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  • Cold Weather Memories of Hot Stove Times

    As 2018 begins, we’ve just passed the halfway point of the baseball off season, a striking reminder that another nine-month marathon is soon to be upon us.

    After all of last year’s drama— Farewell 2017, we survived ye — it’s easy not to think about baseball now. It’s not time yet, with temperatures ranging from toddler to tween and a nonstop barrage of college and pro football games on every channel known to man. (I’m still waiting for the Hallmark Bowl to fill in the gap between the Christmas and Valentine’s Day movies, BTW.)

    Regrouping from the holiday season, I started thinking about the unfinished business of 2017 and returned to this essay, which I started writing while on a plane to Denver the week after the World Series. I’ve noodled with it at times over the past two months, but never found the way to finish it. Because, like so many things that occurred last year, what happened just seemed too unreal.

    My hometown Astros — losers of more than 100 games for three consecutive years earlier in the decade — won the first World Series in their 55-year history, soon after my adopted Washington Nationals imploded in a way fans of Houston teams find all too familiar. They became the first team to beat both the Red Sox and Yankees to take their first American League pennant. They exorcised the Dodgers, long a painful memory from their days in the National League West, and won two of the most thrilling games ever in route to a 4-3 Series win.

    As a lifelong Houston fan, I couldn’t wait for the end, knowing the other shoe was about to drop. Heartburn and heartbreak have helped fans of Houston teams keep Rolaids and Tums in business for generations. If a Houston squad was finally good enough to find a way to blow it in spectacular fashion, they were guaranteed to do so.

    Until 2017, the most unlikely of unlikely years.

    ••••••

    Sports are embedded in my DNA by my grandparents, parents and place of birth. Growing up, football was the obvious game of choice, but any dreams and aspirations of being a star athlete quickly met the twin realities of poor coordination and tortoise-like agility.

    Given that we didn’t have many kids in our neighborhood — who would want to play with a clumsy turtle, anyway? — I mostly contented myself with throwing a football at neighborhood trees while playing imaginary games in front of nonexistent fans. Other than sandlot games with friends from another neighborhood, any attempt at playing in an organized setting was nothing short of a disaster.

    Still, I loved the game and read about football all the time, collecting books and manuals and learning about as many trivial aspects as I could. It was something I shared with my grandmother, who jotted notes about games and players on scraps of paper that she never threw away. (Earlier in her life, she also was rumored to bet on Saturday’s games before Sunday church.)

    From the late 1940s through the mid 1960s, my dad’s family took numerous trips to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, 120 miles west of Longview, to see games. I still have most of the programs, and a prized possession is from the 1927 Rose Bowl that my grandfather attended. (Note: Stanford and Alabama tied 7-7 in a game — dubbed the "the football championship of America" — in a game that broke all attendance records at the time.)

    After I was born, in 1965, my parents and grandparents mostly contented themselves with watching football on TV. The Dallas Cowboys were rapidly becoming America’s team; it was easier then to cover up the hijinks Peter Gent later chronicled in North Dallas Forty (still a great read). Given that we lived near Houston, I rooted mostly for the hometown Oilers, even though they didn’t give us anything to cheer for at the time.

    Following the Oilers in the early to mid 1970s was the equivalent to being a Cleveland Browns fan today. And, for some time, Houston and Cleveland shared the same sad sack tendencies — complete with paper bags on fans’ heads — when it came to all the major sports.

    In Texas, baseball was just one way for people to occupy themselves between the Super Bowl and training camp.

    ••••••

    Despite being the fourth largest city in the U.S., Houston is a town of many communities. If New York’s five boroughs are the equivalent of 1,000 small towns, Houston seemingly has almost as many pockets, thanks to a lack of zoning that comingles homes and businesses on every street corner.

    This, in part, is what helps Houston keep its contrarian, frontier-like sense of individuality, but the community historically has been too spread out and too divided in its loyalties to truly get behind a team. Combine that with some historically bad decisions by team owners in all the major sports — the Oilers’ Bud Adams was the worst, although various Astros owners were close behind — and you could not help but feel like the bastard stepchild of the other major markets.

    For a brief, shining period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Houston’s teams seemed to get their act together, only to fall agonizingly, frustratingly short in big games. The University of Houston became the only team in NCAA history to make the Final Four for three consecutive years and not win the college basketball championship. Not once, but twice, the Rockets lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Celtics (They won back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995 when Michael Jordan, ironically, was trying to play baseball.)

