Sunday, October 11, 2009

Baseball place No. 64: Nolan Ryan Center; Alternative Place No. 64A: The Astrodome -- and an unauthorized peek

I was hoping my trip to Texas would lead me some sites in Josh Pahigian’s “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

I came close.

Josh leads us to the Nolan Ryan Center in Alvin, where the former Met grew up, for place No. 64. Located at Alvin Community College, the center posts exhibits about the hurler, and I’m confident there’s a whole wing dedicated to the 1969 World Series.

But I didn’t venture beyond Houston, where Ryan pitched for the Astros. I didn’t see too many references to The Express at Minute Maid Park, though there was a statue of him at a hotel across the street.

Fair enough, since Ryan didn’t play at Minute Maid, and maybe the fine folks of Houston are a little ticked that Ryan has become more attached to the Texas Rangers.

So I set out to find the place where Ryan actually pitched, which would be:

Alternate Place No 64A: The Astrodome

Yes, the Eighth Wonder of the World still stands, though it has seen better days.

The Astros moved downtown and the Texans football team have massive Reliant Stadium, which towers over the first-ever domed stadium.

There’s a lot of Mets history in that dome, including what one author called “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” Game 6 of the 1986 National League playoffs.

So I figured I’d head over and just walk around the outside, taking some photos. The Texans wanted $8 to park, even though there was nothing going on at either stadium. A friendly attendant suggested I could park in the shopping center across the street and walk over.

After grabbing a quick turkey sandwich at Subway – proving that I had an official reason to park in the lot – I strolled over to see the dome.

It was sad. The mighty Astrodome, which inspired the team to change its name and even create plastic grass, looks pretty unloved next to the new stadium.

It has a new name – the Reliant Astrodome – but it appears there has been no maintenance on the building since the move. It looked dirty, and there were missing pieces of siding here and there.

It was also surrounded by a series of cowboy statues – as opposed to Cowboys statues – since the dome hosted the Houston Rodeo for years.

I figured I’d make a lap, snapping photos near and afar.

Then, on the far side, I saw what appeared to be a truck ramp leading under the stadium. There were two swing-out garage doors, and one was open.

Hmm. I thought maybe I could walk down and an employee or kind security guard would allow me to poke my head in and snap photos.

So I slinked down the ramp, and as I got closer to the door I could see a little inside. It led not to some inner hallway, but to what was the centerfield gate. Off in the distance were the famous rainbow-striped seat sections, with light pouring though the panels of the roof.

I stood in the door. I looked to my left, and to my right. There were no employees to be found.



An adventure should have a little risk. If I had taken another step forward, I supposed it could be considered trespassing.

I pondered what would happen if caught. I was an obvious fan, with cap on head and camera in hand. No harm was intended. I figured I’d get a, “Hey! You’re not supposed to be in here!” and escorted to the door – or I’d run back to the car at the Subway before they could catch me.

After about 10 seconds of deep contemplation, I took a bold step into the Astrodome.

It was spectacular.

I started snapping photos, first with my camera then with the iPhone, quickly sending shots to Will and Greg Prince, figuring that I could be tossed out at any moment and knowing they'd like to share in the fun.

I stood were the outfield fence once was, heart racing and trying to absorb everything I could see.

I don’t remember if there were lights on, or whether the semi-transparent roof was allowing enough light in to illuminate the inside. But it was plenty bright.

The famed plastic grass was gone, the floor was hard concrete. The third base side was filled with those golf cart-like trams that I guess are used to drive fans in from the distant regions of the parking lots for football games.

The first base side was littered with folding chairs and other odds and ends. It struck me that the Astrodome was now the world’s largest storage shed.

After several minutes of not being discovered, I became a little bolder, and started walking into centerfield. Not too far, maybe 10 to 15 feet beyond where the warning track once was.

Turning around, I saw some old advertising signs, blank scoreboards and a sign reading “Home of the Houston Astros" with the orange and blue logo the team hasn’t used since the rainbow days, the design with the stadium in the middle and orbiting baseballs.

I looked at the light coming in the roof and wondered what it would be like for a player to stand in that very spot trying to track the flight of a fly ball.

I swear I could see Mike Scott and his scuffballs, the Toy Cannon launching bombs, Don Wilson and J.R. Richard and Jose Cruz and Cesar Cedeno and those magnificent rainbows.

I thought about Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs playing tennis, the Bad News Bears with the crowd chanting “Let them play!” and the 1986 All-Star Game with Doc, Gary and Keith wearing their white cleats.

But mostly I thought about Oct. 15, 1986. The Mets needed to win that Game 6 or face Mike Scott in a deciding seventh game. Scott, a former Met, had our boys completely psyched out, beating them in two starts in the series.

I was at the University of Missouri at the time, watching the game on Tony's television in our off-campus apartment.

The Astros scored three runs off Bob Ojeda in the first inning, and neither team could score again until the top of the ninth, when the Mets got two two runs off a tired Bob Knepper, then drew two walks off Dave Smith before Ray Knight hit a sac fly to tie the game.

At that point, I had to go to class. I played the "I had to watch the Mets" card once before, for a 1985 trip to St. Louis to see Dwight Gooden in person. The professor was not impressed. I didn't want to try that again.

After class I pedaled back to the apartment as fast as I could and turned on the television, hoping some station would have the final score. And to my total shock, the game was still being played.

