YESTERDAY, I WATCHED the Astros from what is called the “Inspirity Club” of Minute Maid Park. Inspirity is a local bank, I think. Why any business would choose such an insipidly awful name is beyond me, but I do know there was nothing wishy-washy about the price for a single ticket: $175.
I know that, not because I shelled out that amount for the privilege of sitting in those seats with free food and a wide array of (not free) alcoholic beverages and even a waiter to take care of your every need, but because that is the amount printed on the ticket. I got the ticket from my friend Mary, who knows the owner of those season tickets.
The Astros won, and that was obviously the highlight of the day. But there were other high points, among them the fact that when I got to the club, Mitch McConnell smiled warmly, welcomed me and opened the door for me. And Ol’ Mitch was there again to open the door for me at the end of the game. And again, he was smiling, hiding any concern he might have had about his future given what had just happened to John Boehner.
I will be at Minute Maid again this afternoon, though in much less sumptuous surroundings, for the last home game of the season. Win or lose, I will be a very happy man when the last out is called, for this has been an amazingly beautiful spring and summer of Astros baseball for me. I have attended more home games during this season than in any previous season, and I have watched on TV most of the games I could not attend. The Astros have given me much frustration, anger and sadness. But what I will remember most about the 2015 season will be the thrills and the joy and sheer elation that I felt as I witnessed some astonishing plays and hits.
I LOVE BASEBALL. I like football and have been known to enjoy basketball and futbol and other sports, but baseball to me is king. This is not to say that baseball is better than the other sports. I’ve been in way too many arguments with friends over which sport is superior, and I can tell you that every one of those arguments was stupid and pointless. There may be a scientific way to determine whether one game is better than all the others, but it really wouldn’t matter.
What matters is which of the sports tugs at the most heartstrings within us. And that most often has to do with which sport was most present and most emotionally satisfying early on in our lives, when our personalities were being formed.
For me that sport was baseball.
IT WAS BASEBALL – or rather, softball – that we, my cousins and neighbors and I, played on unpaved street of my South Texas hometown and in the dusty school playgrounds. It was baseball games featuring local teams against teams from neighboring towns (on both sides of the border) that my father would sometimes take us to watch at rundown city ballparks on Sunday afternoon. I remember little about the action on the field, but I have vivid memories of the drunk spectators who taunted and humiliated the players and the umpires.
It was pickup baseball games between teams from different migrant camps that we’d sometimes go watch in Minto or other small North Dakota towns on Sundays, the only day of the week when we weren’t out on the sugar beet fields.
It was the baseball World Series that we listened to on Tío Adrián’s car radio on cold autumn days, during lunch breaks around a wood fire at the edge of a North Dakota potato field. More often than not it was the Yankees playing – and beating – the Brooklyn Dodgers. I quickly became a Dodgers fan because my uncle and his children were huge Yankees fans. That was the beginning of my long love affair with underdogs.
It was to watch Sunday afternoon baseball on TV that Ernie Kwiatkowski, the Wisconsin cucumber grower on whose farm we lived a few summers, invited me to join him, and that is how I became a Milwaukee Braves fan.
It was high school baseball games featuring the Crystal City Javelins against teams from surrounding towns that my father would occasionally take us to on warm spring nights to watch players such as my cousin Mike and Tomás Rivera (who would later gain fame as a trendsetter in the Chicano literature world).
My father would park the car along the third-base line and allowed us to sit on the car’s hood or fenders, or on the grass, while he and my mother sat on the front seat. Hits and good defensive plays would generate not applause, but sustained honking from our car and other vehicles.
WHEN I GOT to junior high school, Crystal City started hosting an annual high school baseball tournament (Popeye Tournament, of course). If you bought tickets for all the games, you would be allowed to skip classes to attend the games. I always bought the tickets. Not because I wanted to skip classes (I happened to like school) but because I didn’t want to miss a single game. And I attended every home game that I could.
