Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Astros are going to the World Series. I'm going to Japan.

I'm still having a hard time wrapping my head around that one. It's eight in the morning, about ten hours after Cardinal catcher Yadier Molina popped out in the bottom of the ninth to assure the Houston Astros of their first ever World Series appearance, and I'm still a bit stunned. As a long-suffering Houston sports fan, it really is hard to believe.
Especially after Monday night's game. When Pujols hit that monster homer in the ninth inning to send the series back to St. Louis, I really thought the momentum had shifted in the Cardinals' favor and that this would wind up as another one of those painful Houston sports memories I mentioned last week.

But not this time. Roy freakin' Oswalt is the man.

Now the Astros go on to face the Chicago White Sox in the World Series. The White Sox have had their share of suffering as well; their last World Series appearance was 1959, three years before the Astros (who were then known as the Colt 45s) even began playing. Although both teams would certainly like to win the World Series, the fact is that the 'Stros and the Chi-Sox are just happy to be here. Both teams are going to have fun, and for that reason I expect a loose, celebratory World Series. I really don't care who wins at this point. As far as I am concerned, the Astros have already won. 

Anyway, on to Japan. I'm not looking forward to the long flight over, but I am looking forward to seeing a country I've always wanted to visit and seeing my brother, who's been living and teaching English there since April of last year. I'll be sure to take lots of pictures and I will try to post them on this site once I return Halloween evening.

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Coogs win the "Kat-Rita Bowl"

It was a good weekend for the Houston Cougars, who currently have a winning record after beating the Tulane Green Wave 35-14 at Cajun Field in Lafayette, Louisiana. I had not planned on attending any UH road games this season, but once I discovered that the game would be played in Lafayette I decided to make a day trip to Acadiana. It was a journey through an area hit hard by Hurricane Rita just a couple of weeks ago to see a game that had to be relocated because of Hurricane Katrina, and I saw plenty of signs of both hurricanes' devastation.

I-10 east of Houston is a very congested highway right now, in both directions. It seemed that the majority of vehicles on the highway, even on the Texas side of the Sabine River, had Louisiana plates. There were lots of U-Haul and Budget rental trucks. Lots of trailers. Lots of pickups, SUVs and minivans packed with people and belongings. I wondered what all their stories were and where they were all going.  Some were probably returning to their homes (or what is left of their homes) in New Orleans (now that much of the city has reopened to residents) or other parts of Louisiana that were evacuated as Katrina / Rita approached. Others were probably going home only long enough to gather whatever they can salvage and return to what has over the past several weeks become their new homes. On the way back home, I passed somebody towing a mud-covered car that had obviously been underwater in New Orleans. I guess the vehicle had sentimental value to somebody.

Abandoned cars were everywhere alongside the highway. They had all been tagged for towing by Texas or Louisiana troopers, but I didn’t see any tow trucks actually removing any cars. They were probably the cars of Katrina and Rita evacuees which for whatever reason stopped working; as with all the people and belongings moving back and forth along the highway, I wondered about the stories behind all these abandoned cars as well.

The Ford Park special events complex just outside of Beaumont had been converted into an emergency logistics and distribution center, full of eighteen-wheelers, military vehicles and tents. Signs in front of the venue directed cars into lines for ice or drinking water distribution.

Things looked really bad between Beaumont and the Sabine River, where the eye of Rita moved across two weeks ago. I saw  two churches - one in Vidor, one in Orange - with their roofs completely ripped off. Trees were still laying on top of houses. I saw several piles of debris that used to be mobile homes, and many gas stations with their canopies torn away. Tarps over roofs were a common sight. Billboards were knocked down, highway signs were flipped over, and downed and splintered trees were everywhere. There were a lot of tree-trimming crews out along the interstate that day. I saw repairs being done to electrical lines as well. On the way to Lafayette, in fact, I passed a convoy of probably 20 electrical line trucks from Kansas.

Harrah's in Lake Charles is going to be out of commission for a while. Isle of Capri and the new L'Auberge du Lac, on the other hand, had just reopened and, from the number of cars in the Isle of Capri parking garage, appeared to be doing a brisk business. I didn't know whether to be amused or disgusted by the fact that gambling has become as important to the Lake Charles economy as oil refining, but it's clear that getting the riverboat casinos back on line was a local priority.

I reached Lafayette about an hour before kickoff and made my way down Ambassador Caffery Parkway to Cajun Field. Lafayette itself didn't seem to be any worse for wear after Hurricane Rita, but like other cities (e.g. Houston and Baton Rouge) its population has been swollen by the Katrina diaspora. Something like 1,400 evacuees from New Orleans still living at the Cajundome; they all wore tags that had their pictures on them and read "CAJUNDOME RESIDENT." Many of them attended the game - they got in free of charge - and naturally cheered for Tulane.

