have a "centerpoint," where the address numbers start at 1, but there is a Main Street, running northeast/southwest.
There is a light rail system, called METRORail, but you probably won't need it to get from a downtown hotel to the ballpark. One zone is $1.25, and the price rises to $4.50 for 4 zones, so a daypass is a better bargain at $3.00.
Going In. Minute Maid Park is in Downtown Houston. The mailing address is 501 Crawford Street. Parking is $15. Crawford Street bounds the left field side, Texas Avenue the 3rd base side, Hamilton Street the 1st base side and Congress Street the right field side. The ballpark points due north, but that won't matter, since its only "open" side, left field, has a window that doesn't face any neat-looking skyscrapers.
Unlike the Astrodome, "the Juice Box" has real grass. Also unlike its infamous predecessor, it is definitely a hitter's park. The left-field pole is just 315 feet from home plate, with the Crawford Boxes (named for the street) above. Left-center is 362, deep left-center is 404, center is 436, right-center is 373, and the right-field pole is 326.
Originally named Enron Field when it opened in 2000, the park was nicknamed Ten Run Field -- before Enron became the largest bankruptcy ever to that point, and Coca-Cola bought the naming rights and stuck the Minute Maid brand name, which it owned, on the stadium.
This change in the stadium name, but not in the propensity for offense, led Yankee broadcaster John Sterling, during an Interleague game there, to tell partner Charlie Steiner, "You know, Charlie, I understand that, at Minute Maid Park, the balls are juiced." To which Steiner said, "Ah, that's just pulp fiction."
Left field features a CITGO sign, but that and the 315-foot distance are the only things that will remind anyone of Fenway Park in Boston. While a rail line does go past Fenway, the Red Sox don't incorporate that into the park. Here, they do, with an old-style steam locomotive chugging past for each Astro home run.
Center field features Tal's Hill, an incline in the mode of Cincinnati's old Crosley Field. It's named for Tal Smith, longtime Astro executive. And, like the pre-renovation old Yankee Stadium and Tiger Stadium in Detroit, the flagpole is on the field and in play. Above the Hill is the Phillips 66 Home Run Pump, a mockup of an old-style gasoline pump that displays how many Astro home runs have been hit there since the 2000 opening.
The foul poles have Chick-fil-A cows on them, reading "EAT MOR FOWL," as opposed to the chain's usual "EAT MOR CHIKN." When an Astro hits one of these "fowl poles" on the fly, every fan in attendance gets a coupon for a free chicken sandwich. Hunter Pence, now with the San Francisco Giants, was the first to hit the left-field pole, and former Met Kazuo Matsui was the first to hit the right-field pole.
Food. Being a “Wild West” city, you might expect Houston to have Western-themed stands with “real American food” at its ballpark. Being a Southern State, you might also expect to have barbecue. And you would be right on both counts. They have Tex-Mex food at Goya Latin Cafe and La Cantina at Section 119, El Real Fajita at 131, Kickin' Nachos at 114 and 427, Maverick Smokehouse at 124 and 410, Taqueria and Grille at 216, and Rosa's Cantina at 411 (almost certainly named for the place in the Marty Robbins song "El Paso," even if that is on the other side of the State).
They work the train theme with All Aboard at 109, Union Station at 113, Dining Car Grill at 125, Whistle Stop Libations at 218 and Chew Chew Express at 416.
There’s also stands with baseball-themed names: Baseball Bar at 207 and Little Biggs Slider Cart at 111. Chinese food is at Larry's Big Bamboo at 118 and Little Bamboo at 422, and there are 5 Papa John's Pizza stands. And there are several Blue Bell Ice Cream stands.
Team History Displays. The Astros, like the Mets, celebrated their 50th Anniversary season in 2012, so they now have plenty of history. However, also like the Mets, it's a very hit-and-miss history. They have made the postseason 9 times, but only won 1 Pennant, in 2005. Stanchions representing that Pennant, their NL Western Division titles of 1980 and '86, and their NL Central Division titles of 1997, '98, '99 and 2001 are on the left-field wall.
