Munsey on Ballparks

Houston's ballparks

by Paul Munsey (archive)

February 12, 2005

I am in Houston this week. So, it seems appropriate to discuss this city's ballparks. When Fenway Park and Wrigley Field were built, Houston was still a small city vying with Galveston for which would be the premiere city in the region. A major league franchise was still a half-century in the future. However, while its ballparks aren't as old, there is still an interesting story to tell.

There isn't much controversy in Houston when it comes to publicly financed stadiums. The city has built three of them in the past five years. Minute Maid Park was completed in 2000 for the Houston Astros. Reliant Stadium was built for the Houston Texans of NFL in 2002, and the Toyota Center was completed in 2003 for the Houston Rockets of the NBA.

I moved to Houston with my family while I was still in high school. Back then, Houston was a boomtown. Construction cranes were everywhere and a thousand people were moving here every day. It all seemed so shiny and new.

The first time I ever set foot in the Astrodome was in the summer of 1980. It was an amazing place, with air-conditioning, padded seats and a giant scoreboard. It all seemed so futuristic. It's hard to believe, but the Astrodome turns 40 years old this year.

I recently learned that David Webb Chaney died at age 88. He was the head of the team that invented Chemgrass in 1964. It would become one of the most famous products in the world of sports when it was installed in the Astrodome two years later. Of course, we all know it as Astroturf.

Maybe you've heard the story. The Astrodome, then known as the Harris County Domed Stadium, was built with natural grass. The roof allowed sunlight in through hundreds of clear plastic panels. A problem arose when the glare from the roof caused players and fans to lose track of fly balls. So, they painted over the panels behind home plate. That solved the glare problem, but killed the grass. For the next season, Monsanto installed their new artificial grass and rechristened it Astroturf.

For decades after the Astrodome was built, the area around it languished. They built the Astroworld amusement park across the freeway, but there was very little other development in the area. Only recently, after the Astros left for their new retractable-roof downtown ballpark, has that begun to change.

Reliant Stadium stands adjacent to the Astrodome. It's much bigger than its older neighbor, has a retractable roof and hundreds of luxury suites. Houston literally has so many indoor stadiums that they don't know what to do with them all. The last time I checked, there was a proposal to turn the Astrodome into the world's largest casino. Yeah, that's just what Houston needs.

Houston's indoor stadiums are connected by its brand new transit line, which runs between Reliant Stadium / Astrodome and downtown Houston, where Minute Maid Park and the Toyota Center are located. I don't know if anyone uses it, but I find it interesting that it serves the city's sports venues so well. You might want to wear a helmet if you ride the Metro, however, as it is prone to accidents. Apparently, it has the highest accident rate in the world. It's a light rail system, which means it is above ground and competes with cars for the road.

In the summer, Houston gets really hot and humid. Consequently, there's a tendency to do everything indoors. That explains the abundance of indoor stadiums, the causeways between office buildings and the downtown tunnel system. Yes, there is a tunnel system in downtown Houston. It's like an underground city, with shops and restaurants, that allows you to walk from any office building to just about any other office building in air conditioned comfort. I have no explanation for why the tunnel system doesn't connect to Minute Maid Park, the Toyota Center or the Metro.

Minute Maid Park, formerly known as Astros Field, Enron Field and the Ballpark at Union Station, was built on the rail yards of the old Union Station on the east side of downtown Houston. Trains stopped arriving over thirty years ago, and the station and the nearby handful of hotels that once served it stood decaying for decades. Thanks to the new ballpark, the area is seeing a renaissance.

Downtown Houston covers about one square mile and is completely encased by freeways. Main Street cuts through the middle. Until recently, almost all the development was on the west side of Main Street, while the east side consisted mainly of blocks and blocks of parking lots. The contrast was quite stark. There is story to tell on how it got that way, but that is for another day. In recent years, a convention center, baseball stadium, basketball arena and hotel have been built on the east side.

Houston's other major league ballpark was Colt Stadium. It was a temporary structure built in what would become the parking lot for the Astrodome, and served for three years while the new stadium was built. While the Astros played there, they were known as the Colt .45's. When the Astrodome was completed, Colt Stadium was dismantled and shipped to Gomez Palacio in Mexico, where it served as home to a Mexican League baseball team.

Before the Rockets moved into the Toyota Center, they played at the Summit in Greenway Plaza. The Summit was ultra-modern when it was built in 1975 and remains attractive architecturally. I think it was worth retrofitting, similar to the Coliseum Arena in Oakland. However, the city was giving away stadiums, so who can blame the Rockets for claiming theirs? The Summit will live on with a new purpose, however. A $75 million renovation is underway which will transform the building into the new home of Lakewood Church.

Paul Munsey is the editor of

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Munsey on Ballparks © 2005 by Paul Munsey.

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