A seat on a Greyhound bus from Tampa, FL to Houston, TX will cost you $133.76 USD, provided you book online. Departing at 9:15 a.m., the journey takes a whopping 26 hours, with stops throughout the Sunshine State: Lakeland, Orlando, Ocala, Gainesville, Tallahassee, Panama City, Fort Walton Beach, and Pensacola. After one stop in Mobile, AL, it's off to Louisiana: Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Lake Charles. Finally, Texas: Orange, Port Arthur, Beaumont, Baytown, and -- mercifully -- Houston.
Sounds like fun, doesn't it? I'd tell you what it was like, but you're crazy if you think that's how I actually got to Houston. I took to the skies, with the fine folks at U.S. Airways, for $237 CAD. While Greyhound was certainly cheaper than flying from Tampa to Houston, via Charlotte, NC, I didn't exactly have 26 hours to spare. And 20 or so hours of my life not spent losing my mind on a bus -- just thinking about what that epic bus ride would have done to my back and posterior was painful -- were absolutely worth a c-note to me.
Don't take a cab from George Bush Intercontinental Airport to downtown Houston. It'll cost you billions; at least $45. Houston METRO has your back: 30 minute non-stop bus service, leaving every 30 minutes from the airport to downtown, for $15 one-way.
Unfortunately, my visit to Houston coincided with a massive energy conference in the city, which made it impossible to land a cheap hotel room. In the end, after multiple unsuccessful bids on Priceline.com, I paid $130 USD for one night at the Crowne Plaza Houston Downtown. I may or may not have wept for a couple of minutes after my credit card was charged.
My first order of business as soon as I got off the bus downtown, my bags in tow: a haircut. The bus stop was only a few feet away from a barber shop. And what better place to talk about the Houston Astros?
"The Astros?," said my barber. "Have you seen the standings? Let's not waste your time or mine talking about the goddamn Houston Astros."
Touché. Because the 2010 Astros are more like the Lastros. On my visit to Houston, the ball club was indeed holding down the basement in the National League's Central division, behind both the Milwaukee Brewers and -- aghast! -- Pittsburgh Pirates.
"Let's talk football, kid," my barber said. And before I could say a word, I was being told all about Matt Schaub, and how he will soon be leading the Houston Texans to the NFL's postseason for the first time in franchise history.
Minute Maid Park
She's downtown, and celebrated 10 years this past April. If you're staying in the city centre, you can walk to her gates. I didn't, actually, on my way there; I used the Crown Plaza's complimentary shuttle, and it was no more than a seven minute drive. (After shelling out for my room, I had to get every dollar out of my stay.) I walked back after the ball game and, from essentially one end of downtown to the other, it took a half hour. If walking isn't your thing, Houston's Main Street Square light rail station is only six blocks from the ballpark, and will cost you $1.25 each way.
Minute Maid Park's got it all: a retractable roof, for those days when Houston's heat makes you want to off yourself; real grass; a brick facade; statues of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio outside the ballpark (with, in a nice touch, Biggio throwing to Bags at first base); odd dimensions; a ridiculous hill and flagpole in centre field; and even a moving train on her left field wall.
She was designed by Populous; who else? The architectural firm based in Kansas City is behind almost every beautiful ballpark in baseball. Thankfully, Populous is also designing both of Florida's new ballparks: in Miami, for the Marlins, and for the Tampa Bay Rays, wherever the hell they decide to build their new home. Hopefully, years down the road, Populous will design Toronto's new baseball stadium, too. They better.
Blessings from the baseball gods
I may have spent billions to get to, and in, Houston, but when it came to my evening at Minute Maid Park, the baseball gods were once again on my side.
Houston's stifling heat? I didn't have to deal with it. While it was 84 degrees at first pitch, it felt cooler than that, thanks to a splendid 12 MPH breeze that was blowing through the stadium. The roof was open; it was a tremendous night for baseball.
Prior to the game, I met with another baseball stranger; a lovely young gal named Gabriela. A transplanted Torontonian, and huge Blue Jays fan, she now calls Houston home. And after vowing on Twitter to buy me a beer on my #TBRTOAL Houston stop, she stayed true to her word. Together we hit up the Home Plate Bar & Grill, adjacent to Minute Maid Park, on Texas Street, where we talked baseball, and life, and where Gabriela treated me to a cheeseburger and fries, and Shiner Bock beer. An amber ale, it's proudly brewed in Shiner, TX. Another Texan beer on tap at Home Plate is Lone Star, brewed by Miller in Forth Worth, TX.
The food was decent and, if you're in the area, you might want to give B.U.S. Bar a whirl. It's next door to Home Plate Bar & Grill. Also: if you're looking for a place to stay, and don't mind abusing your wallet as much I do, check out Inn at the Ballpark. It's a stones throw from Minute Maid Park, baseball themed, and came highly recommended. I thought about it, but couldn't do much more than that; no vacancy.
After our healthy meal, Gabriela and I headed across the street to Minute Maid Park's box office. The cheapest seats in the house? Seven dollars. But we got an even better deal than that: free! As we waited in line, a gentlemen -- sent none other than by the baseball gods -- walked up to us and said: "I've got four tickets. They're yours if you want them." After making sure there was indeed no catch, because there's always a catch, there we were, the two of us, with four free tickets to our names.
