added 1/6/2009 by George Pennell
I became a lifelong Astros fan in the summer of 1980. I was nine years old, and spent those heavenly days playing sandlot baseball in and around the Bellaire area, collecting as many 1980 Topps Astros cards I could possibly get, going to as many baseball card shows as possible and attending about eight Astros games that year. In the summer of 1980, every game I attended seemed the same; the Astros would be behind by a run or two going into the eighth or ninth inning only to come back and win. I can honestly say that the happiest days of my boyhood center around baseball and all its spinoffs, and although I can barely remember the 1979 season, the 1980 one is etched in my memory vault forever.
As a boy, I thought Astros players (and, to be fair, all major leaguers) were the cream of God’s chosen lot - the untouchable, almost mysterious supermen who did for a living what I so desperately wanted to do. I played Little League in Bellaire from 1979-1983, and although I didn’t have the talent or make-up to be a major leaguer, I still religiously copied them - from Jose Cruz' unorthodox batting stance, to the windups of J.R. Richard or Nolan Ryan, to the fielding grace of Craig Reynolds and Terry Puhl, to the pre-at-bat-histrionics of Rafael Landestoy and Enos Cabell.
Life was so much simpler then, of course, before the responsibilities of adulthood tempered my devotion to the Astros somewhat. The neighborhood kids and I would play baseball in each others' yards, and we could spend all day doing it too because that was before the days of I-pods and MP3 players and other technological gadgets that most kids seem to preoccupy themselves with in 2009. I, of course, always played the role of my favorite Astro of the day.
Not that I had a magic touch but, as a boy, I was also fortunate enough to meet several prominent Astros at unpredictable times and in unpredictable locations. So, when I am now asked by the Braves fans who seem to dominate this area of south Mississippi where I now live exactly why I am an Astros fan, the answer is because I was raised in Houston, went to the Astrodome fairly often (wasting unbelievable amounts of future allowances on overpriced but delicious junk food), joined the Astros Buddies Club and was lucky enough to meet some Astros of the day. Every single one of them was friendly, approachable, and patient with me.
Remember the U-Tote-M convenience stores? There was one at the corner of Bellaire Blvd. and Boone Rd. in 1980 and, one day, while visiting Mom’s teacher-friends in the Alief area, I went in there to buy some baseball cards and a Coke. In walks Terry Puhl, who I recognize immediately, and he sees me at the baseball card rack wondering which of the packs I was holding was the "lucky" one. I stammered to him and introduced myself and he said, "Let me buy you another pack," and after I said thanks, he said, "I hope you get some Astros in that pack." Then he chuckled and walked away.
One evening, while eating at the Los Tios Mexican restaurant in the Meyerland area, around the spring of 1981, I saw Alan Ashby and another man leaving the restaurant. He gave me an autograph without charging, and I remember telling him, "I’m going to be a baseball player too, one day, and be better than you." I didn’t mean anything by it, but the comment came out wrong. He wasn’t upset in the least. He said, "Well, good luck George, and you don’t set your goals very high, do you?" I understand now what he was implying but, in 1981, that comment went way over my head. Of course, less than six months later he would homer in the 1981 divisional series against the Dodgers and I felt guilty for insulting him.
On Sundays, our family would sometimes eat at the Luby's Cafeteria on Hillcroft after church. I always enjoyed that because I could load up on desserts. One September Sunday in 1981, Craig Reynolds and his family ate there as well. I couldn’t understand why very few people paid him any attention. As far as I was concerned, we had a national celebrity in the house. Mom kept telling me not to gawk at him (her exact verb) and that, after he was finished with his meal, I could ask him for an autograph. I noticed other kids my age approaching him periodically and both my brother Kevin and I were anxious for him to hurry up with his strawberry pie so we could get an autograph too. Finally, he took a last bite of the pie and a swallow of tea, and we quickly got to his table before his family left.
Craig said to me, "Might as well sit down a minute," and motioned for Kevin and me to sit while he autographed a church bulletin for me and a Sears receipt for Kevin. He asked us if we had been to many games that year and I said, "Why, yes sir, and in fact, I almost caught one of your foul balls at a game against the Cardinals." He laughed and said, "Foul balls can be hard to come by," and his last comment to me was, "I hope you get one at your next game." I shook his hand five times in two minutes, because that was Craig Reynolds, my favorite shortstop, right in front of me. Dad just said "I don’t think so" when I told him I wouldn’t wash my hands for a month after that.