I missed Darryl Strawberry scoring a go-ahead run in the 14th inning, only to have Billy Hatcher tie the game again with a home run. And I arrived with the Mets batting in the top of the 16th, scoring three runs.

But we know the Mets do nothing easily, allowing the Astros score two runs. After Keith famously warned him to stop throwing fastballs for face the consequences, Jesse Orosco struck out Kevin Bass with the tying run on second and the winning run on first. We were going to the World Series for the first time since 1973.

The Astrodome matters.

The team came into the league with the Mets in 1962 as the Houston Colt .45s with assurances that an indoor stadium would protect fans from the sweltering Texas summers.

The first game came in 1965 one a field with real grass. But players complained they couldn’t see the ball against the Lucite roof. Once painted over, the grass died and the team played on dirt painted green.

That, of course, led to the invention of the plastic playing surface forever known as Astroturf.

Now, there are people who bemoan the existence of both domed stadiums and plastic grass. But you could not have had retractable roof masterpieces like Minute Maid Park and Miller Park – both with real grass – without that first step, the Astrodome.

Minute Maid opened in 2000, and Reliant Stadium opened for the Texans in 2002. The Houston Rodeo moved next door in 2003, leaving the Astrodome hosting only an occasional event.

It seems to me that it’s wrong to demolish history. I wish there was more left of Shea than plaques in the parking lot. But I don’t know if it is right to keep up an unused stadium.

So for now it stands -- a garage for trams and a storage shed.

I stood there in deep centerfield, looking for ghosts in rainbow jerseys and wondering if I could walk deeper or even up into the stands for more views.

There’s a difference between boldness and recklessness. I’d experienced what I came for and far beyond. Intentional or not, The Astrodome offered a wonderful gift and I didn’t want to abuse it. I took a long last look and headed back out into the sunshine.

Clearly there was a baseball statue out here at one point, but I have no idea what it was.

Vivian L. Smith was an Astros co-owner who played a big role in the the development of the Astrodome complex.
I thought it was funny at a fire hydrant across the street from the Astrodome was painted in Mets colors. A tribute to "The Greatest Game Ever Played," perhaps?


RDOwens said...

Interestingly, in the summer of 1980 I attended a Mets v. Astros game at the Astrodome. A quick look at historical weather data will highlight that the summer of 1980 was excruciatingly hot. My first stop was in OKC. When I walked out of the airport I was greeted with a stiff wind. There was nothing cooling about that air, however. It was all hot air, probably a precursor to the Mets arrival a week later. Things were so bad no boy, no matter how much he romped around, would play outside before 8:00 p.m.

Anyhow, getting down to Houston proved no relief from the heat. This trip introduced me to nachos at the ballpark, but that was at the Babe Ruth League game that my cousin a future AAA player, played. We went to the Six Flags across the street from the Astrodome, where I rode Greased Lightning over and over. But it was the baseball stadium that had my attention.

We attended a game and sat in right field. The eat finally gave way that day and the heavens opened up. Torrential rains fell on Houston. It was wonderful because I knew I was going to see a game despite the inclement weather. The roof leaked, btw. I loved watching the water drop through. There was an Astros home run that night. The scoreboard exploded!

I do not recall much more of the event. There probably was a scorecard that was tossed along with all those programs from my youth. Yeah, kept the baseball cards for a long time but threw away the scorecards. Grrr . . .

I'm pretty certain the game I attended was 80-07-22.

One other memory from the trip was the smuggling of a six-pack of Coors on the plane. If one recalls, Coors was only available west of the Mississippi in those days. Times have changed . . .

Anonymous said...

Good story, Bob. Here's mine:

I, too, saw the Mets-v-Stros at the Dome but in 1985. You might recall that as the Year of Doc Gooden.

For Mets fans, nothing more need be said, but for others who only recall the later years Gooden in 1985 was an absolute force of nature. All of 20 years old and 98-mph heat (before some idiot told him that the way to a long career was fewer pitches, curveballs and groundouts and not striking out every batter in sight), Gooden went 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA, prompting an SI writer to ask: How did he ever lose 4?

Anyway, my brother, sister and I were visiting relatives in Houston, and we decided to go to an Astros game, and I got my pick of when. It took just one look at the schedule: the Mets and if Gooden was going, that was when I wanted to go. I figured that it would be something I would be able to tell my grandchildren about someday, like erstwhile oldsters could say about Walter Johnson.

So we went and sat way the heck up in the upper deck and about a mile away from the field as was the case at the various ashtrays of the past. No matter, it was a glorious day. Gooden brought his A game (well, that year, maybe his A- game) and was working on a five-hit shutout in the bottom of the ninth when Kevin (Smallmouth) Bass got enough on a heater to send a rocket flying down the right-field line that appeared from our vantage point to be a game-tying homer. No. The ump ruled foul. Gooden got Bass and then finished up with a K and a fist pump, the winner in a 1-0 game.

And not only did I get to see Gooden do his thing, but four of the five hits were by Bill Doran and Glenn Davis, the right side of the infield of the mighty, but ultimately third-place finishing (thanks to Shane Freakin' Rawley giving up 7 ER in the final game of the season) Wonkas.

Yes, it was great -- at the time. Now? Not so much. There are no Wonka grandkids and Gooden didn't quite end up as the next Walter Johnson, as we all know.

And the punch line? The day before, the game I passed on to see Gooden, was the day some ham-and-egger by the name of Nolan Ryan recorded his 4,000th career strikeout.

And you can look it up.