There comes a stage in everyone’s life when looking back is helpful to look forward. What I mean is that memories have a way of soothing some of the angst of today and even the tomorrows we face. When you look back, you can see that worry and strife gave way to youthful ignorance. In fact, there was no such thing as worry, only anticipation for the next time you could go swimming, play sandlot baseball, go for a long car ride with Dad, go ride your bicycle with friends, or just be with others and enjoy life. One of my fondest memories is the first time I was going to play organized baseball. Little league they called it.
Up to this point, living in second ward, near the downtown east side of Houston, there was no organized anything. As a kid, we made up our own fun, no adult intervention or supervision needed. And we had no idea we were missing out on anything. In fact, I doubt we were. But one man who constantly watched us play pick up baseball at Settegast Park thought it was time to organize us and bring us into the world all the other kids enjoyed. It was time to play baseball like everyone else. And I was one of the kids that everyone thought was going to excel at this.
Houston Astros vs. Baltimore Orioles
July 30 – August 1
This will be the first time the Houston Astros visit Camdem Yards in Baltimore. This park was one of the first to usher in the new intimate and fan friendly park designs fans enjoy today. This is also Houston first season as an American League team and by and large the first season reflects what happens to a team that is young, rebuilding, and transitioning from the National League. Meaning, it has not been a good year for the ‘Stros. On the other hand, you have the Baltimore Orioles, a team that has been a competitive squad in the majors for many years. Some of the Oriole teams of years past, however, have not fared as well as fans expected. But this year, like last, there is hope and talk of playoff baseball once again. Seems like this has the makings of yet another hard match-up for the local nine. But the Orioles are coming off two series loses in a row, so the match-up may not be as one-sided as it seems on paper.
This is not going to be easy
Felx Fraga was a community organizer. Nobody in the second ward really knew what that meant, all anyone knew was that Felix was a kind, soft-spoken, and generous man who took the time to talk to anyone who would listen. Felix Fraga spent a lot of time at the Ripley House, a place my family knew provided health services to the community. We had no idea Felix had more in mind for the community and one of those plans was to organize kid baseball. He would talk to the men in the community about pony and little league, all conversations met with some confused looks and misunderstanding. Truth be told, my father was one of the men who told Felix it was not a good idea. It was my uncle Hector who jumped in and decided to spearhead a lot of the involvement needed by Felix to get this off the ground. My uncle had seven boys and he had heard of little league before. He wanted his boys to play organized ball. While living in San Antonio, he drove to an organized league outside San Antonio and enrolled his son David. David was a good baseball player, some said he had a professional future in the game. My uncle now wanted to same opportunity for his new community in Houston and talk as he may to my Dad to get involved, it never happened. My Dad was a former semi-pro baseball player and coach. He knew baseball from the rough and tumble perspective of semi-pro ball. He could not wrap his mind around the whole idea of kids being involved in a game that he knew from the beer, fighting, and salty language days. So my involvement was going to take a little harder road than most kids I knew in second ward. My Dad had given up that life, he was a solid family man, highly involved in our community church, and what he wanted for me was an education. Anything that he thought would get in the way of an education was what he wanted to avoid. This was not going to be easy, I had never gone against my Dad, he was my hero. Maybe I should just stick with sandlot baseball and continue with the worry free life.
Game 1: Lucas Harrell (5-10, 5.17 ERA) vs. Wei-Yin Chen (5-3, 2.78 ERA)
Tuesday, July 30 – 6:05pm CST
Right off the start, the Astros face a left-hander in Wei-Yin Chen. Chen had a recent stint in the disable list and the time off did some good for the young man. Since coming off the DL, Chen has been good, allowing just five runs in 20 innings. Not bad. The good news for the Astros is that Chen is a fly ball pitcher and if the right handed hitters on the team (I’m looking at you Carter and Dominquez!) can stay focused, there may be some dingers in this game. Of course, the same goes for Harrell, he of the propensity to keep his sinker in the happy zone for hitters. With a guy like Davis hitting in the middle of the O’s lineup, there are definitely going to be dingers in this game.
