Chad Qualls signing: Remembering the early days of my fandom

How one reliever reminded me of those heady first days when I became an Astros fan.

Back in 2000, following baseball was harder. You had the newspaper. You could watch games on TV and listen on the radio.

When I went to college, some of those things fell away. Suddenly, I couldn't read the newspaper every morning unless I bought it myself. Though I had cable, the Astros games weren't always on in the Brazos Valley and the radio reception on those play-by-play games were hit and miss.

To combat this, I turned to the internet and, specifically, Astros.com. It's where I went for stats and roster moves and all the stuff you took for granted with a newspaper. That also led to ESPN.com, where I started reading Rob Neyer.

The internet also fed my obsession with Astros prospects. I can vividly remember finding Roy Oswalt's stats on that 2000 Round Rock team and being amazed at his strikeout-to-walk ratio (which Neyer told me was important). I also marveled over guys like Morgan Ensberg and Tim Redding, dreaming about a future dynasty.

At the same time, I started following the draft. What's funny is most of the draft hasn't changed since those early days of the new millenium. You still can listen to the conference call where each team makes its picks on line. It's still incredibly low-tech. And it's still fascinating.

That 2000 draft hooked me. I think I might have even listened to it online. I know Chad Qualls was one of the names that stuck with me then. I remember following him after that, even as higher-profile draft-mates like Kirk Saarloos made the majors ahead of him.

After 2000, the prospecting began. I kept reading and reading on the Internet about baseball. Soon, Moneyball came along and crystallized everything I'd already picked up by reading other authors. Meanwhile, Qualls kept plugging along in the minors, starting games but destined to be a reliever.

He may not have gotten to the majors as quickly as Saarloos, but Qualls clearly has lasted longer than his higher-drafted teammate. But, by the time he left Houston, I remember being done with him.

Somewhat unfairly, he got blamed for high-profile failures in the 2005 playoffs. Then, when he struggled in a few seasons after that, his fan ceiling dropped. He became a punchline for that sad decline period we're still in.

That culminated with his trade to Arizona a couple days after a bunch of his teammates went to Baltimore for Miguel Tejada. That'd be the same Tejada who was featured so prominently in Moneyball back in the day, bringing things somewhat full circle.

Qualls was never a face of the franchise like Roy Oswalt was. He was never "my" guy like Oswalt, a guy I discovered and claimed before anyone else. But, Qualls tied into that beginning of this strange baseball odyssey I've been on, that I'm glad to see him back in Houston.

Will Qualls be the answer for the bullpen? Well, he just might be. His improvements to his mechanics and his heavy fastball seem to take out a little of the volatility around free agent relievers. But, there's a good chance that Qualls posts a 5.00 ERA this season, because that's what relievers do.

Still, I'm glad he's back. Baseball, more than any other sport, is tied into memory. With Qualls, I can relive those early days of my maturing fanhood.

Did any of you have guys like that? Not stars and not favorite players, but guys that remind you of how you became a fan in the first place? Or, how your fandom changed?

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