The ducats were good, too: $39 Field Box seats, and only seven rows from the field. But, with only minutes before game time, we had to get rid of two of them. We tried a tent across the street from Minute Maid Park's main entrance, where, oddly enough, two ticket scalpers -- a man and woman tandem, possibly husband and wife -- had set up shop and were, I guess, "working." I stepped into their office --the back of the tent -- and, in the end, managed to pry $15 out of them, instead of the insulting $10 I was initially offered. It wasn't a lot, and hardly a fair deal for $78 seats, but with the game set to begin, it was better than nothing. The money went to Gabriela for our meal, and, either way we looked at it, we were ahead of the game.
And upon our arrival at our seats in right field, we felt that much better about our circumstances. Check out the view:
The Juice Box
I quickly became a fan of Minute Maid Park. And it had nothing to do with the fact I got into the building for free; I swear. (FYI: Indian people really, really love free things. Free anythings.)
Some people find the train, an 1860s replica, that runs atop the left field wall tacky. Me? I loved it. I mean, honestly, who doesn't like trains? Terrorists. They don't like trains. Probably because they didn't have a miniature train set to play with growing up. But that's a whole other story. Anyway: awesomely overpaid Houston Astro Carlos Lee made sure I saw that train, along with it's tender filled with oranges, in motion, after he sent a home run to left field in the 5th inning. Thanks, Carlos Lee. You and your six-year, 100 million dollar contract are not appreciated very much in Houston, but your efforts during my trip to H-Town won't soon be forgotten.
You might be wondering why that train is up there, in left field. I'll tell you. Minute Maid Park, also affectionately known as "The Juice Box," is now attached to what used to be Houston's Union Station. It's all about history, folks. And Union Station, once upon a time Houston's main rail station, has been restored thanks to the ballpark, and now serves as one of its main entrances. There's more: attached to both the stadium and Union Station is Lefty's BBQ, a perfect spot to grab a brew, or a meal, before, during, or after the game.
Back to left field: it's only 315 feet deep; only five feet deeper than Fenway Park. If I were lucky enough, I could probably hit a ball out of Minute Maid Park. Well, probably not, but I like to think that's the case. And will continue to think that's the case.
Left field is in stark contrast to centre field, which is a ridiculous 436 feet deep. That's not all: Tal's Hill. On a 30 degree angle, it's not ridiculous enough on its own, and even boasts its own flag pole. While it's a ways away for any batter, I'd still hate to be a centre fielder for the Astros. But if I've learned anything on the baseball road trip of a lifetime, it's that ridiculous -- when it comes to ballparks, at least -- equals different. And I'm all about ballparks being different, and unique, in their own ways. So props to Houston.
Speaking of different: the Conoco Home Run Porch. You'll find it near Tal's Hill, in left-centre field, and it's actually over the field; a balcony of sorts. Tying in with Houston's oil-rich history, you'll find an old-school gasoline pump on the porch, with a running tally of just how many home runs have been hit by Astros players since Minute Maid Park opened 10 years ago. It's obviously a popular spot during the game.
The main concourse is spacious, and open, and lined with concessions of all sorts. In right-centre field, you'll find the Budweiser Patio. A seat in the Bud Patio will cost you $50, but includes a multi-course dinner from FiveSeven Grille. The new restaurant is named after number five, Jeff Bagwell, and number seven, Craig Biggio; the ultimate Houston Astros. Yep: brilliant.
Above the seats in right field is the ballpark's massive scoreboard, and, when the roof is open, where the ballpark's lid buckles over. Points must be given to the roof in Houston; when it is closed, a 50,000 square foot wall of hurricane-proof glass windows stretch from the left field wall to the roof. That means natural light, and a view of the Houston Skyline. Nails.
In right field, surrounding the scoreboard, is where you'll find advertisements galore. I had another baseball stranger from Texas e-mail me about The Juice Box, and, while Calvin certainly loves the ballpark, he complained of advertising overkill. And it's hard to argue with him. Even the foul poles didn't make it out unscathed; on them you'll find Chick-Fil-A ads.
Here's Calvin: "[The advertising]is too much, and if you sit behind home plate, it can be enough to induce a seizure, like watching one of those crazy Japanese morning cartoons with flashing lights and all. Another reason why I choose to sit in the upper deck section above right field. But Minute Maid is home, and can one really ask for much more in a ballpark? Well, maybe cheaper beer."
Talk about a perfect segue. A 24 oz. premium beer will cost you $10; a 24 oz. domestic: $9. A 16 oz. premium draft cup will cost you $8, and I found one local option: Houston's own Saint Arnold Brewery; the city's oldest craft brewery.
Your standard beers -- Bud, Bud Light, etc. -- are $7.50 a bottle from a vendor at your seat, and the same price, in draft form, from the concession stands. Your best bet might be a small draft of Ziegenbock -- brewed by Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis, with a slogan of "for Texans by Texans" -- for only $5.
A Baseball Journey
I experienced Minute Maid Park mostly from my free seat that night in Houston. And I'm quite certain I'll never forget the breeze blowing through the ballpark, and turning my head to watch baseballs sail off the brick wall in left field. And while I've always associated Deep in the heart of Texas with Dallas, and the Rangers, it was in Houston, during the 7th inning stretch, when the legendary tune was played. My baseball education continued.
As the game ended, I thought about the Astrodome, the confines the Astros used to call home. Born in 1965, and celebrating 45 years this season, the Houston Astros have come a long way. Remember: the Astrodome was ahead of its time, too, much like the SkyDome. When Toronto does set in motion plans for a new ballpark, I hope they try and emulate Minute Maid Park. There are certainly lessons to be learned from the Juice Box.