    From 1977 to 1980, the “Luv Ya Blue” Oilers were arguably the second-best team in the NFL, but they were in the same division as the Pittsburgh Steelers, which won four Super Bowls during the decade. In 1981, Adams fired Bum Phillips and proceeded to go on a decade-long rebuild. Then, four years after the worst collapse in NFL playoff history, a 35-3 lead that became a 41-38 loss to the Buffalo Bills in 1993, Adams abandoned the town all together for Nashville.

    The Astros, which opened the Astrodome just a few months after I was born, were lousy for more than a decade before finally breaking through in 1980. Six outs from advancing to the World Series, with Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan pitching, they lost to Phillies in what is considered one of the greatest series in baseball history. The next year, they lost to the Dodgers in the playoffs. In 1986, they lost a Game 6, 16-inning thriller to the Mets with Cy Young winner Mike Scott waiting to take the mound the next day. The Phillies, Dodgers and Mets all won the World Series that year.

    The Killer B’s of the 1990s seemed to forget their bats every time they encountered the Braves in the playoffs, providing a template that the Nationals have followed to a tea. The Astros reached the World Series in 2005, were swept by the White Sox, and then proceeded to land in a baseball sinkhole.

    ••••••

    Given the aforementioned lack of coordination and athletic ability, combined with heaping dollop of nerddom, I’ve never had a large circle of male friends. The ones I’ve had, however, share a love for baseball.

    At this point, I could tell stories about several who are Mets fans, but I won’t. Just know that I love you despite holding a 31-year grudge against your chosen team, which brings me to the 1986 NLCS.

    Brian, a college friend from the University of Houston, and I went to many Astros games together, including the infamous Game 6 when the team lost to the Mets in 16 innings. I was writing a story for the Texas City Sun, my hometown newspaper, and Brian managed to sneak into the press box because he worked on the sports desk at the Houston Post at the time.

    Press boxes were much different in those days. Sportswriters smoked and drank during games; beer and hot dogs were free, as was the accompanying indigestion. Given that computers were in a nascent phase, and “portable” PCs were the size of small cars, most still scribbled their observations down in notebooks and called their stories in to the newsroom.

    I worked nights, and I didn’t write sports, but my then-boss said I could go to the game as long as I didn’t drink. Brian was under no such restriction, having somehow secured the game pass on a night off. When the game went into extra innings, I called John — my boss — and asked if I could have a beer.

    “Sure,” he said, scrambling behind the mounds of paperwork that were clogging his desk. “But just one.”

    In the 14th, I called John. The Mets had just gone ahead and it looked like the Astros were going to lose. He said I could have another beer. Billy Hatcher homered in the bottom of the inning to tie it again, so I finished the beer and called John again. He said I could have a third.

    Finally, in the 16th, the Mets scored three runs to take a 7-4 lead. The Astros came back with two in the bottom half of the inning, but it was not enough. Almost 5 hours after the game had started, the Astros — and Brian — were toast. I called John again and he was so disappointed in the result that he said I could stay.

    We remained in the press box until they threw us out. It was the last time I had that level of access to my hometown team. The next year, at age 22, I left the Sun for the first time.

    ••••••

    Flash forward almost two decades. I’d been gone from the Houston area since 1993, having moved to North Carolina and then on to Northern Virginia in 2001. In 2005, as Ben tested out coach pitch baseball, I was wearing an Astros cap and struck up a conversation with a fellow fan.

    Little did I know then that Eric would become the brother I never had. His love for the Astros stemmed from a brief family stint in Texas, and had never abated even though he spent the majority of his childhood in Vermont.

    The Astros were great in 2005, advancing to their first World Series, a highlight during a tough year. Jill’s mom died and my father continued his downward slide. Brian, in many respects the other brother I never had, had died by suicide the previous fall. Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and Houston was soon filled with evacuees who had no other place to go.

    I went to Houston as Game 1 started, wanting to be part of something and to meet a mutual friend for a toast to Brian, who should have been there. The place I had wanted to go, a bar he had taken me to in the mid 1980s, had closed the previous week, so we made do at a hole in the wall. The Astros were swept in four games, a fitting end to a melancholy year.

    I brought Eric a placard and a World Series cap. He promised to do the same for me when the Astros made it back to the series, not knowing then that it would take 12 years, another hurricane, and a last-minute trade for them to return.

    ••••••

    2005 also was the year the Nationals brought baseball back to Washington, presenting me with a dilemma. I still rooted for the Astros, and occasionally went to games when the teams — one lousy and one rapidly approaching bad — faced each other in D.C. Eric and I went to Houston a couple of times to see games and my family.