There are other encounters with Astros I could detail, like the time Mom and I saw Joe Niekro at the intersection of Beechnut and South Rice, and he waved to me politely when I finally got his attention. Or the 1986 encounter I enjoyed with Charley Kerfeld, who let me walk with him while he shopped inside Randall's at the intersection of Weslayan and Bissonnet. He was in a hurry but he let me tag along with him. He autographed a Randall’s flyer for me, and he told me about a recent game the Astros lost against the lowly Pirates. He said, "That Barry Bonds will be good one day if he doesn’t let his talent get to his head," and now I can see the irony in that statement. I asked him to tell Mike Scott that I wished him the best of luck in tonight’s game against the Reds and he said, "The way Scotty’s going, he doesn’t need luck, but I’ll tell him anyway." I thought to myself "How cool is that, that Mike Scott himself will know that George Pennell wishes him the best of luck in tonight's game."
Or the time I met Art Howe while he was shopping in the Dillard's in the Galleria area. Of course, we couldn’t afford (and certainly didn’t need) anything in Dillard's. We were walking through the store on our way to somewhere else. Lucky for me, I happened to glance at the section of men’s suits and right there by the tie rack was Art Howe himself. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to introduce myself and he was, just like the others, super-friendly to me. I told him I was the always-loyal ultra fan and he said, "The way I’m playing, I need all the fans I can get, so thanks." I told Mom I’d meet her at J.C.Penney's so I could walk with Art to his truck, and he said, "It’ll be alright,” when Mom looked suspiciously at him. He thanked me for being a fan by giving me a bat he had in his truck. “A batting practice bat, but a bat nonetheless,” he said when he signed it for me.
All these encounters bring back fond memories, but none can compare with the afternoon and early evening of June 19, 1982. I still remember the date, and the game itself. The Astros of 1982 were a disappointing bunch, and not many people saw the Astros lose to the Padres that day. After the game, Sports Collectibles of Houston was sponsoring a baseball card show to be held at the AstroHall and I wanted to go. I don't remember why, but I went to the game by myself. I'm sure Dad had to work, Mom had no interest in going and Kevin was no-telling-where doing no-telling-what, so Dad dropped me off at the Astrodome gate and made plans to pick me up at the entrance to the AstroHall at 7 pm. The game was uneventful as far as I can remember. I left early to get a jump on the card show, and spent my money quickly on now worthless 1981 and 1982 Astros Topps cards. Sadly, I wasn’t privy or experienced enough then to buy only the high-dollar cards, and ended up wasting my money. Since I had no money left and certainly no cell phone to use, I stood outside the AstroHall waiting for Dad, who was uncharacteristically late.
I remember watching the cars pass by, each and every one on their way to somewhere else. I thought to myself, "Might as well go back inside the card show," but I didn’t. I kept looking for Dad’s Impala to arrive but he was late. I must have been in the middle of my tenth "should I or shouldn’t I" thought when the driver of the truck coming next caught my undivided attention. The truck approaching next was a big fine truck. I have no idea what make or model it was but I can tell you who the driver was who made eye contact with me, slowed his truck down to a stop, rolled down the passenger side window and asked me if I needed a ride anywhere or if I was just waiting for someone to pick me up. The driver of the truck was Nolan Ryan, # 34.
Freeze this frame. It's important. This was Nolan Ryan himself. Not his brother, not his agent, not his kids, not some no-name pitcher for the 1982 Padres. No, this was Nolan Ryan himself. And he stopped his truck less than five feet from where I stood. Up until now the only experiences I had with Nolan Ryan consisted of defending his honor against the unenlightened men who sat in Mr. Garcia's barbershop in the Bellaire Triangle in 1980, who all agreed that no player, not even of his caliber, was worth a million dollars a year. Or the time I screamed at the television when he fell apart during Game 5 of the 1980 NLCS. Or the time I traded a pile of Rickey Henderson rookie cards for one of Ryan's 1978 and 1979 Angels cards.