Game 2: Erik Bedard (3-8, 4.28 ERA) vs. Miguel Gonzales (8-4, 3.69 ERA)
Wednesday, July 31 – 6:05pm CST
The local nine has faced Gonzales before at Minute Maid Park. The outcome of that game was not good, as Gonzales went six solid, striking out seven and allowing only one run. He’s a right-hander, so the left handed bats will be back in the lineup and hopefully guys like Brett Wallace can help solve this kid. Gonzales has been steady for the O’s, so this will be a tall order. On the other side, Erik Bedard is facing his former team. Bedard excelled in Baltimore and that made him a prized commodity in the free agent market. Since that time, Bedard has been less than successful, but he’s given the Astros a solid #4 starter performance for the year. The problem is that the Astros are using him as a #2, but that is a minor quibble to be honest. One thing that is commonplace with Bedard is his lack of giving a lot of innings to the team as a starter. So if the Skipper Porter uses his bully to support Harrell the night before, this could get ugly in the late innings for the ‘Stros.
Game 3: Jordan Lyles (4-4, 4.92 ERA) vs. Chris Tillman (13-3, 3.62 ERA)
Thursday, August 1 – 6:05pm CST
Goodness, will you take a look at the pitching the Orioles are trotting out this series. Chris Tillman is the best of the bunch and his All-Star numbers will back that up. The last time he faced the Astros, he held them to one run in seven innings of work that included eight strikeouts. This will not be a good series for the bats to take a vacation. Jordan Lyles has never faced the O’s lineup and the lefty strong hitting lineup is tough to beat. The young man will need to have his changeup and curve working on this night, because Camden Yards is unforgiving when it comes to fastballs hit hard to right field.
What a mess
Felix Fraga made sure every parent of a little league age kid knew what was going to happen next: little league team player selection. My uncle was deeply involved in the pony league at Ripley House and the little league would be run at Settegast Park. I walked to Settegast Park every day, a small half a block jaunt and I was on the field ready to play. I was glad my uncle was not a big part of the little league, he wasn’t a fan of mine and I was not very fond of him either. But his son Eluid was my age and told his dad he was not going to play. Eluid was one of my best friends and played well enough at sandlot ball to hold his own. He, however, did not like how hard his Dad pushed. He saw how it was affecting David and he wanted no part of that stress. I begged Eluid to play, we could be on the same team (even though I didn’t know how we could actually do that). He kept saying no, and he also told me I would regret playing in anything his Dad would organize. When we found out that my uncle was more pony league organizer and a man named Jesse would run the little league, we were both relieved.
They asked all the kids to be on the bleachers on Saturday at noon. The six coaches would be there, including Jesse who was going to coach a team. Each coach was going to take turns selecting a player. Everywhere I went in Settegast Park, I was reminded by any one of the six coaches to make sure I was there. One said he would pick me first. I was proud of that, but I could not talk to my Dad about it. He was still insisting that I stay away from that nonsense and just enjoy baseball as a sandlot player. I was confused, the whole community seemed to be getting a charge out of this whole venture. I was one of the sandlot kids who was told how much this was going to be fun and exciting, not to mention important for me. But my Dad did not seem to be coming around at all. In fact he seemed more entrenched as ever that I was not to show up on Saturday.
I went to Jesse one day and asked him if he’d talk to my Dad for me. He did, and Jesse gave me this head nod that he thought he had squared it all for me. I was happy, that is until I walked into the house and Dad said “Jesse doesn’t know what he’s doing. I don’t want you going to him any more. Understand?”. I was defeated. Saturday was a couple days away and the more I tried to convince myself that I didn’t care, the more miserable I was becoming. I did care, I wanted to try this. I wanted to play. Eluid wasn’t going to do it, my Dad was not supporting me, my sisters made fun of me, and my older cousin David said I was not a baseball player, I was a “shrimp” who thought he was good enough but really wasn’t. “It’s good you’re not going to play. Tio Miguel is right to not let you join. That will keep you from embarrassing yourself.”
Saturday morning came and I took my bike and rode over to Eluid’s house. “Come on, let’s go somewhere… anywhere… I don’t want to think about this any more”. What happened? My life was so simple. It was uncomplicated and worry free. Now, all of sudden, it got messy and I was feeling stress and all sorts of strange emotions. I didn’t want to hate my Dad, I knew he loved me. I still thought of him as a hero. He was always there for us and he protected us from the things that were traps in our community. But there was one thing I could not run away from: I wanted to play.
Speculation is running rampant that Bud Norris might be gone after today. This is on the heels of the recent trade of closer Jose Veras for a young prospects from the Detroit Tigers. With the release of guys like Carlos Pena, the job of converting the team into a young and talented squad is in full swing. The new motto for Astros fans is “can’t wait until the September call-ups!” George Springer, Singleton, and others are what we all can’t wait to see play. With the recent call-up and success of Jared Cosart, the turning of the Titanic has becoming a reality in Houston. And the early results are good.