The club's retired numbers crown the scoreboard in right field. Officially, there are 9 of them: 32, 1960s pitcher Jim Umbricht, who died of cancer while still a young player; 40, 1970s pitcher Don Wilson, who also died while still active; 24, 1960s-70s outfielder Jimmy Wynn; 25, 1970s outfielder Jose Cruz; 49, 1970s pitcher, 1990s manager, and on-again-off-again broadcaster Larry Dierker; 34, 1980s pitcher Nolan Ryan, a Houston-area native; 33, 1980s pitcher Mike Scott; and the 2 men who got the Astros through their 1990s and 2000s postseason berths, 5, 1st baseman Jeff Bagwell, and 7, 2nd baseman Craig Biggio.
The universally-retired 42 for Jackie Robinson, who was already elected to the Hall of Fame before the Astros ever played a game, is also on that wall. This is somewhat appropriate, seeing as how the Astros were the first MLB team to play in a former Confederate State, acknowledging that the arrival of Robinson and other nonwhite players was a good thing.
Not on that wall, and not officially retired, but neither have they been reissued, are the 17 of 2000s 1st baseman Lance Berkman, and the 57 of 1990s pitcher Darryl Kile, who died while with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2002. The Astros do not have a team Hall of Fame.
Ryan and Roger Clemens, born in Ohio but grew up in the Houston suburbs with Ryan as his hero, were named to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team in 1999, although Clemens hadn't yet thrown a pitch for the Astros. That same year, they and Joe Morgan were named to The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Players. Were that list to be done again, Biggio might make it, while Bagwell would have an outside shot.
Stuff. Minute Maid Park has a Team Store in the left field corner of the ballpark, selling standard team-store gear. This being Texas, cowboy-style hats with the team logo are available.
A 50th Anniversary (1962-2012) team video is available, and so is a CD of longtime Astro broadcaster Milo Hamilton (who is probably best known not for any of his Astros' calls but for calling Hank Aaron's 715th home run while with the Braves). But since the Astros have only been in 1 World Series (2005), and got swept in it, don't look for the official highlight video. The only way you'll see highlights of their 2005 Pennant run is on the anniversary DVD.
As for books about the team, Sara Gilbert (not the Roseanne actress) has published a 50th Anniversary retrospective, with the not-very-imaginative title of The Story of the Houston Astros. Jose De Jesus Ortiz and former Astro catcher Brad Ausmus commemorated the 2005 Pennant season with Houston Astros: Armed and Dangerous.
During the Game. If you were wearing Dallas Cowboy gear to a Houston Texans game, you might be in trouble. But Astro fans aren't especially hostile to New Yorkers, so safety won't be an issue.
The Astros' mascot is Orbit, a "little green man" alien, tying in with the Astrodome's space-age theme. When the new park opened, he was replaced with Junction Jack, a jackrabbit dressed in an old-time railroad engineer's uniform, tying in with the train theme. But fans wanted Orbit back, and in 2013, he returned and Jack was dumped.
During the 7th inning stretch, after playing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," the Astros play that classic Texan song "Deep in the Heart of Texas." They do not appear to have a postgame victory song.
After the Game. Houston is a comparatively low-crime city, and as long as you behave yourself, they'll probably behave themselves, win or lose.
Across Texas Avenue at Hamilton Street, opposite the home plate entrance, is -- yet another ordinary name -- Home Plate Bar and Grill. As far as I can tell, it's the only bar around the park with a baseball-themed name. A block down Hamilton, at Franklin Street, is a place with a much better name: Joystix. Sadly (if you're looking to have drinks and fun after the game), this is a place that sells old pinball machines and video games, not a 1980s nostalgia place (which would tie in with the Astros' most successful period until 1997), not a combination 1980s-style mall (or beach boardwalk) arcade and modern bar. It's probably just as well: Can you imagine the combination of Pac-Man and beer (or worse, Missile Command and whiskey)?
Lucky's Pub appears to be the go-to bar for New Yorkers living in the Houston area. It is at 801 St. Emanuel Street at Rusk Street, 5 blocks from Minute Maid Park, adjacent to BBVA Compass Stadium, the new home of MLS' Houston Dynamo.
I can find no mention of a place in Houston for expatriate New Yorkers, not even a place where Giants or Jets fans living there go to watch their boys on autumn Sundays.
Sidelights. In 1965, the Astrodome opened, and was nicknamed "The Eighth Wonder of the World." It sure didn't seem like an exaggeration: The first roofed sports stadium in the world. (Supposedly, the Romans built stadia with canvas roofs, but that's hardly the same thing.) The Astros played there until 1999, and then moved into Enron Field/Minute Maid Park for the 2000 season. The AFL/NFL's Oilers played at the Astrodome from 1968 to 1996, when they moved to Tennessee to become the Titans.