Nolan Ryan was the pitcher I mimicked the most, the one player whose cards I would collect before any other, the one player I wanted to be like more than anyone else. And now, on June 19, 1982, he was not only looking at me, but talking as well. He asked me if I was waiting for a ride, and I said, "Yes sir, but my Dad’s late," and he responded with, "Do you think he will be much longer? You might as well wait in my truck because this neighborhood's rough at night." With that, I was allowed for a few celestial minutes to sit in Nolan Ryan's truck.
He pulled into the AstroHall parking lot, and killed the ignition. He drank a 12 oz. Sprite can and I made a mental note from here on to drink Sprite as well. He asked me my name, age, favorite Astro, things like that. He chuckled when I foolishly said, "Jose Cruz," and his response was, "Yeah, Cheo’s a workhorse." I asked him for an autograph and unlike today’s crybaby billionaires, he gave me one without my having to pay. We talked for a few minutes, me asking a million questions, and him giving short, blunt answers.
I can recall specifically, twenty-seven years later, some of his exact words. When I asked him about what it was like to make a million dollars a year, an unheard of amount considering my paltry three-dollar-a-week allowance, he said, "It seems like a lot, and it is, but I’m telling you, George, it won’t last long if you’re not careful." When I asked him about his five no-hitters, he said dreamily, "Well, they require lots of luck, lots of luck." I sensed he was remembering them in a dream-like state, and recalling details I couldn’t possibly fathom.
I asked him why he was being nice to me, and letting me sit in his truck. He put his cowboy hat back on before saying, "Well, Ruth and I have kids your age, and if one of them were waiting for me, I would want someone to be concerned about them." He changed the topic by asking me what position I played on my Little League team. I proudly told him I played left field, shortstop, first base, actually, everything but catcher. His response was wise, and I wish I could say it was mine. He said, "You know, George, catcher’s the fastest route to the big leagues. There are a million outfielders, shortstops, and pitchers, but good catchers are hard to come by."
During the time I sat with Nolan Ryan in his truck, I have to admit now that I forgot about the world around me. I paid no attention to the cars driving by us, to the people around us, and even today cannot understand why no one around us noticed him. During the time I sat with him, no one else came up to his truck. He was getting anxious to leave I think after ten minutes of my pestering him. He asked, "What kind of car does your Dad drive?" Embarrassed, I had to admit I had no clue as to make or model besides "red Impala," and he said, "Well, good enough, let's look for the red Impalas together." We passed the time by opening a pack of 1982 Topps cards together, and when he saw Dave Winfield's Yankee card, he laughed and said, "I hit him once and he hasn’t forgotten it." I pulled only one Astro in that pack - a Phil Garner - and he said, "Bet you didn’t know his dad's a Baptist preacher."
After another five or so minutes, during which he told me his favorite stadium to play in was Wrigley Field, and the only opponent he had a beef with was "Dave Winfield, of course," and his favorite foods were "old-fashioned steak and potatoes," and his favorite dessert was peach cobbler and then Dad finally drove up. I thanked Nolan for his concern, for letting me sit in his truck with him, and for giving a ten-year-old like me an experience I would never forget. He gave me my cards back, saying, "Hold onto this Steve Carlton, he’s a very good pitcher," waved at Dad, who like me was in disbelief, and said, "Quite all right, George, now take care and see you at your next game." I shook his hand, got out of his truck with all my belongings, the most precious of which was his autograph, and watched him drive off into the Astrodome parking lot. I knew, even then, that the time I spent with him changed my perspective.
Nolan Ryan was beyond a doubt the friendliest professional athlete I have ever met. I have met athletes from different teams over the years too, and with the exception of George Foster, the Cincinnati Reds slugger who told me, "I like your name," all were jerks. I asked Greg Maddux, who was a rookie at the time, if I could shake his hand when he walked past me at the Houston’s Restaurant on Kirby Dr. in 1986. He shrugged and said, "Uh, no, I’m afraid not," and continued to ignore me. Ryne Sandberg, Bob Dernier, Leon Durham, and another Cub were giving an autograph signing at HLT&T Sports on Braeswood Blvd. in 1984, and none offered the slightest retort when I tried to make conversation. Gary Carter, the catcher who always had a smile on whenever the cameras were around, sure didn’t have one when my family and I were school-clothes shopping in July of 1985. I told Kevin, "There’s Gary Carter," and he said, "Go up to him." Mom advised, "Be careful and don’t annoy him," and I went up to him and said, "Hi, you’re Gary Carter for the Expos and Mets. I’m a big fan. Can I have your autograph?" He said, "I know. I am, and you’re not. Now goodbye."
