HOUSTON - I have walked into the Astrodome many times in my life, around 300 times…but never this way. On Friday, April 6, I entered the dome alone through the enormous opening in center field.
Kind of like a relief pitcher from the past. Under the 9-ton steel door, down the concrete ramp which felt like the bedrock of Houston itself and onto the playing field, 25-feet below street level.
Think of all the things that have rolled down that ramp. Rodeo cowboys and their wagons. Rock show roadies and their amps. Vehicles carrying Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Home runs hit by the Astros. The buses that carried the Oilers from a title game loss to a big Luv Ya Blue welcome home party.
And now me. I was there to see the Astrodome one last time before Harris County converts it into a parking garage and event venue. One last look.
Stepping onto the playing surface, I immediately felt like I was home. That’s because the Astrodome has been a kind of second home to me. My first trip there was May 2, 1965, Cubs vs. Astros.
Over the years, our family would attend many more Astro games. Always on Aisle 124, Row Q. We went to the 1968 All-Star game. We had season tickets to the Oilers for 26 years on Aisle 221, Row 14. We saw countless rodeo performers including Elvis, plus other events.
I carried on that tradition with my own children going to baseball games and seeking player autographs until 1999. So, returning to the dome was like yesterday for me…like putting on a pair of comfortable shoes.
Appropriately, there was a strip of spongy Astroturf that led me to midfield. I didn’t get far without doing the obvious, looking up at the iconic roof. Wow...it’s still the nearest thing to heaven. Somehow, in the 1960’s, architects spanned a distance over 640 feet using 9,000 tons of steel with no interior supports. The first sports stadium with a roof. And they designed it in a futuristic style, perfect for Space City.
It put Houston on the map. Period.
Photos: The Astrodome, one last look from a lifelong fan
I started snapping pictures and searching for my landmarks. I walked to the railing and looked up at the mezzanine level where dad and I used to sit, side-by-side, Sunday after Sunday. We’d walk from the concourse, through the tunnel onto the aisle and I remember there was that feeling of awe seeing the interior of the dome.
My mind drifted back to dad sitting in his orange seat, wearing his blue jacket with his arms crossed, analyzing the game, his binoculars by his side. In a section of seats below I could picture the pom-pom man who used to dance a jig for the crowd every time the Houston Oilers fight song was played. And I thought of cheerleader Krazy George marching up and down the stairs with his drum. My eyes followed the mezzanine level around to the right where there used to be one of two lower scoreboards in the outfield. That’s where we sat to watch Game 3 of the 1980 National League Championship, Phillies vs. Astros.
To my left, were the 3rd base field box seats where I grew up watching Bob Aspromonte and Doug Rader make incredible plays. I looked to the west end zone and took a picture of the simple scoreboard. Visitors. Home. Quarter. Down.
How many times had I watched the seconds tick away on that scoreboard? I snapped a shot of the American flag hanging from the rafters. How many times had I sung the national anthem in the Astrodome?
Today, the dome’s playing field isn’t what it used to be. There’s no batter’s box. No end zones. It’s more of a warehouse, a concrete floor covered with all kinds of things. Old chairs, bleachers, rolls of turf, pallets, etc.
I couldn’t find the Astros’ dugouts. No matter. In the coming years, the floor will be raised 25-feet to street level. So, the place where infielders and outfielders used to roam will become a two-story parking garage. The seating areas are also a shadow of what they used to be. The colorful, cushioned chairs are gone. Most of them were sold to the fans, including four to me. Do you remember the original colors? Red, orange, purple, yellow, blue. No matter.
The plan is to tear down the stands that supported those seats. In other words, hollow out the Astrodome and strip it back to the walls to create more interior exhibit space for festivals and conferences.
The only seats remaining will be the upper deck rainbow section on the east end of the stadium. A tip of the cap to the past for future generations to photograph. Those same seats replaced the dome’s massive scoreboard, the largest in history at the time it was built. Remember the electric homerun celebration with cowboys roping cattle? It’s day is long gone, but this remodeling could breathe new life into the Astrodome.
During my visit, I made a point to stand in the center of the dome’s floor. The place where boxer Cleveland Williams hit the canvas in 1966 after being knocked down by Muhammed Ali. The place where the Game of the Century tipped off in 1968. Two hundred feet above me was the gondola. There’s still a catwalk on the ceiling that takes you to it from the Skyboxes. I wouldn’t be climbing up there on this day.
The huge speakers are hanging from the ceiling too, but they’re not connected anymore. Still, you hear the echoes of the past. I felt a cool breeze and I asked if the air conditioner was turned on. My guide said it wasn’t. It was just the wind blowing in from centerfield where I had entered. At one point, the sun came out, illuminating everything inside the stadium.
Remember how that used to feel? For a moment, I saw Earl Campbell running downfield. I wished I could turn back time.
And during the visit, a phone call came. On this day of all days, in this place of all places, I got the bad news that one of my University of Houston classmates had died. My college buddies and I had just visited him in hospice a week before.
How sad, I thought. And how odd, the timing of this call. Was somebody trying to tell me something? That time is short? That we’d better enjoy the moments? Like this special moment?
My last look inside the Houston Astrodome.