A little story about high school travel ball, Texas freeways, and the Houston Astros
Having spent a significant amount of thoroughly enjoyable time watching college baseball this spring (my husband Dave coaches the Stanford team) you would think I might be taking a little time off from the sport this summer. Instead, I got home from the NCAA Super Regional at Mississippi State (Lessons From Starkville), did some laundry, and headed out on the 15U travel ball circuit with my son and his GamePrep 2022 team. We’ve been to Phoenix, Stockton, San Francisco (that one was easy, living as we do in Palo Alto) and finally, Houston. And by Houston I mean that wide swath of Texas that in other parts of the country might qualify as a state all on its own. (I looked it up, it is the 8th most ‘expansive city’ in the US, it is over 1,000 square miles. The city itself.)
I cheerfully, naively, offered to be the parent traveling along with our son this summer, thinking I would have lots of time alone in hotel rooms to write, but somehow the time got all chopped up by getting to the field or getting the boys food or getting together with other parents, something I wanted to do because we are new to the team and I wanted to get to know them. So I said ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ again until finally on day five I said ‘wait,’ which gave me the time to get to say ‘no.’ I told them I would drive myself to the game, and that I might be a little late. Claiming this block of time, widening it, took effort, like holding elevator doors open when they are trying to close.
So, there I was, sitting in a hotel room in Houston, my son packed off in someone else’s car to get to warmups. There I was, after watching everybody else in their arenas, finally standing on the edge of my arena. It was quiet. It was a bit too cold but once the AC cycled off I knew it would feel just right. I had a glass of tea because tea helps almost anything. Housekeeping had been in so it was relatively cleaned up, by which I mean the beds were made and we had clean towels but I was not about to touch the mound of teenage boy clothes strewn on his side of the room and neither was any sane housekeeper. I was staring out the window at cars streaming by on Route 10, another stream of cars parallel below them on the Frontage road that was practically a highway itself (very odd, this highway along a freeway concept they have in Houston, but I think it works). Beside the freeway there was a billboard that said ‘Get Buck Naked In Katy’ but I couldn’t see the fine print so I had no idea what that referred to. I made a mental note to check it out the next time I was on the freeway. I wasn’t about to get buck naked in Katy but I was curious about who was. It was a place to start, though, looking at freeways.
I always imagined driving in Texas would be a matter of wide highways through dusty brown expanses, pickup trucks mixing with eighteen wheelers, plenty of space in between, wickedly hot sun blazing down on it all. Like Thelma and Louise minus Brad Pitt and the leap off the Grand Canyon. Peaceful-like. Instead, at least around Houston, it is like kayaking through six rivers, converging and splitting and merging back together again. Every day the trip to the field (thirty miles away, in Houston everything seems to be thirty miles away) took us along several highways, four lane and seven lane freeways with exits all over the place, left side, middle, right side, split into EZTrac lanes and Exact Coins lanes and Cash Not Exact Coin lanes. Rush hour traffic filled with cars, pickups, eighteen wheelers and three separate times, two oversized trailers traveling caravan style with both sides of a double wide house lumbering along while the rest of traffic streamed around them. Living in the San Francisco Bay area I’m no stranger to traffic but was still surprised that going out to dinner it took us an hour to go twenty miles, and the last four miles were half of that.
The freeway exchanges looked like a group of octopuses playing twister (and yes, I checked, the plural of octopus is octopuses). ‘Exit right then stay to the left’ my GPS helpfully instructs me and the exit ramp went high in the air before it split dramatically left or right and I felt like my car was about to be launched into space if I didn’t brake properly, but not too fast because there were lots of cars right behind me.
So everyone there at Cy-Fair Sports complex in Cypress at the New Balance Future Stars tournament made their own pilgrimage. We took planes and rental cars and arranged hotel rooms and trekked our 30 miles through octopus exchanges and put on our sunscreen and filled up our water bottles and made sure our sons had their 33 inch Victus and Marucci bat, worked-in glove, and the blue jersey with gray pants today. And we sweated in the heat and checked Gamechanger for accurate scores. Most parents at this tournament probably think their son is good enough to play in college, if not beyond. The reality is that some players at this tournament will get college offers, and of those, some might actually be starters in college, and of those, some might actually get drafted, and of those, some might actually make it to the major leagues. It won’t be all of these boys. It might be one or two of them. It might be none.
This is unpopular news for the parents.
What makes all this effort worth it?
Is it the wins?
Is it the chance to get better?
Is it the pride of a great performance?
Is it the chance, no matter how small, to move on to the next level?
