added 10/21/2002 by Mike Nixon
A couple of years ago, the in-laws adopted an infant, hence at this point I’m 41 with a brother-in-law who’s 2 ½. On Tuesday, July 16th, 2002, the wife (Keri) and I took Wade to his very first baseball game, an afternoon “businessman’s special” between the Astros and Pirates at Minute Maid Park. In our usual pre-coffee daze getting out of the house for work that morning, we forgot to grab the camera, so this account will have to suffice in preserving the event for posterity.
A rainy, muggy day in Houston is not unusual for July, and perfect for indoor baseball. Wade’s 17-year-old brother Brap (best he can do with “Brad” at this point) drove him downtown to pick up Ah-ee (how his earliest utterance of “Keri” came out, which the family has encouraged since, it’s to where I even call her that sometimes). Skating from work at 2 o’clock, I donned the Biggio jersey I’ve worn to games for years in the truck and met them at the stadium. Ah-ee was sporting her red road jersey with autographs all over it and Brap was in typical teenager costume, cargo jeans and a ratty t-shirt, though since he doesn’t have any tattoos or piercings and the jeans only slightly hang off his hips, he’s not that typical, actually a good kid and a kind big brother. Wade, as their mom had promised, was decked from head to knees in Astros garb, wearing the little denim overalls outfit we brought him from Spring Training and his cap that has a logo’ed teddy bear patch where the Astros’ star usually goes. Cuter’n a bug’s ear, and especially cool sporting the little wire frame shades he’s taken to wearing lately.
Instead of the usual “Mikie!”, I was greeted with “Bus!” and Ah-ee explained that he’d been most impressed (and a little scared) by the noise of all the park’n’ride fan shuttles going by. His gleeful smile was the same, though, obviously aware an adventure was underway. As soon as he noticed Brap and I had our gloves, he demanded “Wade glub!” Of course, mom had packed the toy glove we got for him earlier this season, and though it’s still way too big, he just sort of shoves his whole hand into the middle finger and it stays. Properly dressed and equipped for the occasion, we clicked through the centerfield entrance turnstiles, with the requisite thanks to God and Drayton McLane for air conditioning.
We were early enough that the crowd hoping for autographs around the home dugout wasn’t too big, so we went down and found a spot even though the Pirates’ BP was just wrapping up and the Astros were long done. The rail in front of the seats is only 3 feet high down the lines, and Ah-ee propped Wade on it so he could gaze firsthand across the agricultural perfection that is a major-league baseball field. His mouth came open as he took in the view, though I’m not sure if it was in awe or just because little kids do that a lot. He almost immediately pointed out toward the left-field wall and said “Train!”, and as if on command, the little engine went into its pregame warmup routine, huffing and puffing and whoo-whoo’ing as it chugged along its track. We noticed that the load of fake oversize oranges was missing from the stoker car, a definite improvement, though who knows what some genius at Minute Maid will come up with to replace them.
Wade was entranced by the “big TV” above centerfield and I was trying not to backhand the smartass kids next to me who were rudely asking the groundskeepers for balls (one 10-year-old putz even asked the guy carrying the template for the batter’s boxes “hey, can I have that piece of metal?” as he went by) when the ‘Stros bullpen players began moseying out of the dugout toward their workplace in right-center. Rookie reliever Brandon Puffer stepped out and began signing for the crowd at the end of the dugout, a good 50 feet and couple of hundred people away, no way would he make it to us. Figuring Puffer had drawn the short straw in the clubhouse and would be the only player signing, I was just about to suggest we head for our seats when one of those serendipitous moments that only the Baseball Gods can control happened – none other than Craig Biggio appeared from the dugout, and with a cop alongside walked down about halfway between Puffer and us and began signing. Ah-ee has taught Wade to say “Big-E-O”, his first baseball word, and as he heard the name buzz through the crowd his little ears perked right up, and suddenly the big TV with its bright colors was no match for a real, live, major-league baseball star in the battle for his attentions. Ah-ee is convinced it’s something in the y-chromosome that stands males in awe in the presence of pro athletes, and I’m sure the look on my face at the time did nothing to convince her otherwise. She started to get frantic about not having a pen until she noticed Bidge had his own, meanwhile I was enjoying the heck out of not letting any of the mouthy little bastards squeeze between me and the first row of seats trying to improve their spots. Bidge worked his way to about two people from Wade sitting on the rail, and how he could ignore the little guy in his Astros bear cap, Astros overalls, holding out his little Astros glove, I’ll never know, but he did, suddenly turning and jogging out to shallow right to do his stretching. The cop politely requested that Ah-ee please keep Wade completely behind the rail, and we dispersed with the rest of the crowd back up toward the main concourse. So close. Disappointing, sure, but it doesn’t mean Bidge is off the top of my favorite players list, I respect that these guys are at their jobs.
