Ballpark design: Could it factor into the World Series?
They've been laughed at and ill spoken of: The Crawford Boxes, jutting deep into left field, contribute to Minute Maid Park's reputation as one of the quirkiest stadiums in baseball.
But to Houston Astros fans, this is home. The "Juice Box," as the park has been dubbed, is at times frustrating - but almost always fun, even as the team battles to stay alive in the World Series.
"I love this stadium. It's different from anywhere else," said John Baker, watching batting practice Tuesday from the Crawford Box seats he's had since the park opened in 2000.
Indeed, no place is quite like Minute Maid - considered by many a "hitter's paradise." And as the Fall Classic has shifted here from Chicago, much attention has been paid to its potential home-team advantages.
Major League Baseball's commissioner, however, ordered Houston to keep its roof open for the games here this week, much to the disappointment of the Astros players, who believe the deafening noise from fans distracts opposing teams.
But there are still those Crawford Boxes, a short 315 feet down the left-field line. And there's also the sloping Tal's Hill, with its awkwardly placed flagpole in deep center field - as well as the meandering, crevice-filled home-run line.
"For sure, the Astros have an advantage because they are used to playing in this quirky ballpark and they know all its ins and outs," says Jeremy Foster, a reporter with the local AM station Sports Radio 610. But, he adds, "that's true in any ballpark."
Fenway, for instance, has the Green Monster, and Yankee Stadium a short left-field porch. But Minute Maid has more than its share of idiosyncrasies, says Joe Mock, author of a guide to the nation's baseball stadiums.
He has high praise for the park's exterior design, the beautifully refurbished Union Station and incorporated railroad concept (yes, the site used to be a depot), the views of downtown, the food in the concourse, and the great sightlines.
"But it has too many quirky design features," he says. "And I have to be honest: There are just too many cheap home runs into the Crawford Boxes."
While it is not the most home-run-happy park in the league by far, the Astros' record in Houston tells the story. Of their 93 homers at Minute Maid this season, 64 were hit to left field.
A smart team designs its roster around its park's strengths and weaknesses, and Houston seems to have done just that with its predominantly right-handed lineup and pitchers who force hitters into deep center field.
"Before it was the 'Juice Box,' it was called 'Home Run Field' because of the number of homers being hit," says Mr. Foster, who has been covering the Astros for six years. "Everybody thought it was a joke, but once we showed them good pitching, that kept the runs down and the size of the ballpark wasn't an issue."
Most people don't understand that the length of left field was constrained by the span of the roof, says David Greusel, the principal designer with HOK Sport in Kansas City, Mo.
Part of the approach was to build a park that hinted at Houston's, as well as the game's, past - "and slopes and flagpoles in the outfield were not all that unusual in the early days," he says.
He's heard from many players that while a left-field home run is easier here, other hits that would have been homers elsewhere bounce off the roof track or fall short.
"My favorite quote is from Jose Lima, who said, 'Whoever designed this park is not my friend,' " says Mr. Greusel.
For the most part, Houstonians seem happy with their stadium and don't mind the occasional chatter about unfair advantages.
"Both teams are playing on the same field," says Terry Radney, who has been a season-ticket holder for seven years. "Actually, I'm glad they put in some unique features like Tal's Hill. Twenty years from now, they are going to talk about some amazing thing that happened there."
He and his young son were watching a warm-up from the Crawford Boxes, hoping to catch a homer before heading to their regular seats.
"Nobody talks about the stadiums in football or basketball. But everybody's heard stories about baseball parks. It's part of what makes the game interesting."
Just then, a ball heads his son's way, and a man reaches over him to catch it. "That guy went over and stole that ball from you," Mr. Radney yells. "Now, that's not fair."