Ah, the refeshing and wonderful crack of a large wooden stick as it contacts a hurled projectile of spherical nature is back. That's right, baseball has begun! And I, for one, couldn't be happier. The smell of pine tar, sweat, chaw, and freshly decapitated grass blades always puts a smile on my face. To say that I have a love affair with baseball is probably accurate, though I consider it to be much more than that; indeed it is an obsession.
There is something about a simple children's game that drives my spirit, most likely that I am still a child at heart myself. I have always been a huge proponent for baseball ever since my first experience when I was but a wee lad at the age of 5. Times were simpler then. There was no talk of steriod abuse, no federal indictments, only the reality that off the field most players were doing so much blow that from week to week you never knew if your favorite player would still be alive when you went to the stadium.
I remember the first game I ever saw. It was June 7, 1987. I was staying with my grandparents in Houston and my grandpa wanted to take me somewhere special, and since I had never seen a baseball game before he decided that was the perfect opportunity. The Astrodome made me feel even smaller than I was and I felt as if we were going into a cave of doom, never to be heard from again. Once inside, I was on sensory overload and began bouncing off the walls because of all the people, sounds, stenches, and the awful, awful colors; they were bright sure, but that special kind of bright that seemed inspired by psychedelic drug use.
As grandpa had bought tickets at the gate, we were in the upper deck on the first base side, right behind the Astros dugout. And that's where I saw him emerge -- the pitcher. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this man was going to inspire me very soon, steal my childhood affections, and become my consummate hero. That man was none other than the fabled and legendary Nolan Ryan. I recall my grandpa telling me that he was the best in the game, a fireballin' hellion is what he called him, and watching him pitch that day, I fell in love with him and baseball for life.
I don't remember much else from the game, mostly because I was on such a sugar high from grandpa spoiling me with cotton candy and ice cream from those tiny helmets and innumerable colas, but a few strange instances stick out. The Astros won that day, a close game, 3-0. And somewhere during the game, I can remember everyone getting all hyped up because of some music and screaming in unison. Being a good fan I joined in as well, screaming at the top of my lungs, "SHAAAAARK!" Each time I did this, my grandpa and the people around me would laugh which I thought was because I was so damn cute. It wasn't until a couple years later, at my first Texas Rangers game, that I learned what everyone was yelling was "CHARGE!," not "shark," but to my little ears, with the echoes of the Astrodome, it had sounded like "shark" to me.
That day was amazing, and instilled in me a love of baseball, and Nolan Ryan, so deep that the tie can never be broken. As I grew up, it became clear that I was destined to be a lifetime fan, if not a player, of baseball because of my family legacy. All of my uncles played baseball through high school and college, but my uncle, Pat, played on the same high school team with The Rocket, Roger Clemens. There is a picture of me, my uncle, and Rocket during their high school years that was taken when I was 2 (I don't remember meeting him in his younger years as my memory only begins shortly after my 5th birthday) which has become one of my favorite possessions.
And this year, after seeing him pitch countless games as a Ranger, and being present for No-Hitter #7 againt Toronto, I will be sitting mere feet from my childhood hero, Nolan Ryan, in a couple of weeks. If I don't faint or puke upon seeing him enter the stadium, I will finally and forever get to meet the man that inspired my hours and years of dedication to baseball and the Texas Rangers.