Like any baseball stadium, regardless of name, Minute Maid Park has countless images of baseballs, and when the slick concrete of the concourses was improved with a nice traction coating this past offseason, they painted a bunch more on the new floor. If there’s a word all 2-year-olds know besides “mommy” and “daddy” it’s got to be “ball”, and as we mostly carried him around to the third base side Wade let us know of every one we passed, “Ball!”, while pointing into his glove. Mommy had either forgotten or chosen not to pack the squishy little ball that came with his glub, so we promised to get him one as soon as we sat down. We rode the escalator up one flight, and Wade thought that was such fun he wanted to continue up the two more flights to the upper deck, but we showed our tickets to the guy at the door to the Club Level and went on in.
In the 20-some games we’ve attended at Enron/Astros/Minute Maid, this was the first time we’ve had Club Level seats – they flank the broadcast booths in the tier just above the Field Boxes, and actually cost a few bucks more due to being accessed via a spacious carpeted concourse, air conditioned and enclosed by a glass wall with doors opening onto about 15 rows of seats. Completely sold out to season tickets, I got ours through a fellow SABR member who runs this online swap meet among a number of longtime season ticket holders who have some of the choicest spots in the place. We were in Section 215, Row 5, Seats 5-8, just a few sections to the third base side of the plate, even with the edge of the backstop screen. First thing I noticed was cupholders, absent elsewhere in the stadium, and that the chairs were a bit wider than those for the peasants, with padded seats to boot. Lack of a ball had become a near crisis by this point, so I left Ah-ee to get the boys settled and headed back down to the main concourse to find a souvenir stand. One squishy little kid’s ball, six bucks, yeesh, that’s one less beer for Mikie.
Further proof we were in high cotton were the menu brochures in each seat, and I’d just gotten back when a waitress appeared. Two cokes, a water, and a beer, please. Cha-ching, seventeen bucks, cripes, good thing I hit the bank on the way over. Two more disappear as a tip for the guy who brings it a few minutes later. Brap had reminded Ah-ee of Wade’s favorite thing to do with balls, namely chunk ‘em (lefthanded, I plan on molding this kid into a power pitcher) farther than you’d think he could. She’d explained to him that if he threw this ball, it would be gone and no one would throw it back, and I’ll be darned if he didn’t hang onto it. We played his odd version of catch, which entails him taking the ball from my glove with his bare hand, balancing it in his glove (he can’t squeeze the thing), then slamming it back into my glove with his gloved hand, accompanied by a giggle. Either Wade’s just not yet clear on the concept of throwing with the bare hand, or I’ve affected his future career by giving him a toy glove that goes on his left hand, I don’t know. With his own seat, a sippy cup full of coke, and Brap, me, and the kid behind him to play catch with, he was one happy little camper.
The Ringling Brothers Circus is in town, and the anthem was sung by the ringleader, a tall, strapping black man in shiny black boots and sparkling red jacket with a tremendous voice, I’ve probably heard renditions as good though none come to mind. He got a well-deserved ovation, with Wade merrily joining in the clapping, one concept he’s definitely clear on. Roy Oswalt and Josh Fogg both started out looking sharp, matching zeroes through the first three innings. Wade actually watched a lot of what was going on down on the field, clapping when Big-E-O was announced at bat and following the arcs of the foul balls that came our way with a wide-eyed look, as if astonished that balls could fly so high and so far. There were several broken bats that got his attention too, especially one of Hidalgo’s where the barrel nearly hit the resulting grounder to second as its point impaled the infield turf.
I got up to complete a beer cycle and found the smoking area out behind the concourse. Unlike the quarantines for the common folk on the other levels it has nice teak patio furniture, a decent sized TV, and even a serving window from one of the fully-stocked bars that a couple of lushes in expensive suits had obviously been making thorough use of. I went back in to find Ah-ee lounging in the lounge, also nicely furnished, with Wade and Brap having made use of the open space to really throw the ball around. One of the pep squad guys that toss the t-shirts into the crowd had happened by and given Wade a long red balloon that he was most enthralled with. It was feeding time for the boys, so I had the bartender hold me upside down by the ankles and shake all the money out of my pockets and Ah-ee toodled them off toward the snack bar. Somehow he missed six bucks, so I got another beer and went back to the seats. They followed shortly, complete with a deluxe nachos for Brap and cups o’ fries for Ah-ee and Wade. I expressed the opinion that a boy’s first baseball game really ought to include a hot dog, and was informed that at Wade’s tender age hot dogs require cutting up into bites and hence the French fries, d’oh, didn’t know that. For a 30-pounder, let me tell you, that little guy is a French fry eatin’ machine. Ball, glub, sippy cup, balloon, all were forgotten as he sat there watching the game and loading fry after fry after fry into his face. I set the balloon on the concrete at our feet to get it out of the way and it popped, and he barely even took notice.
