In the middle of the 18th inning Sunday, after watching eight-and-a-half scoreless frames from behind the right field foul pole in Minute Maid Park, my dad told me that he felt like something was about to happen. I asked him, “good or bad.” He wasn’t sure.
After Roger Clemens struck out to lead off, as Chris Burke walked to the plate, Dad inquired whether Burke ever hit home runs. “Not too much,” I replied. “But sometimes.” Three pitches later, I couldn’t hear Dad or anyone else around me say anything, with Minute Maid having erupted into 120-decibal bedlam from the grass in front of the Astros dugout all the way up to our seats just beneath the rafters.
For 20 years, Dad was a generous source of tickets to major sporting events. He took me to the 1986 All-Star Game, when Clemens first pitched as a major-leaguer before his hometown crowd. He gave his seats to Game 4 of the 1995 NBA Finals to me and my brother so we could be present to see the Rockets sweep their way to a second championship. (These weren’t the best tickets he ever surrendered — he gave a friend his seats for what became Nolan Ryan’s fifth no-hitter.)
Besides the big-time events, there were scores of Astros games about 10 rows behind the visitor’s dugout at the Astrodome, where Dad shared season tickets. I watched Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell grow into Hall of Fame careers from those seats.
After last season, and especially after Sunday, the Astros’ playoff disappointments of 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2001 seem as far away as their 1986 loss to the Mets. That Sunday’s marathon game was historic and special is without doubt.
But perhaps the greatest significance of the entire series is that the Astros made the Braves seem like the underdogs. The Astros were meant to win that game and the series. That’s easier to say now than it was Sunday when the Braves reached base in the 10th, 11th, 12th, 14th, 15th, 17th and 18th innings, each time held at bay by the Astros.
As hard as Game 4 might be for Atlanta fans to swallow, my sympathy runs shallow, having watched in hapless frustration from the Astrodome’s upper deck as the Astros failed to score off the Braves with the bases loaded and no outs in the 10th inning of Game 3 of the 1999 NLDS.
Or having watched (merely on TV) Kevin Bass swing at and miss a pitch in the dirt to end the 16th inning of NLCS Game 6 and send the Mets to the World Series in 1986. Or even having sat through 12 scoreless innings in Minute Maid’s field boxes earlier this season, on April 18, when Ryan Langerhans hit an inside-the-park homer to beat the Astros. (Hey, I’m not all bad luck. I was present when Eric Bruntlett homered to break a 15th-inning tie at Washington on July 24.)
Langerhans, Adam LaRoche (who hit crucial home runs off the Astros in NLDS Game 4 this year and last), Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann (big homers in Games 1 and 4 of the 2005 NLDS) may be part of the youth movement that keeps churning out division titles for Bobby Cox. But the future will have to wait until the Astros’ old men, and some young players of Houston’s own, take care of unfinished business from last season.
One of the hardest parts of following a club that’s never won the World Series is seeing other fans have all the fun. Astros fans are slowly compiling a collection of those moments now. I’m grateful to have been able to share them with Dad.
He was beside me when Jeff Kent blasted a three-run shot off Jason Isringhausen in Game 5 of last year’s NLCS to take the series back to St. Louis with the Astros leading 3-2. And he was there Sunday. (I even got to take him to the All-Star Game last year, even if Clemens did get shelled off the mound in the first inning.) So Dad, after Sunday, we’re even.
That is, unless the Astros are still playing October 25, 26 and 27, in which case there’ll be a seat waiting for you beside me.