Most of those were night games that were held in the district’s sports complex at the other end of town from where I lived. I walked to every game, and I walked home after every game. The first half of the trip was OK because it was through the Anglo part of town and that meant paved streets, sidewalks and streetlights. Once I crossed the railroad tracks and entered our part of town, there was no pavement, there was no concrete and there were no lights. All that awaited me were darkness, rutted dirt streets, unwelcoming snarling unleashed dogs – and the possibility of a ghost or two to scare the living crap out of me. I never saw a ghost, but two of my sisters had seen bultos, and that was all the evidence I needed to know ghosts existed.
I did a lot of praying during those long walks down West Edwards Street. Some were anti-ghost prayers, others were anti-canine pleas. (My mother had taught us a doggie prayer when our grandfather started sending us to a neighbor’s house to pick up his daily Spanish-language from San Antonio. The neighbor had a mean dog and so we dutifully chanted: de tí. The devil is within you, God is in me; may the blood of Christ deliver me from you.) The prayers did the trick when it came to the dogs. Or maybe it was the rocks and sticks I always made sure I carried with me when I walked down that dark street.El diablo en tí, Dios en mí; la sangre de Cristo me libre de ti. The devil is within you, God is in me; may the blood of Christ deliver me from you.) The prayers did the trick when it came to the dogs. Or maybe it was the rocks and sticks I always made sure I carried with me when I walked down that dark street.
Those high school games were fun, lots of fun. I knew all the players because most were classmates of my older sisters. I didn’t know their batting averages or other statistics but I knew who was likely to hit and who was likely to strike out. I did a lot of pleading with them to do well and, when things got tough, with God set aside all the worlds’ problems to take a side, our side.
In those days Crystal City rarely had decent football teams, and its basketball teams were worse. But baseball? In baseball Crystal City often ruled. If it didn’t win district, it came close, and when the team went on to win bi-district and even regional (there weren’t any state playoff), the whole town went wild. Out-of-town games would be broadcast on KBEN, the local station, and the entire town paused to listen, and when the team arrived home, its bus would unload the players at the small park in front of city hall where the statue of Popeye used to stand, for a loud celebratory rally, one of the rare times when the town’s browns and whites (and its handful of blacks) would get together to celebrate anything.
“¡Ooooooorrra los Javalines!”Maxima Flores, wife of Jonas, a regular umpire at the games would yell when given the microphone. “¡Oooooooorrrrrra!”
We found that hilarious but we went along, and for days afterwards, we’d greet each other in the school hallways with, “!Oooooooorrra!”
I NEVER PLAYED baseball in school. I was a decent hitter but I never learned how to field a ball and I would panic every time a ball was hit my way. But my failure to master the game never dampened my love for watching the game.
When I went away to college, though, baseball and I parted ways for a long time. My junior college and Texas State (then Southwest Texas State) both had baseball teams but I was too busy attending classes and doing other things I enjoyed.
The first professional game I saw was at the Astrodome in the late 1960s, when I was working as a counselor for the summer Upward Bound program in San Marcos. One of the field trips we took the kids on was to a game between the Astros and the Padres. I don’t remember much about the game, probably because I spent most of the game staring in awe at the giant structure and its domed roof.
I DIDN’T BECOME an Astros fan until 1980, after I’d started working for The Houston Post and I became part of a group of city desk reporters who managed to get free tickets to the games. It was the years of Niekro, Ashby, Cruz, Cedeño, Puhl, J.R., Cabell and other great ones clad in silly orange outfits.
We went to a lot of games, our group did, and we drank a lot of beer. Too much. So much that we’d often roam out into the parking lots after the game, wander around and plead with strangers, “Have you seen our car?”
I have remained an Astros fan since then. When I was in Washington in the late 1980s, I would often drive to Philadelphia and Pittsburg at least once each summer to see the Astros play there. And I was again in DC when the Astros finally made it to the World Series. What I remember about that is walking the streets of the city after the final game, numb and emotionally drained, thinking that all hope was lost. Not just for the Astros or baseball, but for humanity.
AND NOW, HERE I am, nearing the end of another Astros season. Unless some miracle happens, it will go down as another disappointing season. Statistically. Only statistically. And that’s important, because statistics don’t measure joy and excitement. They don’t measure pleasure. They don’t measure thrills. And that, my friends, is what the Astros have given me all these past six months.