I kept thinking about this, wondering about the sanity of all of us parents out there in the dusty heat, inflated dreams of professional baseball, money hemorrhaging from our bank accounts. What is the point?
And then we went to an Astros game and I got my answer.
Minute Maid Park was very cool (literally and metaphorically) and walking in from the searing heat for a 1:00 Wednesday game I could fully appreciate the brilliance of putting a dome over a stadium in Texas. That place was packed and jumping with energy and it made me wonder if anyone in Houston has jobs or if they were playing hooky or if Astros fans are just so devoted they said what the heck, I’m going.
The Astros were playing the A’s and a couple of my husband Dave’s former players from his time at Cal, Marcus Semien and Mark Canha, play for the A’s. Watching someone you actually have met, someone you know stories about, makes the MLB seem more real. And we know their stories. For example, Dave thought so highly of Mark Canha in college that he named an award after him, calling him a “program changer” for how intensely he played to win, worked hard, and willed his teammates into following his example. And Marcus wasn’t just the shortstop who got them to the College World Series in Omaha but also a graceful, classy player who was beloved by his teammates. Dave always marveled at how close Marcus was to his family, especially his grandmother. It is hard not to like someone who so openly loves his grandmother. It was a thrill for my son to see guys he grew up watching as college players, people he knows as actual people, stepping onto a major league field. In person, not on TV, which makes more of a difference than you might think, the in-person-ness of it. It is a visceral experience, like when you are at a concert and you feel the music vibrating in your chest.
Aside from rooting for individual success for Marcus and Mark we were cheering for the Astros for lots of reasons, not the least of which was manager AJ Hinch. Dave was an assistant at Stanford when AJ was an All American catcher and a two time Pac-10 player of the year there and they have remained quite close over the years. We have followed AJ through his playing days in the major leagues to his managing days with the Diamondbacks, his GM days with the Padres, and now as a manager with the Astros where he not only rallied support for Houston in the days after the flood, but oh yeah, won a World Series. AJ set us up with premier seats so we were up close to all the action (there are definitely some perks in being married to a baseball coach).
Watching baseball on TV is sometimes . . . not super exciting. And maybe sometimes even watching baseball in person is not super exciting. It can be slow. And there are a lot of innings. And there are so many games in a season players aren’t always at peak energy for every single game. But at a major league game when the crowd is large and energized and the players are having fun and you are sitting close enough that the players aren’t a little speck, well, that can be a lot of fun.
And in this way, the Astros did not disappoint. The crowd was loud and animated, and the game was exciting with good offense, good defense, and a couple of lead changes. Not only did we get to see Justin Verlander pitch (and I got a kick out of watching the boys with us look around surreptitiously for Kate Upton, with no luck), we got to see the homerun train do its trip around the top of the stadium several times.
One of those train trips was on a José Altuve homerun and sitting that close we were able to feel the impact of Altuve’s joyous energy as he rounded third and hit home plate. I’ll tell you something, José Altuve is a guy who is bursting with the fun of the game. It pours out of him. It is contagious, infectious, thrilling. It was like we were in the splash zone at Seaworld and got completely, happily, doused with his exuberance. A ten year old hitting his first home run couldn’t look happier, and this was a midweek, afternoon game.
This is where I found my answer to why we put so much time and effort into baseball.
Watching teams play, 15U or major league, it is clear not all of the players have that same level of joy, or have it all the time even if they have it sometimes. But when it is there, it is a privilege to be in its presence. It is so fun it becomes a shared joy. I felt lifted by Altuve’s joy, a little like I had hit the homerun.
This is my wish for my son, that he can get even close to the level of joy that Altuve plays with. That in a routine, midweek game, the game still brings such unrestrained fun. In a dusty small nowhere town or in a packed stadium it is still just about the joy of playing.
I’ve always loved Howard Thurman’s quote, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Altuve has found what brings him alive, it was abundantly clear. That is what I wish for my son. For my daughter. For me. For all of us. And if baseball stops making my son come alive, I hope he has the courage to quit and go find the thing that does.
But before he quits I also hope he tests himself. I hope he learns something about what sustained effort (aka the grind) can bring you. Most of all I hope he learns to find joy in the effort. Not just the wins, not just the homeruns, but in the journey. Anyone who made it to the major leagues has lived the grind, and Altuve looks like he found a way to do that with the joy intact. What a pure pleasure to watch someone who has figured that out. I hope my son learns that over time, when you don’t quit just because it is hard, you learn something about yourself. You learn you can trust yourself and there aren’t many better feelings than that. Which is to say, when you find yourself in the octopus, and you aren’t sure you are headed anywhere close to the right direction, you know something about yourself, you know you’ll adjust and keep driving until you get there.
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