    After Astros changed owners and moved to the American League in 2013, in the midst of their historic rebuild, I found my allegiance slowly shifting to the Nationals. Even though they have become the new masters of playoff heartbreak, Washington fields a competitive team.  I’ve also been a National League fan my entire life — one of those people who likes small ball and strategy and hates the designated hitter — and had trouble dealing with Houston’s move to the AL.

    As Houston became more competitive, however, I slowly started to follow them again, rationalizing that I could root for one team each in both leagues. The fact the Astros and Nationals share a spring training facility made me even more interested, especially when I had a chance to go with another friend — Tony Jones — to Florida this year.

    The laid-back nature of spring training was a welcome respite from the start of a crazy year, and set the table for a season that was expected to be great for both teams. As a fan, I was nervous when the squads faced off in a meaningless spring training game, only to have the best possible result — a 6-6 tie after 10 innings.

    With our kids grown and our nest mostly empty, Jill and I purchased a half-season ticket package to the Nationals, and looked forward to seeing what would happen in 2017. I went to games with friends and clients, and Jill and I managed to catch more than 20 games together. We both enjoy the leisurely pace and the conversations we have with others at the ballpark.

    As summer progressed and the Nationals dominated their division, we hoped this would be the year they would get over the hump. Meanwhile, the Astros raced out to one of the greatest starts in major league history, only to fade after the All-Star break due to injuries to some of their best players.

    And then, in the dog days of late August, Hurricane Harvey hit. The Astros acquired pitcher Justin Verlander moments before the final trade deadline and, for once, put the wounded city on their backs.

    ••••••

    Two weeks after Harvey, I was back in Texas, working on a story for my former magazine about how schools were affected by the hurricane. Having grown up and/or lived in many of the affected areas, I was compelled to go back and see what had happened. It was the same feeling I had 12 years earlier, a need to return to my roots.

    My former boss, John, had retired several months earlier. His home in Dickinson, a community only a few miles from where I grew up, had several feet of water. My mom and sister did not have damage to their homes, fortunately, but the area was devastated.

    Twenty-five years after I left the Sun for the second time, John and I got together to reminisce about the old days. Our times there were so hectic, crazy, and fun that we had much to talk about, and it was nice — despite the hardships he and others were dealing with post-hurricane — to get the chance to renew our friendship.

    I spent seven days reporting and taking photos in Texas, following the trail of the hurricane, and needed a break by week’s end. I’d been watching the schedule and it looked like the Astros could clinch the division just before I left, so I asked John if he wanted to go to the game. Much to my surprise and delight, he agreed.

    We pre-gamed at 8th Wonder, a brew pub filled with memorabilia from the Astrodome and the teams of my childhood, that is located near the ballpark. Sitting in the padded, loud-colored seats that had been removed from the Dome, I thought about Brian and the memorable 1986 NLCS game, and texted pictures to Eric and Tony.

    The Astros won that day, clinching the division and setting the table for their memorable playoff run. I returned to Virginia and, with Tony, watched the Nationals lose a crushing game 5 to the Cubs. Baseball’s endless capacity for happiness and heartbreak was still in force.

    ••••••

    After the Nationals’ loss, my attention shifted solely to the Astros. Hopes were high when they won their first two World Series games in team history to go up 2-1 on the Dodgers. Eric and his wife, Mary, embarked on a memorable trip to Houston for game 4. The Astros lost 6-2 as the Dodgers tied the series at two each, but that didn’t dampen his enthusiasm. He also kept his promise, bring me back a placard, shirt and cap from the game.

    My son, Nicholas, and his new fiancée Conner were in town for Game 5, and we saw the end of the wild 13-12 Astros victory after attending an invited dress rehearsal for “Mean Girls” in D.C. Seeing my worlds — parenting, the arts and sports — comingle in a single evening was almost too much to take.

    The Dodgers came back to win Game 6, and Eric and I agreed to watch Game 7 together. Unlike the drama of the other series games, the finale was almost anticlimactic, except for the end result. A 5-1 victory lifted the 55-year curse, one that started three years before I was born.

    Eric and I stood in his front yard, almost unable to process what had just happened.

    Say what you will about the negatives of sports, how we seem more obsessed with games than learning, how precious resources go into high school Jumbotrons when they should be spent on other, more important things. But sports also have a unique ability to unite and bring people together in a special, almost unspoken way. I consider myself lucky to have these memories.

    So here I sit, two months later, waiting for it to start all over again.