Astros FanFest 2003

added 2/18/2003 by Mike Nixon

As promised, Saturday the missus and I took her little brother to the annual Astros FanFest at Minute Maid Park. We made it a mission to finally get Craig Biggio's autograph, and were successful in doing so. His session was the first of the day, starting at 11, and the 300 tickets at $3 each (on top of the $12 to get in, I swear I can feel a vacuum in my wallet anytime we go near the stadium) went on sale at 10, so we figured getting there at 9 would be safe. Wade spent the night, which is always an adventure (and a whole 'nuther story), so we could make sure to be on time in the morning. Even though it was cold, windy, and rainy, when we pulled up at about 9:05 the line was already a throng huddling under the awning at the left field entrance, so I jumped out and got in it while Keri parked and collected up Wade and the bags o' stuff that accompany 3-year olds everywhere they go.

We stood there half in, half out of the rain for almost an hour before they finally opened the doors, Wade wearing Keri's jersey and us taking turns holding him to keep warm. He was quite the trooper, though, didn't complain, just kept looking longingly through the big windows at the card dealers setting up their tables while we promised we'd be in there in just a few minutes. He had fun catching raindrops on his tongue like some of the other kids were doing.

The line finally started moving, and one of the Tigers fans I'd been talking to had done a rough count and figured that the 300-person cutoff was ahead of us, but no, we were let in and handed ticket numbers 265, 266, and 267. Whew. Past the security check, onto the main concourse, and up the escalator to the Club Level where we got to get back in line for another wait before the session started. Wade saw the bats some folks brought to get signed and wanted, no, "needed" one, so we promised that as soon as we saw Biggio we'd get him one. I held our place while Keri followed him around the concourse, a clown made him a balloon hat and on the way to the bathroom they ran into team owner Drayton McLane, who's often seen roaming the stadium glad-handing and whatnot, he introduced himself and even picked the little guy up and held him for a minute, probably the closest Wade will ever get to a real live billionaire.

The funniest moment of the day happened when the mascots came along, working the crowd doing its best to stay patient as is their job. The 'Stros version is Junction Jack, a rabbit dressed in a combination baseball/conductor's uniform in keeping with the train theme of the park. He's got a female sidekick called Junction Jill, and for some reason I've yet to fathom there's also Cousin Jessie, picture a rabbit country bumpkin and you get the idea. Whatever. Anyway, these three 7-foot tall make-believe rabbits spotted Wade standing alone in the middle of the concourse, obviously a kid in need of some serious mascotting, and all converged toward him from different directions at the same time. He froze, his eyes popping, then let out a yelp of "Ah-ee!" (what he's always called Keri) and turned tail and ran to her, terrified and probably scarred for life. The photo I got a few seconds later of her trying to get him to look at the camera for the obligatory mugging with the mascots shot doesn't do it justice.

My day was made when Bidge signed the jersey I've worn to games since 1998, right between his name and his number. In hindsight, I'm kicking myself because I didn't exchange any words with him other than, "Thanks." "You're welcome sir." Wish I'd shaken his hand and told him he's been my favorite player for years and that I admire the way he plays the game and that I think he deserves to be in Cooperstown someday and to have a great season and I think he'll do great in center field, too, but alas. He also signed right next to Jeff Bagwell's sig on Keri’s jersey that's got quite a collection on it, and to one side of the teddy bear on Wade's little cap. Brian L. Hunter was on duty with Biggio, so I had him sign a card from 1993 that a friend sent me last year; he also added to the list on Keri’s jersey and autographed the other side of Wade's hat. Hunter seemed to be enjoying the crowd more than Bidge, he asked Wade his name, and shook hands with him - again, the photo I got doesn't catch the awe on the little guy's face at actually touching a real live baseball player. I'm a lousy photographer.

We then wandered back downstairs to the gift shop and got Wade one of the little souvenir bats, it's just the right size for him at this point. "I wanna play baseball, let's play baseball," became his mantra, meaning "I want to hit something with this bat," of course, so we got our tickets punched and went back outside to indulge our nicotine habits. It had stopped raining and Keri tossed Wade pitches with his little squishy ball on the wide stone walkway in front of Union Station, the main entrance to the stadium, while I shagged and took photos. He smacked several liners, I can tell that he's watched enough baseball to know that hitting is where it's at. Somehow he's even picked up on picking the left foot straight up before striding, Charlie Lau style, Biggio hits like that now that I think about it. Couldn't believe it when one of the flunkies in an Astros polo shirt with an ID badge around his neck came up and told us we'd have to stop. Right, buddy, no ballplaying at the ballpark, yeesh, this squishy ball might leave a smudge on the limestone. I again proved my theory of photography that quantity will eventually produce at least some quality, though, I got a terrific shot of Wade taking his batting stance for a pitch.

