Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Trip to Cooperstown

By Michael Driscoll

The road to the Hall of Fame is long, for players and fans. Craig Biggio, and a few others, will be able to say it began at the Astrodome on a summer afternoon a few decades ago, wound through a ballpark in downtown Houston and ended in Cooperstown, N.Y., on Sunday.

In the summer of 1988, Steffi Graf was ruling the tennis courts. Lloyd Bentsen was getting ready to tell Dan Quayle he was no Jack Kennedy. A movie ticket cost $4. And I was more a fan of spectacle than of sports. When good grades got me an unexpected pair of tickets to a baseball game in Houston, a trip to the Astrodome sounded like a good a way to spend a Sunday afternoon. The stadium wasn't quite the Eighth Wonder anymore, but it was still big-city, bigtime, big deal. It would be the setting of many standout memories for someone growing up in Central Texas in that era: a trip to the Livestock Show & Rodeo to see Charley Pride; football games at the Dome when our high school team made it to the state finals; looming in the background on birthday trips to Astroworld.

My dad dropped us off outside the stadium and went to shop for the sheet music he couldn't find in College Station. He'd pick us up later on a street corner nearby--something that seems vaguely irresponsible in 2015, not to mention impractical, given the lack of homing devices we would use today. I don't recall it being the source of much debate or difficulty.

I also don't remember much about the game, but I do remember we sat on the third-base side, and I remember the small thrill of being loose in Houston with the friend who came along as my plus-one. When they announced that a young catcher, Craig Biggio, was coming to the plate for his first major-league at-bat, I wouldn't have known whether he was the team’s most promising prospect or a scrub who had finally lucked into a cup of coffee in the bigs. I remember being disappointed that he didn't hit a home run--we could have said, “We were there!” my friend and I lamented.

Over the next two decades, I did much to bolster my fan bonafides, following the team from the vantage point of another National League city, Atlanta, while in college, then catching the yearly game when the Astros came to play the Mets (and now, sadly, the Yankees) once I moved to New York.

Early one fall morning in 2005, I sleepily hit “Reload” again and again on my computer until I was, suddenly, awarded the right to buy four World Series tickets. I made an 18-hour trip to Houston for Game 3. My friend from 1988 flew in too, from Los Angeles. With two other friends, we agonized as the Astros scrapped through all 14 innings of a game that remains tied for the longest in World Series history. (Fun fact: Babe Ruth pitched all 14 of the other.) Sure, the home team lost, and the next day it got swept. But the Astros delivered the first World Series game ever played in Texas. We were there. Biggio went 2 for 6.

We gathered again two years later for Biggio’s final game. It was another overnighter for me, sandwiched between shifts at the newspaper. But how could we be there for his first game--then for the World Series!--and not for his last? Unlike most of those in attendance that afternoon in 1988, all in this crowd knew they were seeing something special. Biggio crossed the plate for the last time that day, once, just as he had on that Sunday in 1988.

It's been 27 years since my high school gave its freshmen free Astros tickets in exchange for modestly-above-average performance, and jobs, marriages and families have intervened since. The plus-one who saw Biggio’s first hit with me, and his 3,060th, won’t be at the Hall of Fame; he’s expecting a baby to arrive any minute. I hope to get to Cooperstown sometime Saturday night or early Sunday, and I’ll be back at work Monday morning. I’m looking forward to saying, “We were there!”

Michael Driscoll has been an Astros fan since June 26, 1988. He lives in New York City.