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There are a few givens in life, but here's one of them: you can take a native species out of Texas, but you can't take the Texas out of the native species.

Everything in Texas is big - from the ballparks to the football stadiums (college and pro) to the "honky-tonks" and people's trucks - even Ross Perot's goofy ears and J.R. Ewing's cowboy hat. Oh, and "Astros Field."

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Formerly Enron Field, the ballpark in the east part of downtown Houston, is big. Very big.

Unfortunately, bigger does not necessarily always equal better, particularly when it comes to ballparks. And that's the case with Astros Field.

Somewhat ironically it's the ballparks' greatest necessity that also serves as its greatest detraction.

What is it you ask my fair baseball aficionado?

It's the roof. Uh...em. The "retractable" roof.

The 242-high roof is a sight to be seen, especially when it quietly opens in less than 12 minutes.

But that's just it. The roof is often closed because Houston's climate has never been, isn't now and never will be suitable for 100 percent outdoor baseball on a consistent basis.

That's because Houston is the Miami of the Sunbelt.

It's an inferno. A bayou. It's a swamp for the love of Pete!

It's usually hot and it's always - always - humid. Oh, and those mosquitoes. Ouch!

In fact, it was heat, humidity and the city's pesky mosquitoes that prompted the construction in the 1960s of the "Eighth Wonder of the Wonder," the Houston Astrodome (known only to the author as the "Eighth Blunder of the World" and the "Astrodump").

The Colt 45s, the former name of the Astros, had tried to play outdoor baseball in Colt Stadium to no avail. Fans quit coming. Just too damn hot.

Astros Field is an upgrade to the Astrodome but - truth be told - not much of an upgrade.

The major differences are easy to spot. Astros Field has natural grass, the Astrodome had "Astroturf," which the Astros invented after planting natural grass in the dome turned into a failed experiment.

The other major difference?

Astros Field actually is an old-fashioned baseball field, which is to say it has unique dimensions in left, center and right field unlike the Astrodome.

It's 315 feet down the left field line, 362 feet to the left field power alley, 435 feet to dead center field (the deepest in baseball), 373 feet in the right field power alley and 326 feet down the right field line.

Tal's Hill in dead center field angles up, and outfielders must maneuver around a padded flagpole nearby in the field of play.

"I like it a lot," said Astros fan James Lancaster during a game at Astros Field. "I like the jagged dimensions and the hill in center field."

Lancaster may like it, but Houston Astros pitchers won't second that opinion.

Astros Field is a hitters dream and a pitchers worst nightmare come true, unlike the Astrodome which served as one of the friendliest pitchers parks in all of baseball.

But forget about the players. These new launching pads - excuse me, ballparks - are about the fans, or so the saying goes. And to Houstonians, Astros Field is a gem.

Sure Astros Field isn't as charming or even in the same league as the Fenway's and Wrigley's of the world. And it doesn't even come close to the quaintness of newer ballparks like PNC Park, Camden Yards, SAFECO Field and The Ballpark In Arlington.

But look - it's the best the Astros could do, given the climate circumstances of the city in which they preside. And at the end of the day that's understandable to Houstonians. It's just not understandable to, well, the rest of the world.

Houstonians are so programmed after spending 35 years in the Astrodome that they can watch a baseball game indoors for six innings on a weeknight knowing that around 8:40 p.m. Astros Field's majestic roof will open in minutes to reveal outdoor baseball - if only for three innings.

And those three innings are indeed magical to the folk here, especially for those with seats along the first base side near right field that affords great views of Houston's downtown skyline.

"This is really great," quipped Astros fan Kathryn Fairbanks. "It's different from the Astrodome."

It really is. For three innings per game.

And to Houstonians that's just fine, thank you.

"When I first saw the Astrodome I was just flabbergasted," Lancaster explained. "But I like this (Astros Field) better."

Lancaster was fortunate enough to catch the third game ever played in Astros Field. It's a moment he will never forget.

"My first impression was like, 'Wow,'" he said. "There were no stains on the concrete (floor). It was pure almost."

There are stains on the concrete now but the model locomotive still runs above left field every time an Astro homers. The clock tower above Astros Field still rings every hour with precise precision.

And - only at Astros Field - fans sing along together to "Deep in the Heart of Texas" following the ceremonial "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" during the seventh inning stretch.

"Food prices are a lot higher than the dome," Lancaster said. "But it's better food service and there's not a bad seat in the house. I really don't know how it can be improved."

Therein lies the answer. It can't be improved. This is as good as it gets for Houston baseball fans.

Size DOES matter. And that's a-ok to these Texans, pardner.

"It's huge!" Fairbanks exclaimed.

And so it goes.

Deeeeeeeeeeeep in the heart of Texas.

Joe Connor is the founder of

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Jun 20 2002, 03:36:11
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