Drayton McLane sits in a booth behind home plate at Enron Field. The scene in front of him was once a vague image in the back of his head. A daydream. Now it's a reality, filled with a sellout crowd of 42,280 people.
"I remember going to the Astrodome, when we'd have crowds of 12,000," McLane, the owner of the Houston Astros, says. "I wondered if we could ever get people to come to baseball. Houston is the fourth-largest city in the United States, and we were still a small-market team. Why was that? High school football in my hometown [ Temple, Texas] drew more people on a Saturday night than we did."
What would make the people come? This downtown scene in front of him is what he thought could work.
He can see...well, there is so much he can see. He can see the life-sized, 48,000-pound locomotive and coal tender traveling an 800-foot trip along the top of the wall extending from dead centerfield to the leftfield corner. He can see the stock quotations on the modern megaboard in right. He can see his office in the refurbished Union Station building, which is just beyond the wall in left; his office windows are of ordinary glass, and a 422-foot marker below them is a target for home run hitters. He can see the flagpole and the 30-degree incline in deepest center, both in play. He can see the short porch in left, the Crawford Boxes containing some 800 seats, located along Crawford Street atop the old-time, hand-operated scoreboard. He can see actual grass and actual clouds and, every now and then, the actual sun. He can see baseball. Real baseball. "The Astrodome was so antiseptic," he says. "The crowds were so quiet. The games...if you got a 3-0 lead, the game was over."
Excitement. That's what McLane can see. He has built a ballpark with more nooks and crannies than an English muffin, with angles and wide spaces that will create doubles and triples, action everywhere. He has built a ballpark in which the ball not only can fly over the fences, setting off, on Astros homers, the train and the 12-foot-tall model of a Conoco gas pump in left center, celebrations all around, but also can bounce off the fences and roll forever. McLane and the architects from HOK of Kansas City, Mo., have built a ballpark with idiosyncrasies and intrigue. "Things are going to happen here," he says. "I don't know what they are, but strange things are going to happen."
The only problem now is that the strange things are happening to his team. Last Saturday the Astros lost 8-7 to the Cincinnati Reds on a two-run, two-out homer by Ken Griffey Jr. in the ninth inning. One night earlier Houston lost 7-3 in the 11th to Cincinnati, a pair of home runs sealing the Astros' fate. Through Sunday, Houston, the three-time defending National League Central champion, was 6-12 at its new home; the Astros' 15-21 overall start was their worst since 1991. Can there be such a thing as too much excitement?
"It'll get better," Houston leftfielder Daryle Ward says. "The more we play here, the more we know about this place, the better we'll get. The trouble now is that home court advantage is no advantage. We don't know anything more than anyone else. It's just as new to us."
Leftfield—where Ward plays on or near the warning track for every pitch and deals with caroms off the scoreboard, only 315 feet down the line—seems to have all the vagaries of the new park wrapped together. From the blueprints it appeared that leftfield would be the place to hide a marginal defensive player in order to get a bigger bat into the lineup. In reality the best defensive player available had better be in left. "There's so much to learn," says Ward, a below-average outfielder. "If the ball comes off the steel in the scoreboard, it comes off real hard. If it comes off the numbers, it dies. At the bottom is a concrete strip. A ball hit there the other night-it came back so hard that the shortstop fielded it."
The short fence invites the cheap homer. ("There'll be plays when I'll say, 'I've got, I've got it...oops,' " Ward says.) At the point where the Crawford Boxes end in straightaway left, the outfield wall takes an abrupt, 90-degree left turn and recedes for nearly 30 feet before it makes a 90-degree right turn and stretches out toward centerfield. That means that sometimes a fielder tracking a ball along the front of the Boxes will have to make a 90-degree turn to make a catch. There are also pillars in left center, with Dr Pepper signs on each of them, that can create havoc.
The entire field is constructed this way. A number of eccentricities from old-time stadiums have been reproduced, creating a sort of Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum of the arcane. The scoreboard and wall have been taken from Fenway Park. The slope in center came from the late Crosley Field in Cincinnati. The flagpole in center, about 430 feet from home, came from old Tiger Stadium. The roof of Union Station has even been spruced up and can be rented by groups that want to attend a game. That idea came from the sight of people watching Chicago Cubs games from roofs of buildings on Waveland and Sheffield avenues across from Wrigley Field.