In 2002, the new NFL team, the Houston Texans, began play next-door to the Astrodome, at NRG Stadium, which, like Minute Maid Park, has a retractable roof. Suddenly, the mostly-vacant Astrodome seemed, as one writer put it, like a relic of a future that never came to be. (This same writer said the same thing of Shea Stadium and, across Roosevelt Avenue, the surviving structures of the 1964 World's Fair.)
Once, the Astrodome was flashy enough to be the site of movies like The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training and Murder at the World Series. (Both in 1977. In the latter, the Astros, who had never yet gotten close to a Pennant, played the Series against the Oakland Athletics, who had just gotten fire-sold by owner Charlie Finley.)
The Astrodome also hosted the legendary 1968 college basketball game between Number 1 UCLA (with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then still Lew Alcindor) and Number 2 University of Houston (whose Elvin Hayes led them to victory, before falling to UCLA in that year's Final Four), the 1971 Final Four (UCLA beating Villanova in the Final), and the cheese-tastic 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, the "Battle of the Sexes."
Elvis Presley sang there on February 27, 1970 and on March 3, 1974. It hosted Selena's last big concert before her murder in 1995, and when Jennifer Lopez starred in the film version, it was used for the re-creation. In 2004, the same year NRG (then Reliant) Stadium hosted the Super Bowl (which was won by... Janet Jackson, I think), the Astrodome was used to film a high school football playoff for the film version of Friday Night Lights; the old Astros division title banners can be clearly seen.
Today, though, the Astrodome seems, like the Republican Party that held a ridiculously bigoted Convention there in 1992, stuck in the past, and not just because they renominated failed President George H.W. Bush. The former Eighth Wonder of the World is now nicknamed the Lonely Landmark, and while it served as a shelter for people displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, since 2008, when it was hit with numerous code violations, only maintenance workers and security guards have been allowed to enter. The stadium's future is not clear: Some officials are worried that demolishing it would damage the new stadium and other nearby structures.
NGR Stadium -- the name was just changed from Reliant Stadium -- hosted the 2011 Final Four (Connecticut beating Butler in the Final), and will host it again in 2016. It will host Super Bowl LI in February 2017.
It was built roughly on the site of Colt Stadium, which was the baseball team's home in their first 3 seasons, 1962, '63 and '64, when they were known as the Houston Colt .45's (spelled with the apostrophe), before moving into the dome and changing the name of the team. The climate-controlled stadium was necessary because of not just the heat and the humidity, but because of the mosquitoes. Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers said, "Some of those mosquitoes are twin-engine jobs."
Later, seeing the artificial turf that was laid in the Astrodome for 1966 after the grass died in the first season, due to the skylights in the dome having to be painted due to the players losing the ball in the sun, Koufax said, "I was one of those guys who pitched without a cup. I wouldn't do it on this stuff. And Dick Allen of the Philadelphia Phillies, looking at the first artificial field in baseball history, said, "If a horse can't eat it, I don't want to play on it."
The Astrodome hosted a 1988 match between the national soccer teams of the U.S. and Ecuador, which Ecuador won. NRG Stadium has hosted 2 such matches, a 2008 draw with Mexico and a 2011 win over Panama. The Mexico team has made it a home-away-from-home, playing several matches there.
The NRG complex, including the Astrodome, is at 8400 Kirby Drive at Reliant Parkway. Number 700 bus.
The NBA's Houston Rockets played at the Summit, later known as the Compaq Center, from 1975 to 2003. It's been converted into the Lakewood Church Central Campus, a megachurch presided over by Dr. Joel Osteen. 3700 Southwest Freeway at Timmons Lane. Number 53 bus.
The Houston Aeros, with Gordie Howe and his sons Mark and Marty, won the World Hockey Association championships of 1974 and 1975, while playing at the Sam Houston Coliseum, before moving into the Summit in 1975 and folding in 1978. The Beatles played there on August 19, 1965. It was built in 1937 and demolished in 1998. It replaced Sam Houston Hall, where the 1928 Democratic Convention nominated Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York, who thus became the 1st Catholic nominated for President by a major party.
The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts is now on the site. 801 Bagby Street, at Rusk Street, downtown.