It’s January of 2009 as I write this, and the current Astros bear little resemblance to the team I fell in love with. The uniforms are different, the stadium's different, the ownership is different, the players are of course all different, but to me they’re still the Houston Astros, and no matter who the owner is or whether or not they mortgage the future for an overpriced free agent or whether or not they sign so-and-so or trade such-and-such or whatever else, I will always love them. I wasn’t there for Game 5 of the 1980 NLCS, because my grades could stand "some serious improvement," as Dad put it, but I was there for Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS. I was at the Dome when both Ken Caminiti and Jeff Bagwell made their Astrodome debuts, in 1987 and 1991, respectively, and I was at the concession stand on July 11, 1985 when Ryan struck out Danny Heep for his 4,000th strikeout. I didn't make it for the September 25, 1986 classic, but I was there the night of September 23rd, when Jim Deshaies struck out eight consecutive helpless Dodgers, forgetting for a few hours that I had a Geometry test the next morning.
Fast-forward twenty-two years now. Every summer my wife, kids, and I go back to Houston for a few days to visit my brother and some of the old connections. The highlight of the trip to me is always the game we attend at Minute Maid Park. Funny how it was so easy and painless to attend an Astro game in the 1980's when I only had to worry about myself. Now, chauffeuring my kids and wife to a game is hard work, especially because the kids are so young, the traffic around downtown is so congested, and the food is so expensive.
But it’s all worth it. My oldest son and I saw the Astros beat Josh Beckett and the Marlins in May of 2003. The whole family saw a Andy Pettitte vs. Pedro Martinez matchup on July 28, 2005 and I cheered like I was ten years old again. I forgot for a few hours that I was an adult - a high school Math teacher and bus driver in south Mississippi, a world removed from Houston - and it felt so nice to be at Minute Maid with fellow Astros fans, because I spend almost the entire year in Braves country. The first game I ever saw at Minute Maid, in the summer of 2001, Randy Johnson and the Diamondbacks shut the Astros down almost completely, but I didn't mind.
It's neat to compare generations, too. My boys admire Roy Oswalt the same way I admired Nolan Ryan. Before 2006, they looked at Roger Clemens like I looked at J. R. Richard. I idolized Jose Cruz, Cesar Cedeno, and Terry Puhl in the same light as they revere Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. Although the differences between the two are striking, my sons look forward to a Lance Berkman homer like I anticipated a Glenn Davis home run. My 1980 Topps Astros set was just as valuable to me as my oldest son's 2001 Roy Oswalt rookie card is to him. His three 1989 Biggio rookie cards hold the same place in his heart that my 1973 Cedeno held in mine. And, I still get the same exciting feeling I had as a boy when we go to the souvenir stands together, although my trips to the Astrodome stands weren’t nearly as crowded and rushed as our trips to the Minute Maid souvenir stands are now.
My two older boys watched on television with me on that wonderful October night in 2005, when Oswalt shut the Cardinals down for the first Astro pennant ever. They didn’t quite understand why it was so important that the Astros win - after all, south Mississippi was still slowly recovering from Hurricane Katrina. They didn't understand how long that night was in coming. I tried explaining to them that they couldn't possibly appreciate what they just saw; how Jason Lane’s catch in right field ended years of heartbreak, misery, and futility. To them, the 1980 and 1986 and even 1998 teams were ancient history. These days, my boys and I can watch a few Astros games together, whenever ESPN condescends enough to put our favorite team on the air. I tell my boys that the graphics they take for granted on television in this decade simply didn’t exist in 1978, when I saw my first Astros game on KRIV-26.
I am proud to say that I am an unapologetic Astros fan, and a big reason for that is the way Astros players treated me when I met them in the 1980's. Today, whenever I am in the presence of a professional athlete, which admittedly isn’t often, I always compare him to the great Nolan Ryan. Even in south Mississippi, where the chances of meeting pro athletes are slim, I have been around some and, shockingly, all were rude, impolite, and arrogant.
I did the math recently and noticed that Nolan Ryan was 35 years old on that summer day in 1982 when he treated me so well, which is younger than I am now. I know he went out of his way that afternoon to be nice to me and I've never forgotten it.
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All card images courtesy Topps Baseball Cards.