The history of my baseball fandom, as is so often the case, is also a history of my relationship with my father.
A few times a year, my father would pile us all into the station wagon and drive us about an hour south, from our brick home in Huber Heights, Ohio, to Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati to watch the Reds play.
Ron Oester, Nick Esasky, Mario Soto, John Franco. These are the names of my baseball youth. Not Bill Doran, Phil Garner, Nolan Ryan, or Joe Niekro.
I was there to watch Pete Rose chase 4,192 hits. I marveled at Eric Davis' high-top shoes and home run-saving catches. I saw Johnny Bench's final game - an 11-7 loss to the Giants, in which he entered the game to pinch hit for Ted Power with two outs in the bottom of the fifth, and laced a two-run single into left field.
I've never been one to pay much attention to geography when selecting my favorite sports teams. After all, I lived in a suburb of Dayton, not Cincinnati. To me, the Reds were just the team always playing on television. I watched their games because their games were the ones I could watch.
I'd stay up late on a lazy summer night, watching John Franco close out the ninth inning... or Barry Larkin turn a double play... or the Nasty Boys dominate opposing hitters' lineups... not because I felt any affinity toward the team, but because my father was there beside me, on the couch, cheering on the home team.
My father and I had what we would call today a "strained relationship." We didn't have much in common, and we weren't on very friendly terms. One of the few things we had was baseball. Because my father watched the Reds, I watched the Reds. Because my father was a baseball fan, I was a baseball fan.
But for all practical purposes, I was a baseball fan without a team.
In 1987, my father was scheduled to take two business trips to Texas within a two-month period. I never knew much about my dad's work. He had fixed radios in West Germany in the Army during the Cold War, and had top secret clearance. I always assumed it had something to do with encryption, but I was never able to talk to him about it before he passed away. In 1987, though, he was working with computers. A repairman or a computer engineer or something that he never really talked about, but which was important enough that companies would fly him in from halfway across the country to work for them for a week or two.
Usually, my dad would go on these trips by himself. Sometimes, he'd take my mother, especially when they'd go to west coast cities like Reno or Los Angeles. But one time, in 1987, my dad made a different plan: On the first trip, to Dallas/Ft. Worth, he'd take my brother. On the second trip, to Houston, he took me.
I don't remember a lot about my one and only solo trip with my father. I was ten years old, and I remember the things that a ten year old remembers. I remember him letting me eat a bag of Skittles one night for dinner. I remember doing my homework on a musty hotel bed. I remember watching Planes, Trains & Automobiles in an otherwise-empty movie theatre, with both my dad and me laughing until tears came down our faces. I remember my father buying me a hat exactly like the ones the cowboys wore on television.
Mostly, though, I remember the Astrodome. And this is where the mystery begins.
The way I've told the story for twenty-five years is this: We got to the Astrodome, but though it was the baseball season, the Astros were on the road. The whole place was filled with mud, being converted to hold a monster truck rally.
The stadium was truly awe-inspiring. I fell in love with it immediately. Though I'd never paid much attention to the Astros, they had a lot of players I liked. Kevin Bass, Dickie Thon, Nolan Ryan, Mike Scott. But sitting there, in this cathedral, I had what could best be described as a religious experience. I've visited thirty major league parks in my lifetime, but the Astrodome was only the second one I'd ever been to at that point, and the place moved me far more than Riverfront ever had.
I was still in something of a daze as the tour guide moved our group down to field level and past the batting cages, where Kevin Bass was taking some swings. I remember watching him, transfixed. He was in Houston, rehabbing an injury, and hadn't gone on the road trip with the team. He smiled at me as he took his swings, and then finally turned to me and asked if I would like to take a few swings in the cage.
I stepped in, gripped the bat, and whiffed at the ball as it flew past me. I tried again. A third time. I couldn't make contact on any of them. Finally, Kevin Bass told me to keep practicing and I'd be able to hit in no time.
"Maybe we'll even end up as teammates," he told me.
From that day forward, I've been an Astros fan. Nothing could shake my love for the team.
That's the way I've always remembered and told the story, but it turns out that that's not the way it happened.
A few years ago, I looked up Kevin Bass's game logs to try and determine when, exactly, I'd made that fateful trip to the Dome. What I found surprised me: Kevin Bass had played in 157 games for Houston in 1987. He hadn't missed any significant time due to injury.
So now, my beginning as an Astros fan is riddle with mystery.
The things I remember: I was in Mrs. Jorgensen's fifth grade class, which puts us in late 1987/early 1988. The Astros were not in the Astrodome. Now, I believe it was during the season, but I don't remember that for a fact. And I clearly remember there was a monster truck rally being set up. While I believe it was Kevin Bass taking BP that day - I believe it with all my heart - I can't definitively say it was. These weren't the faces or the names of my baseball youth, so I was working - then and now - in the foggy recesses of the baseball card pictures and grainy telecasts of my memory.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles was definitely playing in theatres. Well, it was definitely playing in a theatre. One which had no one else in it, so it could reasonably have been a second-run theatre. That movie was released in late November 1987, well after the baseball season had ended. So much for that theory.
Kevin Bass played in 157 games in 1986, 1987, and 1988. He didn't miss any significant playing time, and certainly wasn't at the Astrodome rehabbing any injury during a road trip.
A brief Google search for monster truck rallies in the Astrodome proved pretty inconclusive, at least for specific dates. And I certainly can't find any evidence of one occurring during the season itself.
So while the mystery continues to some degree, I have at least established a time frame outside of the one I initially had thought. It was certainly after the 1987 season, and probably before the 1988 season. I suspect it might have been late November or December 1987. And I will go to my grave saying that it was Kevin Bass in the batting cage that day.
But the exact date that I became a Houston Astros fan? That may forever be shrouded in mystery.