Time to play
I came home from my morning bike ride somewhere around noon. I was greeted at the door by my Dad. I was okay, I knew I was nowhere near Settegast Park, so I was not in trouble. But my Dad had a strange look. Almost a sad look. He opened the door and met me on the porch. “Sit down for a minute” he said. I did, still wondering what this was all about. “I was looking for you all morning, and…” he said. “Dad, I went for a bike ride with Eluid. I didn’t go to the Park. Honest!” I interrupted, just to make sure he knew I still had respect for him. “I know, I walked over there looking for you. Listen, the reason I was looking for you was to say… well… I was thinking…” I was not sure what was going on, my Dad was struggling with his words. I had never heard my Dad say he was sorry, especially when he talked to me. I liked it that way, a very uncomplicated way to worship a hero. But now, he was trying to say something to me, so I decided to interrupt again “Do you want to play catch?” People often ask me why I cry like a baby at the end of the movie Field of Dreams. They don’t know I lived it. But this time my Dad said no. “I wanted to know if you want me to go with you to the park to sign up for little league?” “Dad, are you sure? I mean, yeah, I do… I mean, no, you don’t have to go, I can go on my own. It’s okay? Really?” All my Dad could do is nod. I was still not sure what happened. I was afraid to look back at my Dad in case he was crying or something. I just jumped on my bike and rode away fast, knowing he would not change his mind, but also that he was dealing with something I was not familiar with. As an adult today, I know what that is. It is called love. Love for your son or daughter that no one will ever have for them like you do. My Dad is still my hero, even though he is not with me here on earth any more.
I got to Settegast Park as quickly as I could. I dropped my bike off to the side and grabbed my glove off the handlebars all in one motion. Some of my friends saw me and waved furiously for me to get up to the bleachers as soon as I could. The coaches were almost done choosing. In fact, they were done. They all looked at me with some confusion. Why was I late? One thing the men in our community liked to adhere to is rules. “Rules are rules” was almost always repeated at the community center where we played four square and dodge ball. Maybe this was going to turn out badly after all and I was not going to get a chance to play. I didn’t want my Dad to feel bad about it either, so I was already making up a story in my head about how I quit because I didn’t like the coach. But then I heard Jesse bellow out “BANDA!” I stood up and replied “Yes coach!” As I walked towards him, he introduced me to my new coach. I was going to play for the Lions. This was not the best team, in fact most of the kids that could not play very well were on the Lions. I didn’t care, I just wanted to play. All I asked from the coach was to allow me to wear number seven. He did, never knowing that I was honoring my Dad and his old number from his semi-pro days.
The Lions, true to our makeup, lost every game that season. My cousin David made fun of the team and me every day as well. My cousin Eluid did not play, but he hung around the park every game and enjoyed watching us play and eating frito pies. I played center field and also pitched for the team. I was the best player on the team, a feat my cousin David said was not that hard to do. I made all-star that year, not knowing what that meant. I went home and told my Dad the day I learned I was an all-star. “We’re going to play the All-Star game on Tuesday night at 6:30. Do you wanna come see me play?” My Dad did not come to my games, or at least I never saw him there. It was okay, I just wanted to play to see what this whole Little League thing was all about. So when I asked him to come watch me play as an all-star, I thought it was just a way for me to let him know I was having fun. He really did not have to watch me play. But he said “Yes, I’ll be there”. And he showed up. He sat on the bench and helped our coach run our team. He knew more about baseball than any man in second ward and everyone knew that. When Frank (Miguel) showed up to a game, it was a happening at Settegast Park. I played well that night, same as I had before. I didn’t really think about pressure or any added emotion to this night. I actually wasn’t thinking about it at all, it was not a big deal. I was back into a rhythm of life where all was okay, no worries, not complicated, just catch, throw, run, and hit.
In the last inning of the game, we were behind by several runs and they had the bases loaded with two outs. Up to bat was this big kid who was the only guy we knew who could actually hit it over the fence at Settegast Park. He swung at the first pitch and drove a deep drive to dead center field. I was in center field. I had no time to admire this towering blast, I had to run and see if I could run under it. All those days of playing catch with my Dad came back to me. What was a monster shot to center quickly became a pop fly my Dad taught me to run under and catch cleanly. I did it just like we practiced and easily caught the ball right before I arrived to the fence. All the kids were cheering, the PA announcer was screaming, adults were yelling from the stands. But all I could see is my Dad on the bench smiling. No wild gestures, no jumping up and down. Just a smile.
