Southern Hospitality

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Located in the US’s heat and humidity belt, both Minute Maid and Marlins Park are usually closed for home games and rely heavily on a massive amount of air conditioning to cool their interiors to a crisp 75°F.

Their small size, urban settings and idiosyncratic features, under enormous retractable roofs and shared designers make them close cousins and prime examples of the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too mentality of retractable roof stadiums.

That mentality has produced mixed results on the field and at the box office, as the Marlins -- in spite of a massive roster upgrade and the hiring of World Series-winning manager Ozzie Guillen -- finished 27 games under .500 during their first season in their new ballpark, while the Astros suffered through their two worst seasons ever while in the midst of a fire/real sale in anticipation of a move to the AL West next year.

Minute Maid Park, is the older of the two, having opened in 2000. The stadium replaced the vast Astrodome where they had played for over thirty years as it became clear that while “the Eighth Wonder of the World” was certainly an unprecedented feat of engineering when it was first built, like many of the multi-purpose stadiums of it generation, it just wasn’t a particularly good place to watch baseball.

World-renowned architectural firm Populous was charged with designing a new home for the Astros that would retain the comforts of its predecessor’s revolutionary roof, while introducing some of the essential charms of vintage ballparks.

This began with the decision to place it in downtown Houston, adjacent to the former Union Station, instantly created a perfect link with urban ballparks of yore. In addition to its nostalgic location, the quirky “Juice Box” -- as Minute Maid Park is affectionately called -- is loaded with so many retro details (the Crawford Boxes, Tal’s Hill, an on-field flagpole, Conoco Phillips Homerun Porch) you would think it had existed on this site forever.

That illusion is shattered almost immediately upon looking up, however, by the hulking monstrosity overhead, a three-part, 7,000 ton roof designed by kinetic architecture specialists Uni-Systems.

The retrofitted former Union Station that sits beyond the west wall now houses team offices, all while providing a fine ceremonial entrance to the ballpark. In deference to the location’s heritage, an actual locomotive complete with an conductor clad in overalls sits atop the arcaded western stadium wall, and runs at the beginning of each game and after every Astros’ home run. The exterior also takes its cue from Union Station and is a fairly conventional mix of red brick and white limestone, which along with the roof’s steel trusses, creates an overall package consistent with its retro ambitions.

What hasn’t necessarily been consistent is the performance of the Astros on the field since moving into their new digs. Although the numbers are slightly skewed because of the abomination that has been the last two seasons in Houston, they have finished under .500 overall in their first twelve seasons there.

It began in their first year after the move, when the team bottomed out, losing 25 games and giving up 269 more runs than they did in their last year in the pitcher-friendly Astrodome, after winning the NL Central the three years previous. A mixture of former Opening Day starter’s Shane Reynolds injury troubles and Jose Lima’s epic implosion coupled with the departure of Mike Hampton left the pitching staff in shambles, at a time when they needed it the most.

That’s because the shift from a cavern to the bandiest of bandboxes -- it of the 108 Batter/Pitcher park Index (with above 100 being good for hitters and under 100 good for pitchers) -- showed a serious lack of forethought by ownership. By giving the fans what they presumably wanted: a remarkable number of home runs -- an NL record 249 by the Astros alone -- the team’s ownership completely ignored what had been the team’s best strength, its pitching, and sold it down the river for a short porch in left.

Although it appeared that they eventually righted the ship -- riding a dominant pitching staff to their first World Series appearance as a franchise in 2004 -- there were massive breaches in its hull, as franchise stalwart Jeff Bagwell was sent packing along with 2004 heroes Roger Clemens and Andy Pettite as the team seeked to “rebuild”, which lead to a rapid decline, culminating in two tortuous 100-loss seasons over the past two years.

Hope for a better days may be ways away, however, as the Astros make a transition under new ownership to bring the league’s worst team to perhaps the toughest division in baseball this past year, the AL West.

On the other side, Marlins Park celebrated its first season this year, and is the more architecturally ambitious of the two buildings. Home to a vibrant contemporary arts and architecture scene and a design-minded owner in Jeffrey Loria -- whose goal was for it to be “different and experimental” -- Miami would seem a good place to strike a new contemporary model for baseball stadiums. However, the selection of the ubiquitous Populous to design the new stadium was questionable given the design goal.

Superficially contemporary, with white stucco and black glass structure, Marlins Park may not be as dynamic as intended, but its stark, abstract exterior works well with the modern idea of a retractable-roofed stadium.

Although different in style to its cousin, Minute Maid, Marlins Park is also loaded with quirky embellishments. The centerpiece is the “Marlinator” homerun sculpture, designed by artist Red Grooms. The interior is decidedly more colorful than the exterior; most alarming is the harsh green of the outfield wall which climbs steadily to its climax around the Marlinator. Other Futurist, Googie inspired shapes like the giant videoboard - think The Incredibles – give the interior a surprisingly retro feel. It feels like how a 1950s architect might have imagined the 21st Century. The concept is undermined, however, by the starkly abstract exterior and the extremely boring Yankee Stadium-esque blue seats.

Along these same lines, while the ballpark has many beautiful nuances and manufactured gems (as highlighted in the infographic above), the adoption of a contemporary design at Marlins Park ultimately feels both superficial and stylized. It seems fair to say that the building does not change or advance stadium architecture like a truly progressive, different or experimental building would, falling short of owner Loria’s goal.

And although attendance is up, considering that the last time before this year that weren’t literally the least popular team in baseball was 2005, that’s not saying much. The Miami, formerly Florida, Marlins are about as listless as it gets, and unlike their western cousins, seem to be shedding salary in an attempt to bottom out, as opposed to working their way back up from the abyss.

With that in mind, it may take a few years to see what, if any, benefit the Loria administration will see from their investment in a new stadium -- and their new deal with the city of Miami --- things aren’t exactly looking up for the squad in the years to come. But at least they’ll have the fishes.

Matthew Brown is an architect who writes about stadia and sport venues past and present on his own blog and Twitter.

Infographics by Nick Bond
 

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