Sunday, April 02, 2006

Spring Has Sprung

I'm in Houston this weekend for work, and before flying down here I didn't do the one thing I ALWAYS do before I go anywhere on a trip - for business, personal or anything - check the local minor and major league baseball schedule to see if anyone is at home while I'm there. Especially shocking because I am basically in love with Minute Maid Park in Houston. If they were to build a stadium like this in Minnesota, I would buy season tickets in a heartbeat. And make sure I went to every single game.

But I didn't check the schedule because I was going to be here March 31-April 3, and Opening Day is April 3. Well, I am here Friday night and believe it or not, the Astros were playing an exhibition game at home, here at Minute Maid Park. I didn't find out until the evening news recap...BUT...I did find out that the 'Stros would be playing the Royals in another exhibition game the next night. So I went. Oh, what a night.

My hotel here in Houston is right in the middle of the action...on one side is the Toyota Center (brand new, home of the Houston Rockets). On the other side is the Convention Center (gigantic). And on a third side is Minute Maid Park - just 4 blocks away. And there is really nothing between the front door of the hotel and the entrance to the ballpark...just parking lots and a park. At about 5:40 I headed out the door for the 6:05 start.

After taking about 3 steps onto the sidewalk I realized this was going to be a perfect night. It was about 75 degrees, sunny and not even humid (surprising for Houston). I made it to the ballpark in just a few minutes (even the crossing lights were on my side), and started to ponder whether to walk up to the ticket window and try to get a ticket when a little ticket scalper with a table said "Need a ticket?" I said, "Whattya got?" He said "How many do you need?" I said, "Just one!" To end this little dialog and spare you the details, I got a ticket about 11 rows about the middle of the 'Stros dugout and headed in. (I don't know why I contemplated going to the ticket window - scalpers always have a spare ticket isolated from the rest of their ticket batch and they can't sell them except to the rare weird people like myself going to a game alone. So they are always willing to unload them for a great price.)

I didn't have a purse on me (I try not to when going to sporting events...for the following reason alone), so I was able to go through the express security check-in line and within seconds I was through the doors of a ballpark that is my second favorite ballpark in Major League Baseball. (Yankees Stadium is the baseball mecca. It can't be touched. There's nothing like watching big, rowdy, drunk Yankees fans almost plummet off the second or third tier of the stadium!)

I had been inside for about 12 seconds and couldn't get the smile off of my face. It was a gorgeous night, the roof was open, the ballpark was buzzing, the beer was cold and I was about to watch my first baseball game of 2006. The night couldn't get any better. I was seriously so happy that I almost had tears in my eyes.

I spent my $2 on a scorecard, roster and pencil. Bought a beer after filling out my loan application (OH MY GOSH the price of beer is insane at this park - I don't remember it being this insane back in '03...get to the World Series and they jack the prices up on you, I guess). And found my seat. I greeted the family sitting on the aisle of my row...a youngish couple with a small son who couldn't have been older than 4 years old. An energetic young Astros fan. Fully decked out in the uniform of pitcher Mike Gallo, number 45. (Who had a VERY brief appearance in the game - 1 batter - who he proceeded to plunk. The poor little fan was so sad.) And this kid had it all - the hat, the jersey, the pants, the shoes. It was great.

One of the reasons that I had a great seat was because I was sitting next to this family. They are the reason that baseball is so great...and demonstrated everything that is wonderful about going to a game. They must have made a stop at the souvenir store on their way to their seats because Jr. had a black and natural Astros mini-bat that he clutched for the entire game. While holding his soda, popcorn, hot dog, or anything else he could get his hands on - he held onto that mini-bat for his life. And did that kid have a great game or what? When I got there he had a giant foot long hot dog in his spare, mini-batless, hand. His mom was holding a gigantic soda, for which he traded the hot dog periodically. Then the cotton candy man went by. And Jr. got a purple one. Then his mom left for a bit and came back with a gigantic tub of popcorn. At which point Jr.'s eyes lit up like Santa has just surprised him in his bedroom at 3am. Then of course, the peanut man came by. Even I got in on that action. As did everyone in our section, I think.

Jr.'s excitement and reaction to the play on the field was the best part. At one point in time they Royals loaded the bases with one out, and Jr. said "I can't watch!" and pulled his hat down over his eyes. The kid is 4!!! His dad just said, "They'll get out of it! Watch the game!!" So he pulled his hat up and proceeded to watch a strikeout and a routine 5-3 play. And then appropriately cheered loudly.

The best part of Jr.'s reaction and enjoyment of the game came at the last out. As the fireworks went off in left field over the train filled with oranges that chugs along at Astros homeruns (two trips in last night's game), Jr. jumped a huge smile on his face and I swear he had tears in his eyes...turned to his mom and jumped up and down as he hugged her and then did the same to his dad. That kid had the absolute night of his life. And all he did was sit in a chair the whole game. 9 straight innings. He never got up, never complained (except for when the Astros loaded the bases) and loved every single minute of it.

As for me, I was in seventh heaven. When I go to games by myself I nearly always grab a scorecard and keep score. Which interferes with my ability to get up to get food, but thank goodness for vendors. I may have been the only person in the ballpark stupid enough to attempt to keep score for a Spring Training game. The Royals literally played every single person that traveled to Houston from Kansas City. I didn't realize that the kids with "BB" on their backs could play left field according to MLB rules. (OK, that was a joke...don't write to me and say "The batboys played??") They had no less than 6 players on the field at one point in time that didn't have their names on their jerseys...and all of their numbers were above 65. It was hilarious. By the 7th inning they had replaced their entire starting line-up, 2 times over in some cases. But in the first inning a Reggie Sanders foul ball almost came to my seat. And by almost, I mean it was 4 rows up and 6 seats over. Which of course meant that everyone within 3 sections (except for me, because I knew it wasn't coming to me) stood up to try to grab it. This just reminds me that I have never, despite the 8 million baseball games I have attended or worked, gotten a foul ball! Nearly hit by one, yes. (I nearly caught a line-drive to the head at a Twins-Red Sox Spring Training game back in '00, but my then-boyfriend reached out and snagged it bare-handed before I died.) But I never actually physically got one! That really sucks.

But the best part about the game last night was just the atmosphere. If you have never been to a baseball game by yourself before, I suggest you do it. Don't get me wrong, I love going to games with my friends...but periodically I like to go by myself and just enjoy the game and the crowd. There's something special about sitting there quietly and listening to the buzz of the crowd as they chatter amongst themselves while a pitcher runs up a full count, and then grows with excitement as they anticipate a K. There's something special about watching a family share popcorn and argue over a cotton candy flavor. There's something special about listening to the wacko 3 rows behind you attempt to heckle the opposing team. And there's something special about standing up and cheering for a homerun or a pitcher striking out the side when you're no longer by yourself, but part of a crowd of thousands.

Over the off-season you think that you remember how special a night at the park is. You think you remember how sweet the taste of a cold beer and a hot dog is at your favorite stadium. You think that you remember how colorful clean uniforms against freshly cut grass can be. You think you remember the joy of a homerun. The thrill of a strikeout. The excitement of watching the closer trot in from the bullpen. The roar of the crowd at the final out. But you don't. You forget. You forget about the smile on your face. You forget about the spring in your step as you walk through the turnstyle and hear the beep of the ticket scanner. You forget about the slight chill as the sun sets on the stadium. The sound of the PA announcer echoing against the empty seats. The unconscious nodding of your head at your favorite batter's intro song.

Not until you see it again for the first time in months do you really remember.

Spring has sprung, and so has baseball. Play ball!


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