The last time I looked at my Dad that deeply was several weeks before on our home porch and the sadness that had overtaken him. I liked the smile a lot better.
Well, other than Seattle, I can’t think of a better rival to face this weekend than the Kansas City Royals. I mean, there is so much to say about the Kansas City Royals, but the best thing about them is their storied past. The are to the AL what the Pittsburgh Pirates are to the NL. A team/organization that has struggled to be competitive using a lower market budget. But if you talk about their past, you talk about success. To the tune of one world series win and a handful of playoff loses. But they also featured great players like George Brett, Freddie Patek, Hal McCrae, Willie Wilson, Dan Quisenberry, Bret Saberhagen, and Dennis Leonard. Of course, you can probably make up your own list of great Royals too. So the current status of the Royals is young talent trying to make it in the bigs… again. Seems they’ve been doing that for a long time as well.
Houston Astros at the Kansas City Royals
When: July 7 through 9
Where: Kauffman Stadium (it has a fountain!)
Game One – Friday, July 7
7:15 pm CST
Jordan Lyles (3-1, 4.30 ERA) vs. James Shields (2-6, 2.83 ERA)
The Kansas City Royals have not been playing good baseball lately. They are 1-7 in their last 8 games and nothing epitomizes why this is so than James Shields. This talented right hander is not getting any type of support from his mates to get some wins under his belt. His 2-6 won/loss record does not tell the story as much as his 2.83 ERA does. On the other side is Jordan Lyles. The young Mr. Lyles has had a rocky major league career so far, but in the last few outings, he has shown the promise once bestowed upon him an arm that can help this club as a starter. Nothing says “turning it around” as a well located changeup does and right now, Lyles is featuring that pitch more and more. That is keeping hitters off his fastball well enough that he is getting the team into more positions to win ballgames. And lo and behold, they have been doing just that. It helps the Houston starters to know that the Royals lately struggle to win games at home.
Game two – Saturday, July 8
6:15 pm CST
Erik Bedard (1-2, 4.76) vs. Ervin Santana (3-5, 3.03)
It looked for all concerned that Erik Bedard was done for this season. Apparently a stint in the bullpen help him somehow, because he has come back to the starting rotation and this time the guy is being so precise with his location. In his last four games, he’s gone 3-1 and has pitched masterfully in those wins. In the lost? Not so well, but he kept his team in the hunt for the win and that’s good. On the other side is Ervin Santana, a one time Anaheim Angel. Yet another hard-luck Royals starter, Santana has lost his last seven games in a row, in spite of pitching well into the seventh in five of those games and into the sixth in the other two. Every loss he’s taken have been winable games, all by one or two run deficits. Given the way Bedard has pitched lately, how the Royals can’t seem to win in Kauffman, and how bad luck stricken Santana has been, looks like a very good chance for Bedard to pick up a W.
Game Three – Sunday, July 9
1:10 pm CST
Lucas Harrell (4-7, 4.97 ERA) vs. Luis Mendoza (1-3, 4.76 ERA)
Lucas Harrell was supposed to be the #1 starter on this team. He’s not. He’s pretty much has had hot and cold outings, but overall, he’s just been mediocre. So who does he face off against? Another mediocre pitcher in Luis Mendoza. My prediction is fireworks… lots and lots of fireworks. Hopefully many more coming from the Houston side than Kansas City. Juneberno.
Catch up on all the highlights in the HappyZone!
The Houston took what they considered to be the best of the best in the 2013 MLB Amatuer draft: Mark Appel from Stanford University. Yes, that Mark Appel. Both a Houston native and a Scott Boras client, this is the epitome of the ying and yang in MLB life. Apparently the high cost that comes from being both #1 overall in the draft and also a Boras client is somewhat mitigated nowadays from the MLB putting salary parameters for teams. That and perhaps that this just made the best sense to do. As an organization struggling to bring themselves into legitimacy to their own fans, much less to the entire MLB landscape, this is exactly the sort of move that brings more and more thumbs up that this is not a team that is turning their back on winning. And winning soon too.
So just what is it about Appel that is so appealing. Well, if the comparison to Mark Pryor is true (and there is nothing that he shows that says it’s not), this kid is going to be really good. In fact, he may be better than just good. And he’s now going to be a Houston Astro. I know, sign on the dotted line kid before we all pass out from holding our collective breath here. All in all, looks like Houston just drafted an Ace of the near future.
And there ain’t nothing wrong with that at all!