Astrodome

From astrosconnection.com.

Astrodome, Houston, TX

Number of games:  3
First game:  July 26, 1993 (Reds 6, Astros 1)
Last game:  May 18, 1994 (Astros 4, Giants 2)

The Astrodome is no longer in use as of the end of the 1999 season.

The Astrodome might be the eighth wonder of the world, but it’s the worst of all the baseball stadiums I’ve been to.  I’ll grant that, by the time I saw the Astrodome, it was 30 years old, and the original ooohs and aaahs (look!  they’re playing baseball indoors!  how cool!  and look!  the scoreboard explodes!) were passe’ and even quaint.  And I’ll grant you that, even for baseball, air-conditioning might be better than sitting in a muggy Texas afternoon or night.  But here’s what I remember about the Astrodome–it smelled like mold.  All three times I walked into the place, I thought the same thing.  I never was in a crowd that reached even 20,000, so it always felt terribly cavernous, even more so than other multi-purpose stadiums.

All three visits were during my two years living and teaching sixth graders in the sticks of west central Louisiana, which is another memoir entirely.  Loved the teaching, hated west central Louisiana.  Me and my fellow young visiting-teacher friends would drive the three hours down to see whatever ballgame was on–once, even on a school night.  We were that desperate to escape.

My first trip, however, was solo…heading down from my place during the summer to make the Astrodome the tenth stadium in the original Erotic Love and Baseball Stadium tour…the only stop without a connection to any woman.  Well, a guy needs a break sometimes.  I remember three things from this game–a suddenly-not-hot Darryl Kile getting shelled, but nevertheless getting a standing ovation when he was pulled; a very impressive Chris Sabo home run, and my second encounter in a week with Kevin Wickander.

As I told you back in the Riverfront game, Wickander lost his good buddies Steve Olin and Tim Crews in a boat accident that March at Cleveland’s spring training, and had been traded to Cincinnati in the hope that new surroundings would get him back on track.  And I felt for the guy.  His public struggle with grief was breaking my heart, especially after I saw him throw eight pitches without a strike at Riverfront.  So, for my second consecutive game, I shouted wild support when Wickander entered the game, this time with a 6-1 lead to close it out in the ninth.  “All right, WICK!!!” I shouted, as the few Astros fans who were left wondered why I was hollering in support of the enemy.  If they’d asked, I’d have told them, and we’d have seen what kind of empathy they had.  Anyway, at least Wick got an out in this one, getting Ken Caminiti to fly to center.  Indeed, at least he threw a strike in this one.  But after Caminiti’s fly out, Wickander walked the next two batters and was pulled.  It was awful.  Again, I was stuck watching a guy go through horrendous personal grief in a public venue.  He had an awful year; his ERA was close to 7.  But, giving baseball-reference.com a look, it looks like there may be a happier ending to this story…he wasn’t in the majors in 1994 (minors?  mental health?) but came back to have a strong year (ERA under 2) for Detroit and Milwaukee in 1995.  He struggled a bit more for the Brewers in 1996, and doesn’t appear to have been in the majors since, but by then, I’d hope it was due to mechanics or injuries and not due to the broken heart that was so clearly dogging him when I watched him pitch the summer of 1993.

**April 2003…I have received two separate emails about Kevin Wickander’s life since his retirement from baseball, one from a college and minor-league teammate of Wick’s and another from a distant relative.  I’m afraid his life hasn’t developed as positively as I thought/hoped…it appears he developed a drug problem, has endured a divorce, and is now in prison for drug-related offenses.  I appreciate the people who sent me the update, although in some ways, I wish I didn’t know the sad truth.

My choice to drive to that game alone left me driving the three hours home all alone until 2 in the morning, very tired, picking up distant sports talk stations, even stopping and looking for rural payphones considering a call in.  The topic was low morals among athletes.  I don’t remember what jerk du jour the guy was worked up about, but I wanted to point out that there are good guys even in New York sports, like Jim Abbott and Anthony Young.  But then it occurred to me…I was choosing two guys in the middle of bad seasons, and Young was in the middle of a record-setting losing streak.  I might unintentionally have made the point that you have to be a jerk to win.  When it occurred to me–maybe you do.  Which made me depressed as well as tired on the trip.  Kids–don’t try this drive at home.  If I had to do it again, no matter how broke I was at the end of my tour, I would have stopped for accommodation in Livingston or Woodville.

At another game, I went with two friends, one of whom, blessed with magazine-cover looks, said “Well, I don’t like baseball, but I once dated a Montreal Expo, so this game (against Montreal) will be especially appropriate.”  We watched Mark Portugal warm up just a few feet away from us, and when I stepped away for some food, buddy Dan got Astros’ pitching coach Bob Cluck to autograph my program.  “Hey, this’ll be great, can you sign this for my friend???”  Thanks, Dan and Bob.  And I remember Mark Portugal failing to lay down a sacrifice in the fifth inning, and just as he was running by us down the first-base line, he shouted out the loudest f-word I’ve ever heard.  Mark!  There are kids here!

Was it worth making the six-hour round trip on a school night to sit at this terrible indoor stadium?  Yes.  But I’m glad they finally opened the new place.  It’s not my favorite, but it’s far better than this was.

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Darryl Kile has a nine-game winning streak snapped.

Mark Portugal, in one of his last starts for the Astros, sets personal career high with his 14th win and 8th in a row.

Mark Portugal, in his first start in Houston against the Astros, loses to Doug Drabek.

(Written August 2001.  Revised July 2005.)

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