There were probably about 500 UH fans at Cajun Field, including a good portion of the UH band, which I thought was a decent turnout considering that this game's status was unsettled as recently as three weeks ago and there were virtually no hotel vacancies in Lafayette. Tulane probably brought about 1,500 people (it was technically a home game for them), and ULL students, evacuees, national guard members, relief workers and others made the rest of the crowd of about four or five thousand people. I don't know where the 15k attendance figure in the boxscore comes from - perhaps tickets Tulane sold to this game before the hurricane?

The first half was probably the worst half of football I have witnessed in a long time. Neither the Cougars nor the Green Wave were particularly impressive on offense, and the score was 7-7 at the half.  However, the Cougars made adjustments at halftime and scored 21 points in the third quarter by keeping the ball on the ground and wearing away the Green Wave defense. Tulane simply could not stop Cougar running backs Jackie Battle and Ryan Gilbert. The Houston defense stepped up as well, forcing a turnover and allowing the Green Wave to reach the endzone only once more, during garbage time late in the fourth quarter. As an added bonus, the Cougars made no special teams mistakes and had no turnovers. Dare I say that improvement is being made?

My friend Amy also happened to be in Lafayette that weekend, visiting her family, and she and her son came out to the stadium to meet me and watch part of the game with me. She even brought me a link of boudin from Comeaux's Grocery. Cajun hospitality! Otherwise, I spent the game sitting with fellow UH fans watching the Coogs notch their second consecutive victory on the road.

After the game, it was time to return home. It was evident from the interstate that there are still several neighborhoods in Lake Charles, Orange and Beaumont that still do not have electricity. Roadside services are available along I-10, even in the area hit by Rita - I got gas at a station in Sulphur, outside of Lake Charles - but from the interstate it's hard to tell if gas stations or restaurants are open at night because all of the high mast signs have been blown out.

I returned to Houston around midnight. It had been a long trip, and seeing firsthand the physical destruction of Rita and the social upheaval of Katrina was a very sobering experience. But the watching a critical UH victory over a divisional rival definitely made the trip worthwhile.

Next up for the Coogs is Memphis. This Saturday's game will be their first home game in a month, since September 24th's home game against Southern Miss had to be rescheduled due to Rita. 

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015.)

Astros knock off the Braves for the second year in a row

Last weekend was a good weekend for Houston sports teams. Well, except for the Texans, and let’s face it, who really cares about them?

The Astros outlasted the Atlanta Braves in an amazing and historic National League Divisional Series Game Four and made it to the National League Championship Series for the second year in a row, where they will once again meet up with the St. Louis Cardinals. The eighteen-inning marathon set a new record for the longest postseason game ever played. The previous record, the sixteen-inning Game Six of the 1986 NLCS, also featured the Astros. 

Although the Astros were not technically facing elimination in Sunday’s game, I really didn’t like their chances in a possible Game Five, since they would have had to travel back to Atlanta and face Braves hurler John Smoltz, who has historically owned the Astros in the postseason. For much of the game, however, it looked like a return trip to Atlanta was indeed on the agenda, as the Astros trailed 6-1 going into the eighth inning. However, a grand slam by Lance Berkman in the bottom of the eighth, followed by a just-barely home run by Brad Ausmus with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, tied things up. The tie would remain for the next nine innings of what essentially became a doubleheader. The extra frames were excruciating to watch, as neither the Braves nor the Astros could put any more runs on the board, and by the sixteenth inning the Astros had run out of bullpen relievers and had to resort to Roger Clemens, who made only his second relief appearance in his long career.

I remember all too well the aforementioned Game Six of the 1986 NLCS. I remember Kevin Bass striking out in the bottom of the sixteenth inning. I remember the New York Mets, who would go on to win the World Series that year, celebrating their 7-6 victory on the Astrodome turf. And I remember crying my eyes out. A lot of people believe that Game Six of the 1986 NLCS is the greatest game ever played. One guy even wrote a book about it. For me, it’s just another painful memory as a Houston sports fan, much like Jimmy Valvano’s wild celebration after his North Carolina State team upset the Houston Cougars on a last-second dunk in the 1983 NCAA basketball championship game, or the Houston Oilers’ spectacular 32-point choke to the Buffalo Bills in the 1993 AFC Wild Card game. And as I watched the agonizing extra innings last Sunday, I kept having flashbacks to that NLCS moment, nineteen years ago. Would this be yet another in a long line of bitter, painful Houston sports memories?

Fortunately, Chris Burke assured that it would not. Instead, his magnificent game-winning home run in the bottom of the eighteenth instantly became one in a (much shorter) list of Houston sports highlights. 

As a Houston sports fan, I am accustomed to watching the local teams fail. So when a local team succeeds, especially as amazingly and improbably as the Astros did last Sunday, it's always a pleasant surprise.

So now it’s on to the Cardinals. Will this be the year that the Astros finally make it into the World Series? Probably not; the Cardinals are just as good as they were last year and the Astros don’t have Carlos Beltran or Jeff Kent in the lineup this year. But after Sunday's game, as well as the remarkable fact that the Astros made the playoffs after being fifteen games below .500 at one point this season, I'm really not complaining. The Astros beat the cursed Braves two years in a row, and that's always something to celebrate.

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015.)