Strike Three, They're Out

Library shelves groan under the weight of poetic tomes extolling the Paradise Lost of Ebbets Field. Our own Astrodome, on the other hand, has spawned ... ummmm ... well, literally dozens of newspaper articles, many of them positive.

There just doesn't seem to be a great outpouring of affection for the ugly, user-unfriendly dump on Kirby. Maybe it's because the Astrodome created the monstrosity known as indoor baseball; maybe it's because the Dome served to "inspire" a depressing series of charmless Astroturfed multiuse stadiums that still offend the eye in such places as Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

But with the Ballpark at Union Station set to open next April, the Astros are vigorously touting 1999 as the final opportunity to catch the 'Stros in the Dome. As a marketing pitch, it would seem to rank right up there with "Last chance to experience the nostalgic thrill of dentistry without Novacaine!" or "Cross the Atlantic on an authentic coffin ship like your Irish immigrant ancestors! (Survival not guaranteed.)" But you work with what you've got, one supposes.

If the Astrodome were still in its original state, even nonbaseball fans might be lured back one last time to get a taste of the kitschy '60s style that once permeated the place. But a disastrous mid-'80s renovation plastered over all of that, even going so far as to replace the famous snortin'-bull scoreboard with acres of empty seats.

Still, there's something to be said for giving the old place a nice send-off. The Astros have given fans some decent thrills there after all -- from Nolan Ryan's masterpieces to Mike Scott's 1986 division-clinching no-hitter. And the Dome is the place where Houstonians got to marvel at visiting baseball greats such as Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax and Tom Seaver.

With perennial All-Stars Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, this year's Astros are generally considered the favorites to repeat as National League Central champs, despite nagging doubts about their pitching. The Astros led the league in offense last year, and, although they've lost All-Star outfielder Moises Alou to injury, they should continue to put runs on the board.

And, of course, most of the sport's current superstars will play ball at the Dome before the season's over: Home-run kings Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa will both visit in the first two weeks of the season; future Hall of Famers Barry Bonds, Greg Maddux and Mike Piazza are also coming to town. (Well, Piazza will be a future Hall of Famer if he lives up to his new $90 million contract.)

Going to a baseball game isn't as cheap a date as it used to be, but rest assured that tickets, beer and parking will all be more expensive next year in the 'Stros' new playpen. The Dome's best available seats go for $21, a decent loge seat is $12, and bleacher seats are sold on game day for $4 (only $1 for kids). It's best to buy well in advance for the big attractions such as the Atlanta Braves or Sosa and McGwire, but if you just want to see baseball in the Dome one last time, you should have no trouble getting into a middle-of-the-week game against such teams as Pittsburgh or Arizona.

It probably is worth a final trip to the ballpark, if only to wave good-bye to what Houston hath wrought on the baseball world. And who knows -- maybe the new stadium, with its retractable roof and pseudo-old-timey feel, will be a sweaty, mosquito-infested, distraction-filled money machine that inspires a library of books fondly remembering the dear old Dome.

-- Richard Connelly

The Astros home opener against the Chicago Cubs is Tuesday, April 6, 7:05 p.m. Call (713)799-9555 or go to www.astros.com for schedule information. For full-season or miniseason tickets, call (713)799-9567.

 
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