We went back in and up to the FanFest on the Club Level, wandering into an interactive exhibit they had set up in one of the lounge areas. There was a tub holding 6 dozen balls, the average number used in a major-league game. No, Wade, you can't have one. A nice exhibit of "How a bat is made", with a chunk of rough-split, very straight-grained wood, then pieces at the various stages of turning and shaping and finishing. Touchy-feely trays full of the soil, sand, and clay used for the field, and a pitcher's rosin bag. Needed one of the moist towellettes after that one. We tried on catcher's masks and batting helmets and old Astros jerseys, and swung real bats with names like Berkman and Bagwell and yes, even Biggio on them. Wade saw the home plate they had on the floor and immediately went and stood on it, bat at the ready, saying, "Let's play baseball, I wanna play baseball." The exhibit was pretty empty and the kids manning it didn't mind that we got in an inning of squishy ball; I got another good photo, but this bleeping computer ate it when I was resizing it, I swear.

Down the Club Level concourse past the autograph and photo booths on the first base side is another lounge area that's kind of a dead end; though there's an Exit sign and a stairway, most people walk back the way they came, to the escalator on the third base side to get back down to the main concourse. Plenty of nice carpeted room for some squishy ball, so we took turns playing with Wade and grabbing another smoke. While I was out, another polo-shirted Astros employee approached Keri with the obvious intention of again delaying the game; before he could get a word out, though, she held up the ball and said, "Squishy ball." Pointing to Wade, "He's three." The guy had the sense to reply, "You're right, it's not hurting anything or bothering anybody. I didn't see you," and left. Wade was getting a little frustrated at mostly missing his swings at tosses, so he took to placing the ball on the ground and whacking it down the carpet, like me he's obviously been watching way too much golf. He hits it every time that way, though, then drops the bat and runs after it, sometimes doing his imitation of a slide which closely resembles a giggling face plant followed by rolling around on the carpet. We noticed that Geoff Blum and Jason Lane were in the photo booth, and that instead of the mob for Biggio and Hunter (photo sessions are free, for an hour after each autograph session) which we'd chosen to avoid, there were only a few people waiting. Our turn came quickly, and I propped Wade up on Blum's knee, warning the man that Wade had a death grip on the bat and tended to swing it without notice (I can just see the headline, "Astros' Starting Third Baseman Has Teeth Knocked Out at FanFest!"), reminded Lane that his was the first autograph that Wade ever got, and Keri snapped a cute shot. Good photo tally for the day - Keri 2-fer-2, Mikie 1-fer-25.

We watched a couple innings of the College Classic tournament, I was hoping to see Rice play but it was University of Houston vs. Alabama in the day's early game. Both teams featured hard-throwing lefties, and it was tight until about the 5th when U of H's first baseman smoked one over the Crawford Boxes in left. We sat in the front row of the Club Level and went through a bag of peanuts. Wade is still empirically learning the patience that goes with watching baseball, though he really likes watching the game - he focuses on the field and the players and follows the ball, but when there's a lull between pitches, he asks, "Why aren't they running? They're supposed to run," then yells, "Run!" down at the field. When there's contact, he announces, "It goes 'ding'! It goes 'ding' when they hit it!" Privately, I'm thinking, "A travesty, I know, and it gets worse. One of these days when you're old enough I'll tell you about AstroTurf."

It took some gentle persuasion to get Wade headed out, he didn't want to go bye-bye just yet, but thanks to a cherry Tootsie Pop that I nabbed from one of the display tables, his attention was distracted long enough for us to steer him back through the gates and across the street to the car. Once reassembled into his car seat, he managed to keep his eyes open and the sucker in his mouth for about 2 miles, after which said sucker needed peeling from his jeans and he slept the sleep of angels the rest of the way home. I'm pretty sure I had a better time than he did, not because I finally got my prized jersey autographed but because it was such a kick to see Wade taking in this whole new experience, seeing baseball work its magic on one member of the next generation of fans, together with his doting big sister who lucky for me is also my loving wife. It was one of those days where we had a truly good time without really trying, a very memorable time, one of those days that just happens and then you think back and wish you could bottle it. A couple of hours ago I meant to just write a short post with a link, and here I've rambled on yet again, though. The photos are here:

http://groups.msn.com/BaseballPicturesSuch/astrosfanfest2003.msnw?Page=1

And this shot sums up the day, worth way more than any measly thousand words....

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