It was around this point that the game turned south for the ‘Stros, with Jack Wilson hitting an RBI triple to left-center that got stuck under the wall padding, then coming in on a sac fly by Giles to make it 2-0 in the 4th. The local nine rebounded nicely, getting one back immediately on a double by Hidalgo and a single by Blum, his 6th straight at-bat with a hit. Wade actually stopped shoveling fries for a second when they played a snippet of “Who Let The Dogs Out” as they sometimes do when Doggy comes up, at some point in the future I’m going to embarrass the hell out of this kid by reminding him of his first favorite song. Ausmus singled Blum to third and it looked like we’d tie the thing for sure, but Oswalt popped up a bunt attempt, and then came a play that I’d have bet a paycheck I’d never see. I call it “the Little League play”, you know the one, where with runners at first and third, the pitcher fakes a pickoff throw to third, then turns and throws to first hoping the runner there has either taken the fake or is snoozing off the bag. I played a lot of Little League, and I don’t remember it ever working there, why major-leaguers even bother has always been beyond me. Until now. Brad Ausmus, Yale graduate, considered one of the smartest, most heads-up players by his peers, a defensive specialist catcher fer chrissakes, fell for it. Hook, line, and sinker, it wasn’t even close. End of rally.
2-1 bad guys after 4, and it got worse in the 5th as Roy O. allowed a 2-out single to Fogg, followed by a couple more singles before Brian Giles hit an impressive 3-run shot completely over our bullpen, I’d guesstimate about 420 feet. Yet another weird play happened in the bottom of the inning. Jeff Bagwell, who hits incredibly high foul balls, popped one into the roof rafters that hit one of the beams as it started down, and Aramis Ramirez stayed with it and caught it in fair territory. Out? Well, the Pirates and the home plate ump thought so, but the third base ump came in for a huddle, soon joined by the first base ump, and they talked, and scratched their heads, and pulled cards out of their pockets and read ‘em, and finally decided that no, it was a foul, just a strange strike. Proper call, the ground rules say that only if a ball hits a rafter in fair territory is it still in play. Bags struck out anyway, but then Daryle Ward got all of one way deep to center that brought the crowd to its feet and sent the train on its celebration run, much to Wade’s delight. The place was still buzzing when Hidalgo blasted another no-doubter off the fa%E7ade wall in left. Back-to-back homers are kinda funny around here because the train has to do its thing backing up for the second one, I doubt Wade caught the humor but he got another kick out of watching that little engine go.
I got up for another smoke, then decided it was Mikie feeding time and grabbed a footlong super dog (mustard only), a big bag of peanuts, and one more beer on the way back, parting with my last twenty in the process, that I still had one to spend at that point was something of a minor miracle. I munched down the dog (you have got to try one of these if you ever visit, they’re superb), then broke out the peanuts and started opening them for Wade, offering them to him on the half-shell, if you will. He plucked the nuts out, one by one, being careful to also get rid of the red paper-like skin before popping them in his mouth, then took great delight in throwing the shells at our feet. Not just dropping the shells, throwing them down as hard as he could and giggling like a maniac while doing so – I’m positive he felt like he was getting away with something that he wasn’t supposed to be doing, but that it was OK since I was doing it too, it was really funny. We polished off that bag in less than two innings.
Ah-ee snuck off for one more smoke in about the 8th with the score still 6-3 Pirates and not looking good for the home team. She found a souvenir shop on the concourse that would have saved me a walk earlier, and came back with what can only be described as “Astros Guy”, a stuffed toy about 8 inches in diameter that looks like a baseball with arms, legs, eyes, and a mouth, not to mention a cap and a soft plastic bat sewn to one hand and a glove to the other. Figuring we were already going on welfare, I didn’t even ask what it cost, and of course Wade loved it and decided on its name. By then, the Bucs had put together several hits for an add-on run in the 9th, and it didn’t take long for them to close it out, 7-3, the third loss in a row for the ‘Stros.
Most of the crowd of 27,042 was long gone, and we headed out with the rest, through the comfy concourse that we’ll hopefully get to see again, down the escalator, and out into the Houston humidity. Wade was fading fast, but he’d made it all the way through his very first game and had an awfully good time doing it. We split up, Brap and I in my truck, Ah-ee and Wade in their mom’s wagon so we could all take the high-occupancy lane home and avoid the rush-hour freeways, we don’t go to many day games and it was kinda weird to be heading home from the ballpark at 6 o’clock. Everyone made it safe and sound, though Wade won’t remember because he went out like a light as soon as he hit the car seat, dreaming of playing on that beautiful field one day, no doubt.
I came home with a newfound appreciation for the cost of taking a whole family to a game, counting parking for two cars we spent around a hundred bucks on top of the price of tickets, but it’s only money and I’d do it all again if I could. I can’t, because there’s only one first game for every little boy, and it’s a little sad that his dad couldn’t get away from work to be there with us, but they’ve got many games together to look forward to. I’ve saved Wednesday’s sports section with the box score and the game stories for Wade, hopefully someday he’ll get as big a kick out of looking at them and reading this account as I did in writing it. Maybe in about 8 or 9 years when we take a road trip to Cooperstown to watch Big-E-O get inducted into the Hall of Fame, and I can remind them both of a long ago July day and a game that will never be forgotten.
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