HOUSTON -- When Jim Crane took over more than five years ago as the owner of the Astros, he had his sights set on two long-term goals: Make the Astros a contender, and improve the gameday experience for the fans in the ballpark as the on-field transformation was unfolding.Crane is
HOUSTON -- When Jim Crane took over more than five years ago as the owner of the Astros, he had his sights set on two long-term goals: Make the Astros a contender, and improve the gameday experience for the fans in the ballpark as the on-field transformation was unfolding.
Crane is pleased with the progress of both. The Astros will begin the 2017 season as legitimate contenders to win the American League West, and Minute Maid Park has undergone another dramatic transformation, with a rebuilt center-field section offering a more comfortable, spacious area and improved food and drink options for fans.
"The team's moving along nicely, as you can see," Crane said. "This was a project we really wanted to do for the fans, to open up center field. It was kind of blocked. We looked at a lot of great fields, and the areas were all opened up, in areas where you could get refreshments, stand and talk to your friends."
After surveying several premier ballparks throughout the Major Leagues, Crane, team president Reid Ryan and senior vice president of business operations Marcel Braithwaite determined too much space surrounding center field was being wasted. On Wednesday, the Astros unveiled an $18 million renovation that includes new bars, patios and concessions, along with a restructured batter's eye, a redesigned Champions Pavilion and an additional elevator, escalator and stairwell for better fan access.
"Overall, it was to create a communal gathering spot, where people could go and enjoy the game from the perspective that maybe they've never enjoyed it from before," Ryan said.
The project included lots of addition, and a bit of subtraction. The most glaring difference at first glance is the absence of Tal's Hill in straightaway center, a unique feature of Minute Maid Park that was named after former club president Tal Smith when the ballpark opened in 2000.
The presence of the hill, which included an in-play flagpole, extended center field to 436 feet. That area is now a bar area and a field suite that will allow fans who rent that space to shag fly balls during batting practice.
The deepest part of center field will now measure 409 feet.
"I thought the hill was very iconic," Ryan said, adding that he visited with Smith a couple of years ago to tell him of the team's plans to eliminate the hill. "But the reality is, we're in the real estate business. People want to sit close to the action. We have to continue to move forward with the ballpark experience."
In terms of additions, no new feature received more attention than the two new culinary tenants at Minute Maid Park -- Shake Shack and Torchy's Tacos.
Shake Shack, located in center field on the main concourse, will feature a menu of the classics -- the ShackBurger, SmokeShack, 'Shroom Burger, Shack Stack, Chick'n Shack and hot dog, along with their signatures shakes and Concretes.
Torchy's Tacos, an award-winning Texas favorite for decades, will be located on the center-field Mezzanine Level location. They're also sticking to the old favorites -- the Trailer Park, the Beef Fajita, the Fried Avocado and the famous Green Chili Queso and Chips.
The FiveSeven Grille, which occupied so much space behind center field, is now a modestly sized FiveSeven Market, and will offer a wide variety of fresh and packaged foods and beverage items, including an assortment of salads, fruit cups and vegetable cups.
The Astros also unveiled a massive new graffiti mural displayed in Home Run Alley. The Astros Street Art Display depicts likenesses of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, and ties into the 2017 #EarnIt campaign. The artwork was designed and painted by local artist Franky Cardona.
Renovations at Minute Maid Park have been ongoing since Crane bought the team. The clubhouses, Diamond Club, club level and view deck have all undergone massive transformations, and Crane hinted that more redesigns could be in the works in the future.
"We basically have rebuilt this whole ballpark in the last five years, from the inside out," Ryan said. "We think this is as good as any ballpark in the country. We think this will be the icing on the cake, that people will come out here and just have a wonderful time and continue to have a great ballpark experience."
Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.