50 years of rivalry gone in one afternoon

Sunday, my wife, step-daughter and I, after two of us applied considerable makeup and wore out three mirrors, drove down to Houston.

We attended the baseball game between the Houston Astros and the Cincinnati Reds at Minute Maid—Please Forget We Ever Called it Enron—Park.

Not a big deal, really. I’ve done this a lot over the past five decades, watched my Reds play in Houston. Except this one was different.

It’s the last National League game the Reds will ever play in Houston, Texas.

The powers-that-be in baseball have decreed the Astros will move to the American League in 2013.

There’s lots of reasons and all have dollar signs in front of them. It’s the end of an era but I just may have been alone in the crowd of 17,261 in mourning its passing.

I watched my first Reds-Houston game (the Swamp City team was called the Colt .45s then) in 1962.

It was the first year for a major league team in Houston. The field was old Colt Stadium where the mosquitos were the size of B-29s and the architecture accomplished the impossible.

It made Houston seem hotter than it really is in the summer. I don’t even remember who won but I do recall one incident. A Reds outfielder named Marty Keough dove for a fly ball and banged his head and shoulders into what was little better than a chain link fence.

A sizable portion of the crowd thought he’d broken his neck. He walked away, coming past me with a big lump on his neck, heading toward the dugout.

Maybe he just wanted to go someplace where it was cool.

Staying cool wasn’t a problem for the next Houston stadium. It was the legendary Astrodome.

They built it next to Colt Stadium and one story is that Judge Roy Hofheinz—who looked on the Astrodome as his son—had Colt Stadium painted camouflage gray so it wouldn’t detract from his gaudy baby boy next door.

He needn’t have bothered.

The Astrodome was a sports, and architectural, sensation, issuing in a new age of arenas.

I never warmed up to it much. Maybe that’s because I contracted some kind of intestinal bug my second trip there. I spent much of the game in various places around the dome, about which the less said the better.

(My memory has just informed me the Reds came back in the eighth inning to win that game. Exactly the same thing happened on Sunday.)

The Astrodome came around just in time for the glory days of the Reds-Astros rivalry and, yes, it used to be among the best in baseball.

The Astros had fireballers Don Wilson, Nolan Ryan and James Rodney Richard, along with slugger Jimmy “The Toy Cannon” Wynn, who was from Cincinnati.

It was the Big Red Machine era for the Reds. I saw Johnny Bench hit home runs and Pete Rose run to first on a walk, but my favorite Red to this day remains one with a strong Houston connection.

Joe Morgan was the heart and soul of those early Astro teams but nobody really knew how good he was until they traded him to Cincinnati.

He proved to be the final piece of the puzzle for a team that went on to take its place among the best of all time. Joe won backto back MVPs and went to the Hall of Fame.

One night in the 1960s, Jim Maloney of the Reds threw a no-hitter in the Astrodome. The next night, same place, Astro pitcher Wilson threw one against the Reds.

I didn’t see those in person. But I did see Wilson pitch. Bullpens used to be in foul ground, not two area codes away like now. Wilson would warm up before the game and the first one he’d really let go would CRACK in the catcher’s mitt and people who hadn’t even been watching would look up from their nachos and go “what was that sound?”

Don Wilson is gone now and so is Reds announcer Joe Nuxhall and Astros announcer Loel “he breezed him one more time” Passe and Cincinnati manager Sparky Anderson and Judge Hofheinz.

Judge, now that the Astrodome just sits there, vacant, I miss it more than I ever thought I would.

It sure would hold a lot of hay.

Those are just a few memories. I’ve got 50 years of them.

I guess the Reds will come back for interleague play some day but it won’t be the same. For 50 years the two teams were always in the same division. Every win, every loss meant something in the standings.

It’s like when your kid comes home from college. That’s really not “his” room any more.

After Sunday’s game I walked us all the way around the field before we exited the park. My family knew what was happening. I was going to hold onto this one as long as I could.

Finally, there was the door to Crawford Street. I pushed it and we stepped out. I didn’t look back.

Afraid I’d see some ghosts. Fifty years of them.

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2012-09-06 digital edition

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