Minute Maid Park, 501 Crawford Street, Houston, Texas — the home of Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros. It opened in 2000 and has since featured four different names. It’s your typical, cookie-cutter, retractable dome baseball stadium. It’s a marvelous park in its own right, but not seldom seen.
That is, if you know nothing of the city’s wondrous, storied past. Minute Maid Park was constructed as an architectural restoration of what remained of downtown Houston’s Union Station, an old train hub that had not seen a locomotive pass through since 1974. In a reclamation project of the historic railroad stop, Union Station serves as the left field entrance to the ballpark.
At one time in Houston, roars could be heard all across the downtown area from Union Station, considered to be the main railroad core of the Southern United States. With 17 tracks and a variety of incomparable rides, nothing bested Union Station. Ridership declined heavily after World War II in the 1940s, and the emergence of modern automobiles pushed trains into an era of antiquation.
But the spirit, and the image, of railroad significance lives on at Minute Maid. As an ode to Union Station and its historic magnitude, a small rendition of a turn-of-the century locomotive rides across a bright blue track over the left field wall after every Astros home run (and hell, that train was moving this postseason).
In looking over the names of the old trains, I found an odd connection between the monikers the trains churned with and the current Astros players who play in their ghostly presence. It’s almost like the trains are the players in an extremely weird and surreal sense.
There was the Twin Star Rocket, which steamed passengers from Houston to Minneapolis via Dallas, Fort Worth, Kansas City, and Des Moines. “Twin Star” is a name reminiscent of the Astros’ two magisterial young infielders, Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve. They carry their team long distances with ease and hit “Rocket” after rocket along the way, as Twin Stars.
There’s the Sam Houston Zephyr, a train to Denver via Dallas. A “zephyr” is defined as a light, gentle wind, somewhat of a subtle killer. Traits embodied by Justin Verlander, a 34-year-old fireballer who stays composed in all situations and effortlessly terminates your hopes like a soft breeze on a quiet spring day.
Not to be forgotten is the train to St. Louis, named Texas Eagle. Texas Eagle would be a fitting name for George Springer, a high-flying, entertaining outfielder who, like an eagle, soared over all competitors in the 2017 World Series. Springer made sensational catches and hit a home run in five different Series games, winning the Willie Mays MVP award.
The Texas Chief went from Houston to Chicago and back every three days, according to most historic Union Station archives. A chief, by definition, is a leader of a group or clan — often times a person who had earned his/her spot through years of hardship and adversity. That is Evan Gattis, the Astros catcher and designated hitter, for whom I am willing to say that few ballplayers have gone through more personally.
Gattis, a Texas-born athlete, suffered through the heartbreak of his parents’ divorce, developed an anxiety disorder, was diagnosed with clinical depression, spent time in psychiatric wards, and fought addictions to illegal substances and alcohol. At one point, Gattis had quit baseball entirely and worked as a janitor for a Dallas tech company. Gattis is a Texas Chief, personifying the soul of a silly little train.
There was the Lone Star, the very last passenger train to be operated in and out of Union Station. It showed that every great thing comes to an end, and that nothing, even the best things, can last forever. Lone Star ran from 1948 to 1979 as Amtrak’s seventh-most popular route in the country, being discontinued after a wonderful run and an inspiring ending. Lone Star, to me, is Carlos Beltran.
Beltran has suited up for both Texas MLB teams, and for the Astros twice. Beltran went to Houston in the offseason at 40-years-old looking for something that had eluded him during his illustrious career: a world championship. He got that in what appeared to be his final season, playing mostly DH and scarcely cracking the lineup, nonetheless bawling his eyes out over finally hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy.
Lastly, in regards to the train station that inspired the Seal of the City of Houston, author Jerome H. Farbar wrote a short book about Houston in 1913, entitled Where Seventeen Railroads Meet The Sea. It chronicles the way the city came together around the railroads, and in a way, vice versa. Its residents, its leaders, and its economy centered around the train station in ways that wouldn’t make sense in modern times.
That was 104 years ago, but on theme with the rest of this piece, the trains became the soul of the city in 2017. Just like the players and dynamic personalities that demonstrated the spirit of the Houston that was, Where Seventeen Railroads Meet The Sea epitomizes the Houston of today. The Astros were a centerfold of what happened to a bustling, scrappy city looking for something to hinge onto. A hopeful story of perseverance and resilience in a city, county, or metropolitan region that needed the same.
I live in Central Texas — the area of the state’s capitol city, Austin. However, I reside in a smaller town that grew around a train track, a rail that carried Lone Star, Sam Houston Zephyr, and more of the aforementioned passenger trains. That, too, is a method of pride in a team for which I have rooted since birth; I have a connection to the hypothetical situation of “the players are the trains” that I crafted hours ago. The Houston Astros were today’s Union Station. It’s another way to connect past Houston to current Houston the way Minute Maid Park does.
In this state, you are never far away from a story. Just researching the lasting cultural impact of Houston’s Union Station, and how it impacted things in a philosophical way today, allowed me to recognize that. Houston 100 years from now might find themselves down, but Houstonians of the future can look to the 2017 Astros for some sort of theoretical promise. They will never be forgotten in this city, or in the large scale of baseball history.