The nearest NHL team to Houston is the Dallas Stars, 242 miles away. If Houston had an NHL team, its metropolitan area would rank 10th in population in the NHL.
The Houston Oilers played at Jeppesen Stadium from 1960 to 1964. They won the 1960 AFL Championship Game there, won the 1961 title game on the road, and lost the 1962 title game there -- and, as the Oilers and the Tennessee Titans, haven't gone as far as the rules allowed them to since 1961. Built in 1942, it became Robertson Stadium, and was the former home of the University of Houston football team and the former home of MLS' Houston Dynamo. The new Houston Football Stadium has been built at the site. 3874 Holman Street at Cullen Blvd. Number 52 bus.
The Dynamo have moved to BBVA Compass Stadium, at 2200 Texas Avenue at Dowling Street. Within walking distance of downtown. On January 29, 2013, it hosted its first U.S. national team match, a draw with Canada.
The Oilers played the 1965, '66 and '67 seasons at Rice Stadium, home of Rice University. Although built in 1950 and probably already obsolete, it seated a lot more people than did the Astrodome, and so Super Bowl VIII was played there instead of the Astrodome in January 1974, and the Miami Dolphins won it -- and haven't won a Super Bowl since. It has been significantly renovated, and Rice still uses it. University Blvd. at Greenbriar Street, although the mailing address is 6100 S. Main Street. Number 700 bus.
Before there were the Astros, or even the Colt .45's, there were the Houston Buffaloes. The Buffs played at Buffalo Stadium, a.k.a. Buff Stadium, for most of their history, from 1928 to 1961, when the Colt .45's made them obsolete. They were a farm team of the St. Louis Cardinals, and as a result in its last years Buff Stadium was renamed Busch Stadium. The Cardinal teams of the 1930s that would be known as the "Gashouse Gang" came together in Houston, with Dizzy and Daffy Dean, Joe Medwick, Pepper Martin and Enos Slaughter. Later Buff stars included Cleveland Indians 3rd baseman Al Rosen, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Wilmer "Vinegar Bend" Mizell, Negro League legend Willard Brown, Cardinal MVP Ken Boyer, and Phillies shortstop Ruben Amaro Sr.
Wanting to lure in more customers but also to beat the infamous Houston heat, lights were installed in 1930, 5 years before any major league park had them. The Buffs won 8 Texas League Pennants: 1928, 1931, 1940, 1947, 1951, 1954, 1956 and 1957. The stadium was at the southwest corner of Leeland Street & Cullen Blvd., about 2 1/2 miles southeast of downtown. A furniture store is on the site now. Number 20 bus.
The tallest building in Houston, and in all of Texas, is the JPMorgan Chase Tower, formerly the Texas Commerce Tower. It was built in 1982 at 600 Travis Street at Texas Avenue, downtown, and stands 1,002 feet tall, rising 75 stories above the concrete over the bayou.
Houston's version of New York's American Museum of Natural History is the Houston Museum of Natural Science, in Hermann Park, at Main Street and Hermann Park Drive. The Houston Museum of Fine Arts is at 1001 Bissonnet Street, just 5 blocks away. Both can be reached by the Number 700 bus.
Of course, the name "Houston" is most connected with two things: Its namesake, the legendary Senator, Governor and war hero Sam Houston, and the Johnson Space Center, the NASA control center named after President Lyndon B. Johnson, who, as Senate Majority Leader, wrote the bill creating NASA and the Space Center, because he thought it would bring a lot of jobs and money to Houston (and he was right). Most historic sites relating to Sam, however, are not in the city that bears his name. As for reaching the Johnson Space Center, it's at 1601 NASA Parkway and Saturn Lane. The Number 249 bus goes there, so if you don't have a car, Houston, you won't have a problem.
Although Houston is the post-Presidential home for George H.W. and Barbara Bush, his Presidential Library is at Texas A&M University, 100 miles away in College Station.
The Alley Theatre, downtown at 615 Texas Avenue, opened in 1968, and in 1976 hosted the Vice Presidential debate between Senators Walter Mondale and Bob Dole. This is where Dole named World War I, World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars as "all Democrat wars" -- forgetting that the Republicans wanted America to get into all but World War II, and didn't want that one because they liked the Nazis' anti-union status; and that it was actually the Republicans who got us into Vietnam.
Houston can be hot, but it's a good sports town, and, best of all, it's not Dallas. So there can be a good old time in the hot town tonight.