Traditional and Trite
Screw the traditional peanuts and Cracker Jacks. Popcorn's the scent pumped into the streets surrounding Enron Field. (We think this pollution is kinda mean to the hungry homeless people.)
The old Union Station, the grand entryway to the stadium, is the preliminary stop on the tour of the Astros "tribute" to Historic Houston, a touch of tradition coated in plastic. There are marble-based two-story pillars, an original train-station bench and railroad ties they found when they were digging up the field -- but there's also a gift store that wasn't there even in the railroad's glory days.
Where the train platform used to be, a cobblestone walkway leads to the breezeway crowded with Texas-themed food. Unlike at the Astrodome, if you have to take a leak, or buy more beer, you won't miss much of the game. The concourse is open, so you can still watch while you're waiting in line.
The steps down to the field are the extra long ones that each require two strides and make everyone feel like a six-year-old, scrambling to keep up with a too-fast grown-up. Sit in the first few rows if you want a movie-theater-style cup holder -- otherwise you might spill your beer.
The flip-up seats are joined in an iron row like in an old-fashioned movie theater. They're dark green because the Astros decided that dark green was "retro" (like the trolleys). These actually are the most comfortable pieces of plastic we've sat on. They look old, but they're wider than most seats and aerodynamically engineered with a curved back and open vents.
The stadium's a lot cooler than the sweaty city because they keep the roof closed during the day, pumping it full of air-conditioning (then they open it up during the game and keep the blowers going). But since it's always muggy or rainy, the roof will probably be open just half of a game. It takes 12 minutes to close the glass, 20 minutes if it's windy. (We still recommend umbrellas, since rain usually comes with wind.)
On the field they've stolen from stadiums past; there's a hill that slopes up like Crosley Field in Cincinnati. On that hill is a flagpole that's in play too -- just like at the old Tiger Stadium in Detroit. (Sports Illustrated made it look like the pole was stuck smack in the middle of center field. It's not. It's way in the corner, right by the fence.) They figured a few obstacles would make for "more exciting baseball," says Todd Fedewa, the Astros communications manager.
A larger obstacle, at least for tepid Astro hitters, is the outfield fence. The ballpark has the shortest left-field wall, only 315 feet, and the longest, deepest center field in the majors. There are 21 angles to the back fence. They're hoping for lots of doubles and triples.
And home runs.
Which are going to be VERY LOUD events at Enron Field.
Remember the Astrodome's "exploding scoreboard" that they got rid of when they needed more seats? It's back. Nothing actually explodes. A cartoon cowboy runs across the screen roping a snorting steer, and then some fireworks go off.
If someone hits a home run, the train engine runs along the teal tracks on the west side of the stadium, blowing steam and whistling. If the 19th-century choo-choo doesn't look quite right, that's because it isn't. It's a hybrid of three different trains popular in the 1860s. They just took the parts they liked from the past and made something new. Just like they did with the entire stadium. The train runs along the original route. But the original tracks were never that color.
If a home run is hit by one of the Astros, just below the train is Conoco's classic, old-timey gasoline pump that's going to clang and keep count of all the Astros' home runs ever.
Right below the Miller Lite ad is a closed-captioning sign to run whatever the announcer's saying, so bring your glasses (if you're deaf).
If you get bored, there's plenty of shopping. There's even an art gallery of sports memorabilia; if the game is extra exciting and you want to document that moment forever, you can commission an artist to paint your favorite player. Outside the gallery the escalators give a nice old-fashioned mall-like quality.
Even though the Astros routinely choke in the playoffs, at least their new playpen shows off lots of balls. All kinds of 'em. Seat numbers show up in green-stitched white baseball emblems in the corners of the backrests in many sections. In the suite level, smaller green baseballs rise up from the plush carpet.
Upstairs on the "club level," the light fixtures are big white baseballs; green balls are imprinted on the carpet in the airy, air-conditioned room. Here the stadium seats all have cup holders and cushions on the bottoms (not on the backs -- cushy backs are only for the Diamond Club seats behind home plate). You don't even have to get off your ass to buy something better than beer -- the waiters and waitresses come to you and take your order.
Club level seats are nice. They're about eye level with the train, and the field looks like a not-so-far-away Nintendo screen.
Another 24 stairs up is the "suite level," where you might, maybe, get to go if you know someone really rich. (We can't compare it to suites at the old stadium, because we don't know anyone really rich, and we were never invited.) There's a lovely view of the elevated U.S. 59 freeway. Trucks will be roaring even if the crowds aren't. Inside a suite, the walls are black with silver trim. There's a television set tuned to the game, and funky art deco couches and chairs. At the glass window are barstools. You feel like you're sitting at Starbucks or Sambuca staring at the street, but you're seeing the game. The stadium seats here have a glass shelf that's about the same width as an airplane tray table.
It feels like you're sitting at a bar. Especially since there's a TV hovering at an angle just like in bars. Watching TV, you can get the stats and the instant replays.
Why not just go to Chammps?
The masses have to keep climbing. Up another 34 stairs is the upper deck (where you're going to have to walk up even more stairs -- your legs will be trembling, and you'll be sweating by the time you get to your seat). Here you have yet another stunning view of the dreariest part of town. The old-timey tribute to days past is the clock tower with carillon bells that play "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and other happy baseball-related tunes $agrave; la Quasimodo.
Up here where the air is thin, the world is tacky. Concession stands are in bright blue, orange and black train cars. The stands (which are on casters) have cheap, fake train wheels glued to the sides.
This is not the place to sit if you have a fear of falling. Stairs are extra narrow, vertigo kicks in, and you feel like you're being pulled backward and are about to lose your balance. Fortunately they have lots of nice green rails. (Unfortunately there's a two-stair break between the rails, just enough time to taste fear.)
Sitting 40 rows up, in the highest corner seat (which we did), you can still see the field pretty well. At the Astrodome you were much farther away from the field (hence you didn't feel so much like you were falling). Here you're up so high you look straight down. And even though you might feel dizzy and not have the greatest game view, you've got a nice vista of downtown. (The people in the rich seats see only a couple roof corners; the players get to see only empty air.) It's a good place to take out-of-towners.
Restrooms include "family bathrooms," which is basically like a one-seater handicap bathroom in a gas station. They say it's in case a man doesn't want to take his daughter past the urinals.
What the tour group got to see that you never will: Just behind the dugout the players have a large-screen TV where they can review their last at bat and critique themselves between innings.
Tour-takers also took a peek at the training rooms. Their hydrotherapy pool (the size of a small boat) has portholes so trainers can look inside and watch the men go through the motions.
Nowhere -- not even in the rich people sections -- did we see a swimming pool, like in Phoenix, or any other razzamatazz features that made us feel like we weren't in a ballpark. All the bricks make it feel a lot like the Baltimore Orioles' stadium -- just with a train, a glass roof and bells.
E-mail Wendy Grossman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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